A Sunni group opposed to al-Qaida in Iraq announced Saturday it was abandoning posts in a volatile area south of Baghdad to protest airstrikes by American forces that it says have killed at least 12 civilians this month.
The walkout followed an airstrike Friday near the town of Jurf al-Sakr that tribal leaders said killed three members of the Awakening Council, the civilian guard corps credited with helping reduce violence across Iraq.
The U.S. military said Friday that helicopters responding to gunfire near Jurf al-Sakr directed fire at a building, but it did not confirm any casualties. It said the strike was under investigation.
On Feb. 2, nine Iraqis, including three Awakening Council members, were killed in the same area in an errant airstrike that the U.S. military acknowledged.
Majeed Janabi, a tribal leader in the area who worked with U.S. forces to establish Awakening Council checkpoints, said he did not believe the shootings were a mistake and said in Friday's incident, the helicopter landed and U.S. forces fired on the guards.
"The U.S. forces stepped out of their choppers and killed our (forces)," he said. "That means they had time to look at them and their uniforms."
The U.S. military pays the security volunteers about $10 a day and gives them vests to make them easy to identify.
In the past, U.S. officials have said accidental shootings occurred when volunteers were not wearing their vests and were mistaken for armed insurgents. But some volunteers say there are not enough vests to go around.
"When we signed the contract with the U.S. forces, it was dependent on working with them," Janabi said. "If they want us to come back, we will, but we need to make another contract that will guarantee our rights and prevent a repeat of such mistakes."
Police in Babil province said about 2,000 of the volunteers had left their posts in Jurf al-Sakr and nearby villages Saturday night.
The Awakening Councils have an estimated 80,000 members across the country, bolstering security in areas without adequate protection.
In another disputed case, six men who were said to be Awakening Council members and two women were killed near Raween in Salahuddin province early Thursday. The Iraqi police and the U.S. military say the Americans were fired on first.
There were varying accounts of the killing Thursday night in Zab, a village in the mountainous area that stretches between Mosul, Kirkuk and Bayji. On Saturday, local leaders said U.S. military leaders from Kirkuk had come to apologize.
The U.S. military has also acknowledged the accidental killings of more than 25 people in Taji in November.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times was used in this report.
Business expo: Iraqi businessmen mingled Saturday with a few of their American counterparts at the first business exposition to be held in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. About 260 vendors - almost all Iraqi - set up booths on the ground floor of the Green Zone's al-Rashid Hotel. "We wanted to show that there is normal life in Iraq, to help foreign investors see and feel that it is safe to come," said Raad Ommar, CEO of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce, which along with the U.S. State Department's Baghdad reconstruction team organized the event.
U.N. steps forward: U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Saturday that he is sending a representative to Baghdad to help millions of displaced Iraqis return home, showing a strengthened U.N. commitment to deal with the crisis. Guterres also pledged to increase his group's staffing level in Baghdad from two to five people.
Fewer bodies:Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the top commander for Baghdad, said the number of bullet-riddled bodies found daily has dropped from about 40 to about four under a year-old U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown.