Tina Susman & Cesar Ahmed / Los Angeles Times – 2008-02-18 22:14:21
BAGHDAD (February 17, 2008) — US-allied security forces said Saturday they were abandoning their posts in a volatile area south of Baghdad to protest air strikes by American forces that they say have killed at least 12 civilians this month.
The walkout followed an air strike Friday near the town of Jarf Sakhr that tribal leaders said killed three members of the Sons of Iraq, the civilian guard corps credited with helping reduce violence across Iraq. The US military said Friday that helicopters responding to gunfire near Jarf Sakhr directed rocket fire at a building, but it did not confirm any casualties.
On Feb. 2, nine Iraqis, including three Sons of Iraq members, were killed in the same area in an errant air strike that the US military acknowledged.
Majeed Janabi, a tribal leader in the area who worked with US forces to establish Sons of Iraq checkpoints there, said he did not believe the shootings were a mistake and said that in Friday’s incident the helicopter landed and US forces fired on the guards. “The US 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 US military pays the security volunteers about $10 a day and gives them vests to make them easy to identify. In the past, US 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 US forces, it was dependent on working jointly 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 that about 2,000 of the volunteers had left their posts in Jarf Sakhr and nearby villages Saturday night.
The corps has an estimated 80,000 members across the country, bolstering security in areas without adequate Iraqi police protection.
Also Saturday, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees said he will post a special representative to Iraq to help resettle people returning home after five years of war. The announcement is a sign of the United Nations’ growing confidence in the country’s security, but also an acknowledgment that an influx of returnees could spark new conflict if there is nobody on the ground to oversee the migration.
The commissioner, Antonio Guterres, told a news conference that in addition to naming a special representative, his office soon will increase its staff from two to five in Iraq.
“It is here that the essential work needs to be done, in close cooperation with the government,” Guterres said.
The commissioner estimated this week that 2 million Iraqis have fled their war-ravaged country, many to neighboring Syria and Jordan. Another 2.4 million are thought to be displaced from their homes but living inside the country, either because of Saddam Hussein’s actions during his rule or because of the war.
Last year, statements from the Iraqi government that the country was secure enough to handle a substantial return of refugees raised concerns from both the U.N. and the American military. The United States warned that a massive repatriation could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and some returnees found their Baghdad homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect.
In remarks aired on state television late Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thanked US-led forces for what he called a “victory in Baghdad” and promised to pursue insurgents who have fled northward after being pushed out of other parts of the country.
Al-Maliki has promised there will be a “decisive battle” in Mosul, the last major urban stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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