US Sunni allies protest killings

( AP ) - An anti-al-Qaida Sunni group announced Saturday it was temporarily withdrawing from its alliance with the American military in protest of an airstrike that it said killed three of its members.

It was the latest claim of a mistaken killing of civilians or U.S.- allied fighters by American forces. The cases have raised concern about future cracks in Sunni cooperation with U.S. forces, which the Pentagon credits as key to the sharp drop in violence in recent months throughout Iraq.

The awakening council - as the Sunni groups are widely known - said Friday that an American helicopter strafed one of its checkpoints, killing three members in the village of Jurf al-Sakr, about 35 miles south of Baghdad.

Local officials said the airstrike occurred after guards at the post mistook a U.S. foot patrol for insurgents because American soldiers had not been expected in the area.

The U.S. military said attack helicopters fired rockets at a structure after small-arms fire was directed at American troops. It said the strike was under investigation.

Sheik Sabah al-Janabi, the head of the north Babil awakening council, said his fighters would cease patrols and stop manning checkpoints for three days to protest the killings and to call for an apology and compensation for the victims' relatives.

"We will abandon all our duties until the American troops meet our demands," al-Janabi told The Associated Press.

U.S. forces have killed 19 of the council's fighters and wounded 12 others in the past 45 days, including the three who died Friday, Al-Janabi said.

The alleged killings occurred in an area where U.S.-led forces stepped up air and ground assaults last month against al-Qaida in Iraq footholds south of the capital.

"After each incident, the U.S. forces claim that it occurred by mistake," al-Janabi said. "The U.S. side promises to offer an apology and compensation for the victims' relatives but does not fulfill these commitments."

Dozens of council members and supporters held a rally Saturday in Jurf al-Sakr to air their complaints.

The U.S. military said al-Janabi led a "peaceful demonstration" of about 200 awakening council members, which it calls the Sons of Iraq.

Al-Janabi "did say that the community still wants to work with coalition forces," the military said in a statement. "He gave a copy of his speech to coalition forces (which we are working to translate) but at this point, the Sons of Iraq are still working with coalition forces."

The allegations highlighted the problems faced by U.S. troops in trying to conduct a war in which the enemy is not always clear and tensions can arise easily with many new U.S. allies being former insurgents.

One of the deadliest cases of mistaken identity occurred on Feb. 2 when witnesses and Iraqi police said helicopters opened fire on a house after confusing U.S.-allied Sunni fighters for extremists, killing nine civilians, including a child. The U.S. military confirmed the civilian deaths, but gave few other details of the Army gunship attack.

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