( LatWp ) -The U.S. military is investigating the killings of 17 people in a U.S. helicopter attack north of Baghdad a week ago, after residents of the area complained that the victims were not fighters from the group al-Qaida in Iraq, as the military originally claimed, but members of a village guard force and ordinary citizens.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, said the June 22 incident in Khalis, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, was under investigation ``because of discussions with locals who say it didn't happen as we reported it.'' The attack occurred in the opening days of an offensive, called Operation Arrowhead Ripper, that is centered around the town of Baqouba, about 10 miles southeast of Khalis.
A U.S. military statement on the day of the incident called the dead men ``al-Qaida gunmen'' and said they were killed after trying to sneak into Khalis.
``Iraqi police were conducting security operations in and around the village when Coalition attack helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade and ground forces from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, observed more than 15 armed men attempting to circumvent the IPs (Iraqi police) and infiltrate the village,'' the statement said.
``The attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaida gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using,'' it said.
Garver said townspeople claim ``the individuals were not al-Qaida, but members of the community.'' He said additional details were not available, pending completion of the investigation.
The investigation came to light after the BBC reported on its Web site that residents of Khalis were ``incensed'' that the dead men were accused of being members of al-Qaida. Villagers ``say that those who died had nothing to do with al-Qaida. They say they were local village guards trying to protect the township from exactly the kind of attack by insurgents the US military says it foiled,'' the BBC reported.
Elsewhere, a massive car bomb detonated at a street-side bus depot during Baghdad's Thursday morning rush hour, killing at least 22 people and wounding more than 40 in a tremendous explosion that set fire to scores of minibuses and other vehicles, Iraqi police said.
The 8:15 a.m. blast occurred at a large central bus stop in the predominantly Shiite Bayaa neighborhood, where residents from the southeast quadrant of Baghdad catch buses for trips across the capital. It was at least the third time that the bus stop has been targeted by bombings.
In Madain, about 15 miles south of the capital, residents found 20 decapitated bodies on the banks of the Tigris River early Thursday, news agencies reported.
In other developments, a U.S. soldier was killed during combat operations Thursday when his patrol was hit by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad, the military said in a statement. One soldier was injured.
The death brought to 93 the number of U.S. troops killed in June. There have been 323 U.S. casualties in Iraq since the beginning of April, making the last three months the most deadly period for U.S. forces since the war began in March 2003.
U.S. officials warned that troop fatalities were expected to spike this summer with the arrival of 28,500 additional U.S. soldiers in high-profile positions in and around Baghdad--a show of force meant to raise the sense of security and lower the rate of violence in the capital. Violence dipped for a while after the extra troops started arriving in February, but recent data show that some types of attacks and killings are back to January's pre-``surge'' levels.
U.S. casualty rates also are on the rise because the additional troops are engaging in higher visibility patrols at the same time the insurgents are fighting back with larger numbers of more-powerful and sophisticated roadside bombs, the leading killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The British military announced that three of its soldiers were killed and another ``very seriously injured'' by a roadside bomb about 1 a.m. Thursday. The attack occurred while the soldiers were patrolling on foot in the Amtahiyah district of southeast Basra, the port city about 340 miles south of Baghdad, the British Defense Ministry said in a statement. The deaths bring to 156 the number of British troops killed in the war, according to iCasualties.org, an independent group that monitors deaths in Iraq.