Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounced a deadly US raid on Sunday as a “crime” that violated the security pact with Washington and demanded US commanders hand over those responsible to face possible trial in Iraqi courts.
The US military, however, strongly denied that it overstepped its bounds and said it notified Iraqi authorities in advance — in accordance with the rules that took effect this year governing US battlefield conduct.
The pre-dawn raid in the southern Shiite city of Kut ended with at least one woman dead after being caught in gunfire and six suspects arrested for alleged links to Shiite militia factions.
But efforts were quickly launched in an attempt to tone down the dispute.
The six detainees were released, said Major General Read Shakir Jawdat, head of the provincial police that includes Kut. At the same news conference, US Colonel Richard Francey offered condolences to the family of the woman killed.
The fallout marks the most serious test of the security pact so far and could bring new strains during a critical transition period.
US forces plan to move out of most major Iraqi cities by the end of June in the first phase of a promised withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.
A statement from al-Maliki — in his role as commander general of Iraqi forces — called the raid a “violation of the security pact.”
He asked the US military “to release the detainees and hand over those responsible for this crime to the courts,” an Iraqi security official said who read the statement.
Elsewhere in Iraq, gunmen stormed two Christian homes in separate attacks in the ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk, killing at least two Chaldean Christians and one Assyrian, police Brigadier Burham Taib said.
The northern city is a fault line between the majority Kurds and Arabs, but also includes ethnic Turks and various Christian groups.
A UN report given to Iraqi leaders last week recommends giving Kirkuk a “special status” with oversight by both the Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad.
In Kut, the cascade of protests and questions began just hours after the sweep into Kut, which the US military said targeted suspected backers of Shiite militias believed to have links to Iran.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the mosque in Kut, about 160km southeast of Baghdad, to decry the US action and demand an investigation.
The provincial council then called an emergency meeting and a three-day mourning period. The Iraqi Defense Ministry also ordered the arrest of two high-ranking Iraqi officers for their alleged roles in allowing US forces to operate in Kut.
“We condemn this crime,” said Mahmoud al-Etaibi, head of the council.
Meanwhile, seven suspected al-Qaeda insurgents were killed in clashes with US forces in a largely Sunni Arab province of Iraq, the US military said yesterday.
Iraqi police in the area said Iraqi forces allied with the US were involved and that clashes continued throughout Sunday in the town of Dhuluiya, 70km north of Baghdad. They put the death toll of the gunmen at nine.
Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Jassim, a police official in Dhuluiya, said the fighting began early on Sunday and resulted in the arrest of 17 suspected militants, four of them non-Iraqi Arabs. Four suspected insurgents were wounded.
“Coalition forces killed seven armed terrorists and detained one suspect during an early morning operation to capture a suicide bombing cell hiding in a palm grove near Balad,” US press officer Lieutenant John Brimley said. “One suspected terrorist was detained and confirmed that the remaining terrorists were armed with five suicide vests.”