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BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter opened fire on a group of men spotted planting roadside bombs in a Sunni stronghold north of Baghdad on Tuesday, then chased them into a nearby house, killing 11 Iraqis, including five women and one child, the military said.
Neighbors and relatives of those killed claimed 14 civilians were killed. They prayed and wept over the bodies, which were wrapped in colorful blankets for burial in the desert north of Samarra.
The attack began after men were seen placing the bombs near the volatile city 60 miles north of Baghdad, said Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a military spokeswoman for northern Iraq.
An Apache helicopter "engaged these enemy forces, and the enemy forces ran into a house and took over the structure," she said, adding the attack aircraft continued to fire at the suspected militants as they tried to escape.
A known member of a roadside-bomb-making network was among five military-age men who were killed, but the dead also included five women and one child, the military said in a statement that cited Iraqi sources. The statement said the circumstances surrounding the airstrikes were under review.
Kageleiry expressed regret for the deaths of the civilians but blamed the insurgents for putting their lives in danger by running into the house to escape attack by the U.S. forces.
Dhurgham Hamid, a man from the area that was hit, said the dead included a man who was a supervisor at the provincial education directorate, and his wife, an accountant at the agency.
"They were peaceful people who had nothing to do with the resistance or gunmen," Hamid said.
It was the third claim of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in as many days, raids that have prompted complaints from both sides of the sectarian divide that too many ordinary Iraqis are losing their lives, particularly as the Americans increasingly rely on air power to attack militants.
The hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said the raid struck families who had invited relatives to celebrate the release of one of their sons from U.S. custody.
The group "condemned the brutal crime that shows the savageness and brutality of the occupation in targeting disarmed civilians" and placed blame on the Shiite-led government and the U.S. military.
The other two raids targeted Shiite militia fighters in the sprawling Sadr City district in eastern Baghdad.
On Monday, relatives and police said a 42-year-old woman and her 4-year-old daughter were seriously wounded when attack helicopters opened fire before dawn on a duplex that housed a family in one half and a store selling motor oil in the other.
The U.S. military said attack helicopters killed one extremists and wounded five after they were seen trying to place a roadside bomb.
Ground forces also called for air support after encountering fierce resistance in a raid targeting a suspected Iranian-linked leader of a kidnapping ring in Sadr City on Sunday, although casualty tolls conflicted. The Americans said 49 militants were killed, but Iraqi officials insisted the number of casualties was 15 — all civilians.
The U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq said in its most recent human rights report that it had recorded at least 88 Iraqi civilians reported killed in U.S. airstrikes from April 1 to June 30.
U.S. and Iraqi forces, meanwhile, banned vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles in the streets of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi as hundreds of Iraqi police, soldiers and politicians gathered to commemorate the death of Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the founder of the first anti-al-Qaida group of Sunni tribal leaders. He was assassinated by a bomb Sept. 13.
Gigantic posters of the revered Abu Risha and new Iraqi flags in green, red, black and white hung along the parade route. Military and police vehicles were decorated with garlands of silk flowers. The festive scene stood in sharp contrast to the violence that plagued the streets of the Sunni stronghold a year ago.
Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, Abdul-Sattar's brother who has taken over the movement, watched the parade from a tower.
"Today is the day we won, the day we pronounced victory," he said in a speech read by a spokesman. "We finally got rid of those bad people, the ones who set us back a million years."
In southern Iraq, clashes broke out between Iraqi security forces and fighters from the Mahdi Army militia that is nominally loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The fighting began after a car carrying militiamen was stopped at a checkpoint in the oil port of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, according to local police and officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
Hours later, Mahdi Army fighters attacked several other army and police checkpoints elsewhere in the city, briefly detaining three Iraqi soldiers, the officials said. Police later said the situation was under control.
Tensions have been rising in the area as Shiite factions and Iraqi security forces battle for power with the withdrawal of British forces to the airport on the edge of the city.
The British military issued a brief statement about the fighting, saying it could confirm "there is an incident ongoing in Basra city" and the Iraqi security forces were dealing with the situation.
Associated Press writer Kim Curtis in Ramadi contributed to this report.