A group of villagers in Iraq is bitterly disputing the US account of a deadly air attack on 22 June, in the latest example of the confusion surrounding the reporting of combat incidents there. The BBC's Jim Muir investigates:
The US military said the dead were al-Qaeda gunmen
On 22 June the US military announced that its attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen who had been trying to infiltrate the village of al-Khalis, north of Baquba, where operation "Arrowhead Ripper" had been under way for the previous three days.
The item was duly carried by international news agencies and received widespread coverage, including on the BBC News website.
But villagers in largely-Shia al-Khalis say that those who died had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. 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 incident highlights the problems the news media face in verifying such combat incidents in remote areas
They say that of 16 guards, 11 were killed and five others injured - two of them seriously - when US helicopters fired rockets at them and then strafed them with heavy machinegun fire.
Minutes before the attack, they had been co-operating with an Iraqi police unit raiding a suspected insurgent hideout, the villagers said.
They added that the guards, lightly armed with the AK47 assault rifles that are a feature of practically every home in Iraq, were essentially a local neighbourhood watch paid by the village to monitor the dangerous insurgent-ridden area to the immediate south-west at Arab Shawkeh and Hibhib, where the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed a year ago.
Here is the version of the incident issued by the US-led Multinational Forces on 22 June:
"Coalition Forces attack helicopters engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen southwest of Khalis, Friday.
"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 and infiltrate the village.
"The attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using."
This is the story as told to the BBC by several local villagers:
At around 2am on Friday morning, the village guards were at their usual base in an unfinished building on the edge of the Hayy al-Junoud quarter about 2km (1.2 miles) south-west of al-Khalis village centre.
Jassem Khalil, the Mukhtar of Hayy al-Junoud
Abbas Khalil, his brother
Ali Khalil, his other brother
Kamal Hadi, their cousin
Abdul Wahhab Ibrahim
Abbas Muzhir Fadhel
Jamal Hussein Alwan
Abdul Hussein Abdullah
Ali Jawad Kadhem
They were surprised when a convoy of Iraqi police suddenly turned up, headed by the commander of the Khalis emergency squad, Col Hussein Kadhim.
The police told them they were about to raid a suspect house in nearby al-Akrad Street and asked for the village mukhtar (headman) to accompany them.
The Mukhtar of Hayy al-Junoud, Jassem Khalil, and his brothers Abbas and Ali, went with the police. Some of the other guards, about half altogether, also offered to go along.
The raid turned out to be a false alarm - there was nothing suspicious at the house in question.
But as the police and guards began to return, the police received an urgent radio message from the Joint Operations Centre saying that US helicopters were about to raid the area.
The police disappeared immediately. But before the guards could even get to their own car, they were hit by a rocket strike by American helicopters which suddenly appeared overhead.
So too were the remainder of the guards, still at their base in the unfinished building nearby.
The rocket attacks were followed by a prolonged period of strafing by heavy machinegun fire from the helicopters.
"It was like a battlefront, but with the fire going only in one direction," said a local witness. "There was no return fire".
When frightened villagers ventured out at first light, they found 11 of the village guards dead, some of their bodies cut into small pieces by the munitions used against them.
Those who survived with injuries were Bashir (an off-duty policeman), Alwan Hussein, Abu Ra'id, Salam, and Saif Khalil, the son of Abbas Khalil who died.
The families of those who died are seeking a meeting with the head of the al-Khalis town council. They are incensed that the village guards should be described as "al-Qaeda gunmen".
All but two of those killed were Shia and they have been buried at Najaf. The other two who were from the local minority Sunni community.
A spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces said they were investigating the incident in the light of the allegations.
If the villagers' account is true, the incident would raise many questions, including:
- On what basis did the US helicopters launch their attack that night?
- How many other coalition reports of successes against "al-Qaeda fighters" are based on similar mistakes, especially when powerful remote weaponry is used?
The incident also highlights the problems the news media face in verifying such combat incidents in remote areas where communications are disrupted, where direct independent access is impossible because of the many lethal dangers they would face, and where only the official military version of events is available.