Five young girls killed in US attack on Iraqi insurgents

Five young girls were among six Iraqis killed by US forces yesterday after troops used tanks and machine guns to attack what they said was a house occupied by insurgents.

Fighting broke out in the city of Ramadi, considered a stronghold of the anti-US insurgency, after a US patrol discovered a roadside bomb in the Hamaniyah section of the city.

The military said that as the patrol worked to remove the bomb, two insurgents opened fire on them from the nearby house. The soldiers fired back with tanks and machine guns. When they later entered the house they found the bodies of the young girls. A sixth female was apparently also wounded but declined treatment.

Soldiers found the body of one man, presumed to have been one of two suspected insurgents running into the house. A statement from the US military said the body of the other man seen running into the house may have been removed by other fighters. "In a very tragic way, today reminds us that insurgents' actions throughout Iraq are felt by all," said the military spokesman Lt Col Bryan Salas. "Efforts are under way to offer available assistance to surviving family members."

The news comes after US government documents revealed that hundreds of private contractors have died in Iraq since the start of the occupation, with 10 British employees killed in the past two months.

US labour department officials have acknowledged that, since March 2003, 662 claims for compensation have been received from the relatives of contractors who have died working in Iraq.

While the documents, obtained during an investigation by Channel 4 News, provide an incomplete figure it does shed light on the largely unpublicised hazards facing those working in the industry. Some 48,000 private contractors work in Iraq, US officials say, double the number in 2005. Some are involved in reconstruction and logistical support, while others are engaged in security and escort work.

The death toll among Britons working in this industry has been particularly high in the past two months, surpassing that of British soldiers who have died during this period. Since 29 September, 10 British security contractors have died. A single attack caused a third of these losses. A roadside bomb hit a convoy operated by the security firm Erinys 20 miles east of Baghdad on 18 October. The British contractors Carl Ledden, 41; Noah Stephenson, 29, and Fraser Burnett were killed in the blast.

In an e-mail to a relativeweeks before his death, Mr Ledden, who worked protecting the US military, said he was unhappy about repeatedly travelling along the same route. "We are setting patterns here good-style and I wouldn't be surprised if we get hit," he wrote."

Erinys, which has contracts in Iraq protecting the American military, said: "Unfortunately, we are not in a position to comment whilst the incident is subject to a formal investigation, which is routine policy for all incidents involving our personnel."

Nick Paton Walsh's report will be shown at 7pm tonight on Channel 4 News

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