Iraq policemen 'killed in friendly fire'

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US soldiers mistakenly opened fire today on Iraqi policemen chasing highway bandits near an American checkpoint in a small town west of Fallujah, reportedly killing eight officers.

In a separate incident nearby in Ramadi, two US soldiers were killed and seven wounded in a firefight during a raid. No other details were given.

The "friendly fire" shooting near Fallujah happened as 25 policemen in three vehicles, two pickup trucks and a sedan, were chasing a white BMW known to have been used by highway bandits.

As the chase neared the Jordanian Hospital, the police turned around and an American Humvee opened fire, said Asem Mohammed, 23, a police sergeant who was among the injured.

There were other unconfirmed reports of violence in the region today after a message carrying the name of Saddam Hussein appeared on at least one building in Fallujah. The message praised the people of the city for their resistance to the American occupation and named it capital of al-Anbar province. The nearby city of Ramadi, west of Fallujah, is the capital of the Sunni dominated al-Anbar province.

Yesterday, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at a US military convoy about 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Fallujah, touching off an intense firefight that left at least one American soldier wounded, the military said.

Tanks and other vehicles from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment came under attack, the military said.

Other "US forces responding to the scene came under fire and returned fire at houses nearby," US Army Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons said.

There was no information regarding casualties among attackers. Two US military trucks were also destroyed during the fighting along Highway 10, he said.

The Fallujah region has been one of the most dangerous for US soldiers. Support for ousted dictator Saddam runs strongest in the region.

Associated Press Television News pictures from Khaldiya, 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Fallujah, showed a burning tank transport truck, a burning 5-ton truck and at least one burning Humvee. Earlier Thursday, three US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were injured when guerillas fired rocket-propelled grenades and shot small arms at a military convoy in Mosul, northern Iraq, the military said.

In Baghdad, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a key member of the US-appointed Governing Council and a top Shiite Muslim cleric, told a news conference Friday that the car bombing that killed his brother and at least 85 other people in Najaf last month was a "terrorist operation" and would not be the last such attack.

Al-Hakim, who took over leadership of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq after his brother's assassination Aug. 29, said the attack was part of a "diabolical and cunning conspiracy" to target Iraqi infrastructure, assassinate other senior clerics and desecrate holy Muslim shrines.

At the news conference held at a Supreme Council building in central Baghdad, al-Hakim also issued a blunt warning to Arab satellite broadcasters like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya against "playing a role that tears the nation apart and supports terrorist groups."

Al-Hakim refused to give a direct answer when asked about disarming the Badr Brigade, which his slain brother founded during exile in Iraq as the armed wing of the Supreme Council. It was ordered disarmed and disbanded on American orders after the fall of the Saddam regime, but members have subsequently been patrolling the streets in the area of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf since the bombing there two weeks ago.

The top US commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said on Thursday that such militias are illegal. Al-Hakim said the continued armed presence of the men was under discussion with American authorities.

"The Badr Brigade should have a very active role in achieving security, and we are discussing this issue with the coalition authorities. We do not want militia formations in Iraq, but under the current critical situation, urgent measures should be taken. But, we try to work in a way to avoid clashes with the coalition forces."

"We do not foresee any benefit that could be gained from engaging in an armed conflict with the occupation forces. We believe in the necessity of adopting other means to achieve independence."

Commenting on the possible participation of Turkish troops as peacekeepers in Iraq, al-Hakim said "We believe there is no need for more troops to come to Iraq. There should be a change in this policy. Iraqis should handle the security issue in their country."

He accused the Americans of adopting a "wrong policy" in handling the security issue, saying it would turn Iraq into a haven for foreign terrorists.