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The U.S. military acknowledged Sunday night that three Iraqi civilians killed in late June by American forces were not "criminals," as first reported, but "honorable Iraqis" on their way to work.

Originally, U.S. officials said the Iraqi civilians had fired on a U.S. patrol near the Baghdad airport on June 25, resulting in return fire. But on Sunday night, the military said an investigation revealed that not only was there no gunfire from the Iraqis, but that several key parts of the initial release were false.

The statement released Sunday said that soldiers believed they were fired upon and conducted "escalation of force" measures that led to their opening fire on the civilian vehicle. The original release made no mention of warning shots or other measures.

Still, the investigation found that "neither the soldiers nor civilians involved in the incident were at fault," according to Sunday’s release.

"This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident," said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff of Multi-National Division—Baghdad and the 4th Infantry Division. "Our deepest regrets of sympathy and condolences go out to the family. We are taking several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future."

The press release was clear and direct: "Multi-National Division—Baghdad Soldiers killed three criminals after they attacked them with small arms fire in Baghdad at approximately 8:40 a.m.," the release began.

"The Soldiers returned fire, which resulted in the vehicle running off the road and striking a wall. The vehicle then exploded. All three criminals were killed in the incident. A weapon was recovered from the wreckage."

Maj. Joey Sullinger, a spokesman for 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was quoted as saying, "When we are attacked, we will defend ourselves and will use deadly force if necessary.

"Such attacks endanger not only U.S. Soldiers but also innocent civilians, including women and children, travelling the roadways of Baghdad," he said.

But officials said the investigation revealed a different sequence of events.

On that day, a group of 18 soldiers was traveling in four vehicles from Forward Operating Base Loyalty to Camp Cropper. The platoon had maintenance problems and pulled over to fix a vehicle.

At that time, a car carrying three Iraqis — two women and a man — approached on their way to work at a bank at the airport. Unknown to the soldiers, the car had already passed through a checkpoint and was searched.

"The soldiers truly believed they were fired upon," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a division spokesman. "Twelve Soldiers from the platoon say they saw ‘flashes’ and thirteen say they heard ‘gunfire.’ The vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed, there were hand and arms signals and several warning shots — the car was engaged by small-arms fire behind the convoy, to the side, and as it passed the convoy to the front — the entire time.

"All this occurred in the span of 30-45 seconds. We do look upon this as a tragedy," Stover said.

"It wasn’t until the investigation started that the investigators, the Iraqi Police and eventually the investigating officer began coming to the conclusion — there was no weapon, there was no enemy fire, these were civilians."

U.S. officials have "met with the family twice. We have offered our condolences and told the family their loved ones were honorable."

The incident sparked criticism from high-ranking Iraqi military officers.

Officials said the investigating officer filed his report on July 7, and the soldiers returned to duty on July 15.


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