BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite-dominated government said the killings of 15 women and children in a U.S. attack on a Sunni area were a "sorrowful matter," but emphasized Friday that civilian deaths are unavoidable in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The comments by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh appeared to be tacit approval of Thursday's raid northwest of Baghdad. They suggested the Iraqi government holds the American military to a different standard when it comes to assaults against suspected Sunni insurgents.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has complained loudly to U.S. military officials when Shiite civilians have been killed in American attacks against Mahdi Army militants, and tensions have been high over recent shootings of Iraqi civilians by private security contractors protecting U.S.-government-funded work.
On Friday, al-Dabbagh said the area targeted by American forces was a known base for insurgents, whom he accused of hiding among civilians.
"The issue of 15 civilian victims is a sorrowful matter, but confronting al-Qaida is an essential and vital issue," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They shouldn't have any place among the civilians.
"We are in a war against those diabolical and wicked groups; therefore during military operations there might be innocents killed," he added. "The victims are an unavoidable matter in fighting al-Qaida."
The assault targeting senior al-Qaida in Iraq leaders near Lake Tharthar, about 50 miles northwest of the capital, inflicted one of the heaviest civilian death tolls in the offensive against the terror network in recent months. The military said 19 suspected insurgents, six women and nine children died, and two suspected insurgents, one woman and three children were wounded.
U.S. spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith said the military would examine surveillance footage and interview troops to confirm the sequence of events. "We certainly will do a very thorough investigation to ensure the force used was appropriate," he said.
"We do what we can to ensure that we minimize to the greatest extent possible the loss of life of civilians," Smith said. "But in instances where your forces are being fired upon, you're going to use all necessary means to reduce that threat." He accused al-Qaida fighters of using their relatives and other innocent people to shield themselves.
The military said ground troops backed by attack aircraft acted on intelligence reports about an al-Qaida meeting at an initial location near the man-made lake, which straddles the volatile Sunni Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. Four insurgents were killed in that strike, but several suspects fled to another location, the military said.
American troops pursuing them faced small-arms fire, and a subsequent airstrike caused most of the casualties.
Tensions are running high in Iraq over the killings of civilians by U.S. forces and private security guards.
A representative of the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged the parliament to take up the issue of unjustified killings of Iraqi civilians, especially by the armed teams from mostly Western companies.
"Iraqi blood has become the cheapest thing in Iraq," Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai said in a Friday sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. "So we demand the Iraqi parliament meet to discuss the devaluing of Iraqi blood and souls by these companies."
Al-Qaida in Iraq had announced stepped-up attacks during Ramadan, and there has been a spike in car bombings and other attacks usually blamed on the terror network.
In Friday's deadliest attack, a parked car bomb exploded near a police patrol in a central Baghdad shopping district, killing four people, including two policemen, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.