Wed 16 September 2004
By Ed Cropley
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military has defended two helicopter pilots who fired seven rockets into a crowd of Iraqis in Baghdad this week, saying they had come under "well-aimed ground fire" and responded in self-defence.
Initially, the military had said they opened fire on Sunday to destroy a crippled U.S. armoured vehicle to prevent looting.
At least five people including a television journalist were killed in the incident around the blazing wreck of the Bradley, which had been crippled by a car bomb in central Baghdad's Haifa Street, a bastion for anti-American insurgents.
Colonel Jim McConville, head of the U.S. First Cavalry Division's aviation brigade, said two helicopters armed with heavy machineguns and a total of 21 rockets had swooped over the burning vehicle and the crowd of Iraqis.
"While he (the lead pilot) was overflying the target he received well-aimed ground fire so close that he could hear it over his intercom system," McConville told a news conference on Wednesday .
"The trail aircraft that was following the lead aircraft saw tracer fire coming up from the vicinity of the Bradley, aimed -- well-aimed -- at the lead aircraft."
"The second aircraft, having observed insurgent, or terrorist, forces firing at our aircraft, engaged ... the insurgents with one rocket. The second aircraft had 14 rockets on board but chose to engage with only one rocket to ... provide a proportional response."
Mazen Tomeizi, a Palestinian producer for Al Arabiya television, was killed while filming a piece to camera when the first missile struck behind him. Reuters cameraman Seif Fouad was wounded in one of the subsequent rocket strikes.
Witnesses in Haifa Street dispute the U.S. military's version of events, saying they saw no one firing at the helicopters before the aerial attack.
Fouad's footage of the crowd around the Bradley in the moments before the helicopter strike also showed no evidence any one in the crowd around the vehicle was armed or firing.
The foo tage shows a crowd of men and teenage boys milling around the vehicle, as Tomeizi speaks in the foreground. The journalist is then cut down and his blood spatters on the lens.
The U.S. military said that on a second pass over the burning vehicle and the crowd, which had scattered after the first missile hit, the helicopters fired a further six missiles.
The military said that on a third pass the lead helicopter fired 30 .50 calibre rounds from its heavy machinegun.
McConville said the pilots had chosen the option of a "close combat attack" because they were concerned about the risk of hitting civilians if they fired from further away.
He also said some of the casualties might have been caused by the wrecked vehicle's ammunition exploding or "cooking off" and urged Iraqis to keep away from burning military vehicles.