The US military on Sunday acknowledged it fired on a group of its anti-Qaeda allies in Iraq in an attack the leader of the group said killed three people and sparked angry protests.
A military spokesman Major Brad Leighton said members of the Awakening group fighting Al Qaeda in the village of Jurf Al Sakher about 120 kilometres south of Baghdad mistakenly fired on US forces, who returned fire.
"We came under fire first and returned fire. We believe the (Awakening) mistakenly targeted us and we may have killed three (Awakening)," Leighton told AFP.
Leader of the group, Sabah Al Janabi, as well as local police official Ali Al Lami said that a US helicopter on Saturday fired on the group, killing three members.
The incident, coming on the heels of numerous other incidents in which a total of 19 group members have been killed, sparked mass resignations from the US-sponsored Awakening, according to Janabi.
"It was the third incident in a month. We have lost 19 men while 12 have been injured because of coalition attacks," said Janabi.
"The group, which comprises 110 members, resigned in protest at organised assassinations by the coalition forces," he added.
The US military said it was not certain that the Awakening members had indeed resigned.
"There was a peaceful demonstration (by about 200 Awakening members) during which the lead sheikh, Sabah Al Janabi, gave a speech addressing the issues. (He) did say that the community still wants to work with coalition forces," it said in a statement to AFP.
The Awakening groups began in western Anbar province where Sunni tribal leaders in September 2006 turned on their former Al Qaeda allies and caused them to flee.
Since then they have sprung up across the country, supported and paid for by the US military which sees them as essential to help hold areas cleared by an American "surge" of some 30,000 troops.
US commanders say there are now around 130 such groups across Iraq with a total of about 80,000 volunteers, 80 per cent of them Sunni and the remainder Shiite. (AFP)
US admits it fired on anti-Qaeda fighters in Iraq