American troops hunting al Qaeda militants accidentally killed nine Iraqi civilians, the US military said on Monday, the latest in a series of mistakes in which innocent Iraqis have died.
The deaths south of Baghdad on Saturday, which Iraqi police said were caused by a helicopter air strike, were announced as Iraq said it would soon begin talks with US officials on a long-term bilateral agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
While those negotiations are not expected to determine future US troop numbers in Iraq, they will focus on the role of American forces.
A child was among those killed in the strike near Iskandariya, 40 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad.
Three civilians, including two more children, were wounded, the US military said.
"We offer our condolences to the families of those who were killed in the incident and we mourn the loss of innocent civilian life," it said in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
The military gave no further details but Iraqi police at the scene said US helicopters had fired on a checkpoint manned by a neighbourhood police patrol after a U.S. convoy was attacked.
Police said women were among the victims.
The neighbourhood units, formed by mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs, have been credited for contributing to sharp falls in violence. Attacks across Iraq have fallen by 60 percent since 30,000 extra US troops were deployed by last June.
The US military said commanders near Iskandariya met a local tribal sheikh after the incident. The wounded had been taken to U.S. hospitals for treatment, it said.
In a similar incident last November, US forces said they had killed 25 insurgents during operations against al Qaeda near Taji, north of Baghdad.
But the head of a Sunni Arab tribal group in the area said as many as 45 of his men had been killed when they were bombed by US aircraft as they manned a checkpoint.
A month earlier the US military said five women and a child were among 11 people killed in air strikes against men planting a bomb near Samarra last October. Villagers say 14 innocent civilians were killed in the strikes.
The killing of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers has long put a strain on relations between the two countries. Critics say US forces often call in air strikes against militants without taking reasonable care to find out who else is in the area.
The US military says militants often deliberately use civilians as shields against attacking US forces.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh said that talks with US officials would begin later in February on a pact that would lay the basis for long-term strategic ties between Washington and Baghdad.
Dabbagh said the talks would start in the third week of February but gave no precise date. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari has said the pact should be concluded by July.
"This agreement will bring economic, security, political, and diplomatic benefits to Iraq and set up a sympathetic relationship with the American people," Dabbagh said.
US officials were not immediately available for comment but US ambassador Ryan Crocker told Reuters last month that the pact would "frame the bilateral relationship for the years and even decades ahead".
Iraq has vowed that the United States will never have permanent bases on its soil. (Reuters)
US says 9 Iraqi civilians accidentally killed