BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government said Saturday that a U.S. airstrike killed 10 Iraqi soldiers, a misfire that has led the United States to launch its first investigation into a so-called friendly fire incident in Iraq since it began bombing Islamic State targets last year.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said an American aircraft appeared to have conducted the strike Friday south of the city of Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad.
During a visit Saturday to the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship in the Gulf, Carter said he had expressed his condolences for the Iraqi deaths in a call with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
“He and I agreed that this was a event that we both regretted,” Carter told reporters after the call, which he made aboard the Kearsarge. “It’s tragic . . . but he and I both recognized that things like this can happen in war.”
Carter said the incident appeared to have been “a mistake that involved both sides.” He said there would be an investigation.
“I hope Iraqis will understand that this is a reflection of things that happen in combat,” Carter said when asked whether the incident could increase political pressure on Abadi. “But it’s also a reflection of how closely we are working.”
Carter said he and Abadi agreed to continue their joint fight against the Islamic State.
Defense minister Khalid al-Obeidi said Iraqi one officer was killed and nine soldiers also died in the strike Friday. He said the death toll was a “correction” to earlier numbers that said just one Iraqi soldier had died, a fact that was disputed by soldiers who witnessed the strike.
The incident is likely to be used for political gain by critics of U.S. military assistance in Iraq, including the country’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias. It comes just days after a visit to Baghdad by Carter, where the Iraqi government, wary of being seen as too reliant on U.S. assistance, did not take up an offer of accelerated support for its ongoing campaign to retake the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
The U.S.-led coalition said it had launched an investigation and offered condolences to the Iraqi security forces. In a statement, it confirmed that coalition planes had conducted several airstrikes in the area.
Two other strikes in the area struck an Islamic State tactical unit, destroyed two Islamic State vehicles and four fighting positions, the coalition said.
Iraqi forces have been heavily reliant on U.S. air support as they retake territory from the Islamic State. Obeidi on Friday said that Islamic State had once controlled around 40 percent of Iraqi territory, but now holds just 17 percent. He reiterated the statements of Iraqi commanders that the expected the western city of Ramadi to be recaptured from Islamic State by the end of the year. He refused to say the alleged coalition airstrike was accidental, saying he had to await the results of the investigation.
At Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad, chaotic scenes unfolded as the injured were brought in on stretchers. Soldiers and family members crammed the entrance and hallways.
“At first, we thought it was something fired by Daesh,” said one army soldier, his uniform bloodstained from carrying the injured. Daesh is an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “The explosion was very big. We ran. I saw many dead bodies. I saw that one of my friends had lost a leg.”
In a statement Friday, the Iraqi military said it requested air support from the U.S.-led coalition near the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah on Friday because the weather prevented Iraqi planes from providing assistance.
“The coalition launched two airstrikes which caused many casualties in the ranks of the enemy,” the statement said. Iraqi forces then moved forward rapidly, it said.
“The distance between our forces and the enemy was very close, meters,” the statement continued. “Our forces got mixed.”
In a third strike, “because they couldn’t distinguish from the air” between the forces on the ground, “there were some casualties among our forces, too,” the Iraqi statement said.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said he did not know which coalition planes were involved.
One injured officer immediately disputed the government’s initial death toll of one killed. He claimed 25 were killed and 37 wounded, also taking issue with the official version of events.
“We were moving forward and Daesh were retreating, when suddenly the bombing took place on the forces that were behind us,” he said. “It was meant to be a secure area.”
The fact that senior officers were injured showed that it was not front-line troops that were hit, he said, adding that the weather conditions were not particularly bad.
“I heard a loud explosion, and then after that, I couldn’t hear anything,” he continued. “All I could see was dust, and then I passed out.”
An army medic said that he did not know how many soldiers had been killed but that far more than nine were injured.
“I treated at least 20 injured, and my colleagues treated more,” he said, also on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
In Iraq, conspiracy theories that the United States is supporting the Islamic State, rather than fighting it, are widespread.
Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s defense and security committee, said that more than 20 soldiers were killed in the airstrike and that 30 were injured. Zamili, a Shiite militia commander, has repeatedly accused the United States of friendly-fire incidents and of dropping weapons to Islamic State militants in the past.
“The army is on the ground fighting Daesh, and the Americans are bombing them,” said Ali al-Maliki, who was at the hospital visiting his injured 23-year-old brother. “Now people will believe that Daesh was made by the Americans, because when the Iraqi army was moving forward to take their territory, they bombed [the army].”
The coalition statement said Iraq had been formally invited to participate in the investigation. “We take great measures to prevent these types of incident while protecting our partner forces,” it said, adding that all strikes were conducted at the request of the Iraqi government. “We are fully committed to the safety of our Iraqi partners while pursuing the destruction of our mutual enemies.”
Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.