BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The shooting death of a pregnant Iraqi, apparently by U.S. troops, as she was rushing to a hospital threw an intense spotlight Wednesday on the troubling issue of Iraqi civilian deaths.
Iraqi police and witnesses said the troops gunned down the woman and her cousin in their car. The U.S. military said the car entered a clearly marked prohibited area but failed to stop despite repeated signals; shots were fired to disable the vehicle, it said.
More than 4,000 Iraqis -- many of them civilians -- have been killed in war-related violence this year, including at least 936 in May alone, according to an Associated Press count. That makes May the second deadliest month for Iraqis over the past year. Only March recorded more fatalities.
The figures show that civilians, not Iraqi security forces, are increasingly the casualties of violence. Eighty-two percent of the war-related Iraqi deaths recorded in May were civilians, compared with 61 percent in May 2005, when 746 Iraqis were killed.
But the most striking change would seem to be that the insurgents are not nearly so willing to sacrifice themselves as they were a year ago. During May 2005, about 36 suicide bombings killed at least 331 Iraqis and wounded 962.
This May, by contrast, 11 suicide attacks killed at least 98 Iraqis and wounded 283 -- about one-third of the casualties of 12 months earlier.
Much of the violence is the result of Iraqi attacks.
But on Tuesday, Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, a 35-year-old pregnant woman, and her cousin Saliha Mohammed Hassan, 57, became the latest victims of what many Iraqis think is the American troops' disregard for life.
Jassim's brother, Khalid Nisaif Jassim, said he was speeding to get to a maternity hospital in Samarra when shots were fired at his car. He said the shooting happened on a side road that the U.S. military closed two weeks ago. News of the closure, he said, was slow to reach the rural area just outside Samarra where his family lives.
The cousins' bodies were taken to Samarra General Hospital, where relatives said doctors struggled to save Jassim's baby but failed.
The U.S. military said its forces "later received reports from Iraqi police that two women had died from gunshot wounds at the Samarra Hospital and one of the females may have been pregnant. The incident is under investigation."
Nabiha Nisaif Jassim is survived by a husband, 36-year-old Hussein Tawfeeq, and two children, Hashimayah, 2, and Ali, 1. Tawfeeq was waiting at the hospital for his wife when she was shot.
"May God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here," Jassim's brother said. "People are shocked and fed up with the Americans. People in Samarra are very angry with the Americans not only because of Haditha case but because the Americans kill people randomly, especially recently."
At a time when U.S. Marines are investigating an alleged massacre of Iraqi men, women and children in the town of Haditha last fall, the military says it constantly strives to avoid civilian casualties.
"The loss of life is regrettable and coalition forces go to great lengths to prevent it," the military said of the Samarra shooting.
But many Iraqis say they are fed up.
Speeding toward U.S. military checkpoints, convoys or living next door to a suspected insurgent hideout has cost many Iraqis their lives since U.S. troops invaded in 2003. Although figures are not available, it is commonly believed by Iraqis that hundreds of people may have died this way.
Following incidents similar to that in Samarra, the U.S. military has offered financial compensation to the victims' families and a verbal apology delivered by an officer.
Most accept the money. But in some cases relatives refuse, viewing the cash offer as an insult. U.S. personnel are in some cases met by angry relatives shouting abuse.
Anti-U.S. sentiments are whipped up by incidents like Samarra. In addition to Haditha, major abuse cases such as the scandal at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison or the alleged bombing by U.S. warplanes of a wedding in western Iraq in 2004 that killed about 45 people also foster rage at American troops.
Various independent estimates indicate violence in Iraq may have claimed up to 50,000 lives since the invasion. Most are victims of insurgent attacks and sectarian violence.
But in the highly sensitive debate over Iraqi civilian casualties, the alleged Haditha massacre has the potential to be a defining episode.
It could further chip away at popular support for the war in the United States, and undermine the reputation of the Marine Corps -- one of the U.S. military's most respected institutions.
In his first public comment on the Haditha incident, President Bush said Wednesday that he was troubled by allegations that Marines had killed unarmed Iraqi civilians and that, "If in fact laws were broken, there will be punishment."
What is known about what happened at Haditha is that a bomb rocked a U.S. military convoy and left one Marine dead. Angered by the loss, the Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Rep. John Murtha, a prominent critic of the Iraq war.
The circumstances surrounding the killings appear to match the charges Iraqis never tire of repeating about the behavior of American troops in the immediate aftermath of an attack or a bombing, particularly when they suffer casualties.
Iraqis consistently speak of random shootings and arbitrary arrests. The U.S. military routinely denies such allegations, but others have also suggested that anger may have played a role in events in Haditha.
Lance Cpl. James Crossan of North Bend, Wash., who was wounded in the roadside bomb attack in Haditha on Nov. 19, told a Seattle television station that some of the Marines might have snapped after seeing one of their own killed in action.
"I think they were just blinded by hate ... and they just lost control," Crossan told NBC affiliate KING-TV.
With nearly 2,500 servicemen killed and many thousands more wounded, American troops have been battling a stubborn and brutal insurgency. They also must cope with language and cultural barriers.
Some U.S. troops are now on their third deployment in Iraq, and the stress of combat in a country where almost anyone is a potential enemy can be immense. The Marine unit involved in the alleged Haditha killings was on its third tour in Iraq.
Narmin Othman, Iraq's environment minister and former acting human rights minister, blames ignorance of local history, culture and traditions for some abuses committed by Americans in Iraq.
"Occasionally, the conduct of American troops in Iraq regarding human rights has been disappointing," Othman said. "But that goes for Iraqi forces too."
Associated Press Writer Kim Gamel contributed to this report, as did Jennifer Farrar and Julie Reed in AP's News Research Center in New York.