BAGHDAD -- U.S. airstrikes killed at least 25 people Friday after troops met a fierce barrage while hunting suspected arms smuggling links between Iran and Shiite militiamen. The military described the dead as fighters, but village leaders said the victims included children and men protecting their homes.
In a separate incident, the U.S. military said it was investigating the deaths of three civilians shot by American sentries near an Iraqi-manned checkpoint. Iraqi officials said the victims were U.S.-allied guards and were mistakenly targeted.
While details could not be independently confirmed, both reports reflected rising concerns about possible friendly fire killings as more viligante-style groups join the fight against extremists and fill the vacuum left by Iraq's collapsing national police force.
Such claims could hinder crucial U.S. efforts to draw Sunni and Shiite leaders into alliances against insurgent factions such as al-Qaida in Iraq. In a series of raids around Iraq, U.S. troops killed 12 suspected insurgents linked to al-Qaida, the military said.
An American attack helicopter and a warplane destroyed two buildings, said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a military spokesman in Baghdad. The military said 25 militiamen were killed. Danielson said no civilian deaths had been confirmed.
But a different account was offered by local leaders and hospital officials.
They said U.S. aircraft bombed the neighborhood repeatedly, killing at least seven children and local men who organized watches to guard against extremist attacks.
"We were on a night watch in the village because we were afraid of possible al-Qaida attacks. There were no militias, we were trying to protect our families," said 28-year-old Muntasir Abbas, who was wounded in his left leg.
The mayor of Khalis, Odai al-Khadran, said "locals were protecting themselves by guarding their village. They are not militias."
Mahmoud Khazim said he had just left a guard post to get tea when it was hit by an airstrike, killing his son and several other men.
"I saw huge fire coming from the sky and gunfire. I ran toward the post to see several bodies on the ground, including that of my son," he said from his hospital bed in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Iraqis routinely assert that civilians are killed in raids by U.S. forces targeting militants, particularly Shiite militia fighters who usually live among the population and serve as protectors for the local community. But Friday's claim was among the largest in terms of numbers.
In the checkpoint shooting dispute, the military said it was looking into the incident near Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.
The brief announcement did not provide other details. But a local police spokesman said those killed were Shiite members of the North of Hillah Awakening Council, a group of Iraqis who have turned against extremists in the area.
Those killed were three members of the council who were guarding a deserted road leading to their village, the spokesman said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information.
In Washington, Iraq's chief national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, predicted that U.S. troops could leave Iraq earlier than suggested by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Al-Rubaie told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he expects the extra 30,000 troops deployed last year will be able to leave by April.
Al-Rubaie also predicted significant reductions by the end of 2008, possibly even before the November elections.
"By the end of next year, the (Iraqi) logistics will be in place and we'll be ready," he said.
Al-Rubaie said the Iraqi government's predictions are more optimistic than the U.S. government's because it is more confident of its security forces. Iraq also expects an "acceleration" of training and equipment efforts in coming months, he said.
On the Blackwater scandal, al-Rubaie said he wants to wait until the investigation is complete but wants the White House to revisit its order giving U.S. personnel immunity from Iraqi prosecution.
"It's a huge sovereignty issue we need to sort out and sort out quickly," he said.
Associated Press reporter Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.