- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Sobbing relatives showed U.S. and Afghan investigators the demolished buildings and graves in two western villages where a local official said Thursday he collected the names of 147 people killed in a disputed incident involving American forces and Taliban militants.

If local reports of the death toll are confirmed, it would be the deadliest case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.

Although the results of the joint U.S.-Afghan investigation were not expected to be announced until Friday, Afghans blamed U.S. bombing raids for the deaths in the villages of Ganjabad and Gerani.

In the capital of Farah province, where the fighting took place, some 150 stone-throwing protesters chanted “Death to America” and clashed with police.

The large number of civilian deaths comes at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as it steps up its military campaign here while emphasizing the importance of nonmilitary efforts to stabilize the country.

President Obama expressed sympathy over the loss of life in a White House meeting Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against the Taliban.

There has been no official death count, either from the Americans or the Afghans, from the fighting in the Bala Buluk district Monday night and Tuesday.

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah’s provincial council who said he helped the joint delegation from Kabul with its examination Thursday, said he collected the names of 147 dead - 55 at one site and 92 at another. Mr. Khan said he gave his tally to the Kabul team.

The international Red Cross has said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in two villages, where houses lay in ruin following the bombing.

Three U.S. defense officials, speaking anonymously, said Thursday that it is possible the investigators would find a mix of causes for the deaths - that some were caused by the firefight between the Americans and the Taliban, some by the U.S. air strike and some deliberately killed by Taliban fighters hoping U.S. bombings would be blamed.

Taliban militants often take over civilian homes and launch attacks on Afghan and coalition forces. U.S. officials say the militants hope to attract U.S. air strikes that kill civilians, thereby giving the militants a propaganda victory.

U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said she did not yet have information on what the investigative team found. A U.S. brigadier general headed the team, along with Afghan military and police officials.

In Washington, Mr. Karzai said, without referring directly to the latest controversy, that his country is eager for the U.S. military to find a way to avoid civilian casualties.

“It causes pain to Afghans,” Mr. Karzai told a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday after meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s something we want to have addressed … in a manner that will eventually - rather sooner - end casualties for the Afghan people.”

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