Five young girls have been killed during the course of a gun battle between US troops and suspected insurgents in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. A US military statement confirmed that a tank patrol fired shells into a house after militants opened fire on them from the roof. Six bodies, including those of the five girls aged from infancy to adolescence, were found inside the premises during a search afterwards.
Ramadi is a Sunni insurgent stronghold in the western province of Anbar, where some of the fiercest fighting between US forces and militants has taken place. In a separate development, the UN has voted to extend the mandate of the multinational force in Iraq until the end of 2007.
It follows pressure from the Iraqi government. The past week has been one of the bloodiest since the US-led invasion in 2003, prompting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to call for drastic action to prevent a civil war. That term, rejected by the Bush administration, has since been adopted by some of the US media.