WASHINGTON– Taliban operatives shaking down villages for money appear to have forced civilians to remain in buildings that were bombed in the course of a long May 4 firefight, the commander of U.S. Central Command said today. Gen. David H. Petraeus said on “Fox News Sunday” that a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation team looking into the incident addressed the events leading up to the aerial attack targeting Taliban fighters in which an undetermined number of Afghan civilians were killed.

“The Taliban moved into these villages seeking to extort money from them,” Petraeus said. The Taliban killed and be-headed three villagers and then attacked the Afghan police. This, the general said, led to the police asking the provincial governor for help from the Afghan National Army and coalition forces.

“It was in that response that this very significant firefight broke out that ultimately resulted in the dropping of bombs that clearly killed Taliban and some civilians,” he said. “It appears the Taliban forced the civilians to stay in the houses from which they were engaging our forces.”

Preliminary findings by the joint investigation team cite evidence that Taliban fighters may have caused civilian casualties in the villages. According to a statement issued jointly by the Afghan government and U.S. Forces Afghanistan yesterday, investigators interviewed the surgeon and staff of the Farah Hospital and the three doctors on duty the day after the incident. They treated 16 patients — five police and 11 civilians — for flash burns and small lacerations. Afghan doctors said the injuries could have resulted from hand grenades or exploding propane tanks.

“The local doctors also confirmed that the Taliban were fighting from the roof tops while forcing the locals to remain in their compounds,” the statement said. “Locals receiving medical treatment repeated this information to the doctors several times. The doctors also received a call, while the investigators where present, indicating that the Taliban extremists had executed another civilian in the same village.”

Petraeus said Centcom will conduct a thorough investigation of the May 4 incident, looking for lessons in how to prevent similar events in the future and ensuring the tactical battle doesn’t impede the strategy.

The Afghan-U.S. statement issued yesterday contained a harsh rebuke of the Taliban’s tactics.

“The joint investigation team strongly condemns the brutality of the Taliban extremists deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and using them as human shields,” the statement said. “Afghan national security forces and coalition forces are committed to [protecting] the lives of Afghan citizens. The Taliban, by contrast, deliberately place civilians in harm’s way and callously and cynically manipulate civilian lives for their political purposes.”

As for the way ahead in Afghanistan, Petraeus said he has received all the troops he has asked for. “That carries all the requests through this calendar year,” he said. “There are requests beyond that, but the decisions don’t need to be made for a number of months, and I’m confident those decisions will be made at that point in time.”

Some U.S. forces have shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, Petraeus said, because the military is short on “enablers” — engineers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, among other support capabilities — a condition he said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is trying to fix. “There are not enough of these in the military,” Petraeus said. “This is why Secretary Gates’ budget addresses these kinds of low-density, high-demand units.”

Turning to Iraq, Petraeus said the Iraqi government is maintaining the progress made to date. He said the overall number of attacks is holding steady. “It has averaged between 10 and 15 attacks per day” for the last six months, Petraeus said. “This equates to a level of violence not seen since the late summer of 2003, before the insurgency and well before the militia activities accumulated that led to … 160 attacks per day.”

What has increased is the number of sensational attacks in Iraq – particularly Baghdad. Iraqi and coalition forces are going after the re-emerging al-Qaida networks in the country. “We should expect al-Qaida will continue to try to re-establish itself in Iraq, even as the focus of al-Qaida senior leadership appears to have shifted away,” Petraeus said.

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