BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 15 - In a remarkable appearance, the commander of American forces in Baghdad stood before a roomful of Arab and Western reporters on Wednesday, trying to explain the confusing events that led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of his men.
American generals do not often do such things, but the deaths of 13 Iraqis, including a young girl and a television cameraman, whose last moments have been replayed across televisions in the Middle East, prompted the commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, to try to explain how such a lamentable thing had come to pass.
The answer, the general said, lay in the grim necessities of the fight, a duel between Iraqi insurgents who had crippled a Bradley armored vehicle and two American helicopters. Mixed in with the insurgents were a number of civilians. The helicopters loosed their rockets only after they had taken fire themselves, General Chiarelli said, from somewhere in the crowd.
"We wanted to explain, particularly to the Iraqi people, that we do everything we can to eliminate collateral damage," General Chiarelli said, in a conference room inside the American headquarters known as Camp Victory. Then he turned to the subject of the Iraqi civilians who had been killed Sunday.
"I grieve their losses and give my condolences to their families," the general said.
Yet although General Chiarelli said he was saddened by the deaths of the innocent Iraqis, he firmly defended the actions of his men.
"The actions of our soldiers and pilots were well within their rights," he said.
The appearance of General Chiarelli and his deputy, Col. Jim McConville, stemmed in part from the televised death of Mazen Tomeizi, a Palestinian producer for Al Arabiya television. Mr. Tomeizi was killed while standing in front of the burning Bradley. He died on the air.
Film broadcast on Al Arabiya showed a crowd of mostly young men and boys around the Bradley, but showed no evidence that anyone was either armed or fighting. The film shows an explosion, and Mr. Tomeizi going down. Blood splatters on the camera lens.
Yet if General Chiarelli was trying to mollify Iraqi opinion with his appearance, the skepticism expressed by the Arabic-speaking journalists suggested he still had some way to go.
"Why don't you use small weapons, rather than missiles?" asked an Arabic-speaking reporter. "We know an innocent Iraqi was killed. Why not just disperse the crowd?"
"As you say, the pilot was so sweet," another Arab-speaking journalist said, referring to a member of the American helicopter crew. "But you didn't mention anything about the journalist who was there."
The most bitter words came, not surprisingly, from a reporter at Al Arabiya, who told the Americans that they had blasted the Bradley and killed those around it even though, as the tape showed, no one near it was firing a gun.
"The tape does not show any shots coming from the tank," said the reporter, Hadeer al-Rubaie. "We have the tape. We have proof."
"Your soldiers do not have any discipline," Ms. Rubaie said. "Why don't you go out of the cities, and face the terrorists somewhere else?"
General Chiarelli and Colonel McConville addressed those questions in some detail, if not to the satisfaction of everyone present. By so doing, they spelled out the challenges faced by American soldiers in Iraq as they try to carry on in densely populated areas where civilians and insurgents are often impossible to tell apart.
The helicopter strikes against the insurgents on Sunday were the most restrained means available, the officers said. The Americans had wanted to use ground troops to retrieve the Bradley, but six of their soldiers had already been wounded.
The helicopters could have fired their rockets from three or four miles away, Colonel McConville said, which would have been much safer for the pilots. They moved in close, putting themselves in greater danger, to try to avoid Iraqi civilians.
When the helicopters passed over the battle site, Colonel McConville said, the pilots took fire from the "vicinity" of the Bradley and fired four rockets. One hit the Bradley.
Still, for all of the discussion about hostile fire, the American officers suggested that there might have been a second motive for shooting the Bradley: to ensure that no one was able to steal the vehicle's communications equipment.
American officers attending the news conference suggested that the helicopter pilots might have fired at the Bradley not because of hostile fire, but because they feared that the young men who had clambered on top of it might have been trying to strip it of its equipment.
Colonel McConville said the incident was under investigation. But the latter suggestion prompted more derisive comments from the Arabic press.
"To save equipment," Ms. Rubaie said, "you risked the lives of 100 people."