- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. aircraft fired missiles into a Fallujah neighborhood yesterday, killing at least 16 persons and destroying a purported safe house used by associates of al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, accused by Washington of masterminding the insurgent war against coalition troops in Iraq.

U.S. military officials said one of two houses destroyed yesterday was used by members of the terror cell, although they could not say whether Zarqawi himself was inside the house at the time.

“We have significant evidence that there were members of the Zarqawi network in the house,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military’s deputy operations chief.

Outraged residents gathered around the site after the explosions damaged eight homes in a poor neighborhood of the city. The Health Ministry said at least 16 persons were killed. Witnesses put the number of dead at at least 20, including women and children.

“At 9:30 a.m., a U.S. plane shot two missiles on this residential area,” Fallujah police Chief Sabbar al-Janabi told the Associated Press as he surveyed the wreckage. “Scores were killed and injured. This picture speaks for itself.”

Residents told reporters at the scene that so many people were killed in the air strikes because U.S. planes dropped a second missile even as rescuers were pulling out victims.

Gen. Kimmitt said the initial strike on the hideout caused “multiple secondary explosions” of ammunition and roadside bomb materials stored there.

Yesterday’s aerial assault was the first time U.S. forces have struck inside Fallujah since they withdrew from the combustible, predominantly Sunni city in mid-April. The town, a key point on the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” has been a haven for insurgents working against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The city, 30 miles west of Baghdad, has been the launching pad for scores of attacks on coalition forces, and the site of the killings and desecration of four U.S. private security contractors in late March.

Marines occupied the city for three weeks in an effort to hunt down rebels and militia members carrying out daily attacks against U.S. and other foreign targets here. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed during the siege, cementing the hostility that has raged since Saddam Hussein’s downfall in April 2003.

With only 10 days until the coalition authority transfers power back to the Iraqi people, the race to kill or capture Zarqawi and other most-wanted men is heating up.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant thought to have ties to al Qaeda, has been blamed for a string of carbombings across Iraq, including the Thursday blast that killed 35 persons and wounded 145 at an Iraqi military-recruiting center in Baghdad.

Last week, U.S. aircraft dropped pamphlets over Fallujah urging residents to turn in Zarqawi, who has a $10 million price on his head, and American intelligence officials in Washington had said he was spending time in Fallujah.

U.S. officials have said Zarqawi’s death would be a significant blow to the insurgency, but would not bring it to an end.

Elsewhere, U.S. troops battled insurgents for a fourth day near the city of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, in fighting that has killed at least six Iraqis and one American soldier, the U.S. military and witnesses said. In southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed at least two persons, including a Portuguese security officer.

The Fallujah air strikes occurred shortly after three U.S. senators arrived at the Republican Palace in Baghdad to meet with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, both Democrats, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, expressed confidence in Mr. Allawi and pledged continued U.S. cooperation with the Iraqi people for as long as necessary.

They also appealed to governments around the world to assist the Iraqi people.

“If you can send troops, send troops; if you can forgive debt, forgive debt,” Mr. Graham said. “The Iraqi people have suffered. They need all the help they can get,” he said.

“It’s an incredibly difficult road ahead,” Mr. Biden said. “I think a number of mistakes have been made up to this point.” He added that he felt “optimistic” about the nationwide elections that could be held in seven months.

The senators also said that Mr. Allawi had promised not to demand Saddam be transferred to Iraqi custody until his physical security and confinement could be assured.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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