- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police raided the home of America’s one-time ally Ahmad Chalabi today, seizing documents and computers. U.S. officials, meanwhile, disputed Iraqi claims that American aircraft bombed a wedding party near Syria’s border, killing more than 40 people.

The raid and airstrike came amid rising public anger over the U.S. occupation, which an increasing number of Iraqis consider oppressive. The Americans plan to install an interim Iraqi government June 30 and formally end the occupation but retain significant military forces and influence over Iraqi affairs.

In the search of Chalabi’s home in Baghdad’s Mansour district, U.S. soldiers surrounded the compound and armed Americans in civilian clothes and flak jackets were seen milling about.

A Chalabi aide, Haidar Musawi, said a U.S.-Iraqi force arrived about 10:30 a.m., while Chalabi, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, was inside. They told Chalabi’s aides they wanted to search for wanted officials in Chalabi’s party, the Iraqi National Congress.

A senior coalition official said on condition of anonymity that an Iraqi judge issued warrants “for up to 15 people” on allegations of fraud, kidnapping and “associated matters.” Several people were arrested, and Chalabi was not a suspect, he said.

Iraqi police were seen loading boxes into vehicles, and neighbors said some members of Chalabi’s entourage were taken away. Police took documents and a computer, according to an American witness. A portrait of Chalabi hanging on the wall had a bullet hole in the forehead.

Chalabi said police burst into his bedroom carrying pistols.

“I am America’s best friend in Iraq,” Chalabi told a news conference. “If the (coalition) finds it necessary to direct an armed attack against my home, you can see the state of relations between the (coalition) and the Iraqi people.”

Musawi also said U.S. forces searched INC offices. Three security guards were arrested, though they were not linked to any allegations.

U.S. officials declined to comment on the raid. Privately, however, American authorities have said Chalabi is interfering with a U.S. investigation into allegations that Saddam Hussein’s regime skimmed billions of dollars in oil revenues during the U.N.-run oil-for-food program.

Also, Chalabi complained recently about U.S. plans to retain control of Iraqi security forces and maintain widespread influence over political institutions after the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to an Iraqi interim administration.

“It’s a provocative operation, designed to force Dr. Chalabi to change his political stance,” said Chalabi aide Qaisar Wotwot.

For years, Chalabi’s INC received money from the Pentagon, in part for intelligence passed along by exiles about Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction.

Chalabi has been criticized since large stockpiles of such weapons were never found.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirmed earlier this week, during testimony before Congress, that Washington has ended those payments of $340,000 a month to Chalabi’s organization.

The CIA has not been paying the INC for intelligence and has long been suspicious of information provided by the group.

Chalabi, a former banker and longtime Iraqi exile, was convicted of fraud in absentia in Jordan in 1992 in a banking scandal and sentenced to 22 years in jail. He has repeatedly denied the charges.

Another source of Chalabi’s tension with the coalition could be his calls for closer relations with Iran. Washington and Tehran have been at odds since Islamic revolutionaries ousted Iran’s U.S.-backed shah in 1979 and held Americans hostage for more than a year.

Later Thursday, U.S. military officials said a pre-dawn attack Wednesday near the Syrian border - which Iraqis say hit a wedding party - targeted a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria.

The desolate, desert region is populated only by shepherds but is popular with smugglers, and the U.S. military suspects militants use it as an entry route. About 15 miles from the Syrian border, the area is under constant American surveillance.

Iraqi police and witnesses said the attack killed dozens of innocent people, many of them women and children. Some said the bride and groom also were killed.

People who said they were guests said the wedding party was in full swing - with dinner just finished and the band playing tribal Arab music - when U.S. fighter jets roared overhead and U.S. vehicles started shining their highbeams.

Worried, the hosts ended the party; men stayed in the wedding tent, and women and children went inside the house nearby, the witnesses said.

About five hours later, the first shell hit the tent. Panicked, women clutching their children ran out of the house, they said.

Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east, said the attack happened about 2:45 a.m. He said between 42 and 45 people were killed, including 15 children and 10 women.

Salah al-Ani, a doctor at a Ramadi hospital, put the death toll at 45.

A shepherd who attended the wedding, Madhi Nawaf, said his daughter and at least one of his grandchildren were killed.

“Mothers died with their children in their arms. One of them was my daughter. I found her a few steps from the house, her two-year old son Raad in her arm. Her one-year-old son, Ra’ed, was lying nearby, his head missing,” he said.

“Where are the foreign fighters they claim were hiding there? asked Nawaf. “Everything they said is a lie.”

U.S. military officials disputed those accounts.

“Ten miles from Syrian border and 80 miles from nearest city and a wedding party? Don’t be naive,” said Marine Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis in Fallujah. “Plus they had 30 males of military age with them. How many people go to the middle of the desert to have a wedding party?”

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the attack was launched after U.S. forces received “specific intelligence” about foreign fighters slipping into the country.

“We sent a ground force in to the location,” he told Associated Press Television News. “They were shot at. We returned fire.”

U.S. soldiers recovered satellite communications gear, foreign passports and a large amount of Iraqi cash at the site, he said.

Kimmitt said the incident will be investigated even though the military remains convinced it attacked a legitimate target.

“This operation is not something that fell out of the sky,” he said. “We had significant intelligence … This is one of the routes we have watched for a long time as a place where foreign fighters and smugglers go.”

Military officials in Washington refused to say whether anyone from a wedding party was killed.

Iraqis interviewed by APTN said revelers fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

The footage showed a truck containing bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets and piled atop one other, after it arrived in Ramadi. Several were children. The body of a girl who appeared to be younger than 5 lay in a white sheet, her legs riddled with wounds and her dress soaked in blood.

Two Iraqis said to have been killed in the attack were buried Thursday in Baghdad. One of them was the wedding singer, mourners said

“At about 3 a.m., we were sleeping and the planes started firing,” said one mourner, who gave his name only as Bassem. “They fired more than 40 missiles … I was running … There are no fighters. These are lies.”

Arab media portrayed the airstrike as an example of what is widely seen in this part of the world as an American campaign against Arabs.

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