- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. officials yesterday disputed Iraqi claims that American warplanes had bombed a wedding at a remote spot near the Syrian border on Wednesday.

The pre-dawn air strike in which an estimated 40 people died came amid rising public anger over the U.S. campaign, which an increasing number of Iraqis consider oppressive.

U.S. military officials said yesterday that the attack targeted a suspected safe house 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.

The area, about 15 miles from the Syrian border, is under constant U.S. 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.

“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?”

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 high beams.

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 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 42 to 45 persons 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 at the site, 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 2-year-old son, Raad, in her arm. Her 1-year-old son, Ra’ed, was lying nearby, his head missing,” he said.

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.

Gen. 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 AP television said revelers fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack. U.S. troops sometimes have 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 yesterday 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.”

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