Thursday, May 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — A U.S. aircraft fired on a house in the desert near the Syrian border yesterday, and Iraqi officials said more than 40 people were killed, including 15 children. U.S. military officials said the target was a suspected safe house for foreign fighters from Syria, but Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party.

Associated Press Television News footage showed a truck containing bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets, piled one on top of the other. Several were children, one of whom was decapitated. The body of a girl who appeared to be younger than 5 years old lay in a white sheet, her legs riddled with wounds and her dress soaked in blood.

The attack occurred about 2:45 a.m. in the desert near the border with Syria and Jordan. Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east, said 42 to 45 people died, including the children and 10 women. Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

The area, a desolate region populated only by shepherds, is popular with smugglers, including weapons smugglers, and U.S. military officials said insurgents use it as a route to slip in from Syria to fight the Americans. It is under constant surveillance by American forces.

The U.S. Central Command gave this account: Coalition forces conducted a military operation at 3 a.m. against a “suspected foreign fighter safe house” in the open desert, about 50 miles southwest of Husaybah and 15 miles from the Syrian border. Coalition troops came under fire, and “close air support was provided.” The troops recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian currency, several passports and satellite communications gear.

APTN video footage showed mourners with shovels digging graves over a wide dusty area in Ramadi, where bodies of the dead had been taken to obtain death certificates.

Iraqis on the videotape said revelers fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack. American troops have occasionally mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire. Dr. al-Ani said American troops investigated the gunfire and left, and helicopters later arrived and attacked the area. Two houses were destroyed, he said.

The strike was widely reported in Iraq and the Middle East as an attack on a wedding party. This was the second wedding party that became a scene of tragedy during the war to eradicate terrorists. In July 2002, Afghan officials said 48 civilians at a wedding party were killed and 117 wounded by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. An investigation by the U.S. Central Command said the airstrike was justified because American planes had come under fire.

Anti-American sentiment has risen in Iraq after last month’s siege of Fallujah, a Shi’ite Muslim uprising in the south and the scandal over the treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

“Many Iraqis have been killed so far [during the occupation],” said Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He said Iraqis “hope that these acts, from all parties, come to an end because the victims are Iraqis.”

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. military officials yesterday accused fighters loyal to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of firing on American forces from one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines. Sheik al-Sadr’s militia was operating from the Imam Hussein shrine in the center of Karbala, said Capt. Noel Gorospe, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division.

“They use mainly the windows of the second floor of the shrine [to fire at troops],” Capt. Gorospe said at Camp Lima, a coalition base on the outskirts of Karbala. Insurgents were using small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and their use of the shrine was more noticeable in the past three days, he said.

Witnesses said American troops and militiamen fought yesterday near a militia checkpoint 100 yards from another holy site in Karbala, the Imam Abbas shrine. A group linked to al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Monday’s car bomb assassination of Iraqi Governing Council President Izzadine Saleem.

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