BAGHDAD, Iraq – 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 (search).
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 (search), 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 (search) 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.
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.
In other developments:
—Assailants with hand grenades killed a U.S. soldier and wounded three in central Baghdad early Thursday, the military said. A total of 790 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq last year. Of those, 576 died as a result of hostile action and 214 died of non-hostile causes.
—Iraqi insurgents ambushed a Spanish patrol protecting troops pulling out of Iraq, the Defense Ministry said. One soldier was wounded. The patrol came under rifle fire while returning to a Spanish base in the south-central city of Diwaniya after accompanying a convoy heading for Kuwait on its way back to Spain.