Witnesses: U.S. Airstrike Began After Wedding

Published May 21, 2004

| Associated Press

Revelers at the wedding party began worrying when they heard aircraft overhead at about 9 p.m. With jets still overhead two hours later, they told the band to stop playing and everyone went to bed.

"We began to expect some kind of catastrophe," said Madhi Nawaf (search), who lives in the area near Mogr el-Deeb (searchon the Syrian border.

The first bomb hit well after midnight and the barrage didn't stop until nearly sunrise, witnesses told The Associated Press. In the end, up to 45 people were killed in the attack Wednesday, mostly women and children from the Bou Fahad tribe.

"Mothers died with their children in their arms," said Nawaf. One was his daughter. "I found her a few steps from the house, her 2-year-old son Raad in her arms. Her 1-year-old son, Raed, was lying nearby, missing his head."

The United States has insisted the target was a safehouse for infiltrators slipping across the border to fight coalition soldiers in Iraq. In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search), coalition deputy chief of operations, repeated that claim Thursday, but said the U.S. military would investigate after Iraqi officials reported the survivors' story.

Kimmitt said several shotguns, handguns, Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns were found at the site. And he said soldiers also found jewelry and vehicles that indicated the people were not wandering Bedouin but "town dwellers."

"Ten miles from the Syrian border and 80 miles from the nearest city and a wedding party? Don't be naive," Marine Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis told reporters 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?"

But members of the Bou Fahad tribe say they consider the border area part of their territory and follow their goats, sheep and cattle there to graze. They leave spacious homes in Ramadi and roam the desert, as far as 250 miles to the west, in the springtime.

Smuggling livestock into Syria is also part of a herdsman's life — although no one in the tribe admitted to that.

Weddings are often marked in Iraq with celebratory gunfire. However, survivors insisted no weapons were fired Wednesday, despite speculation by Iraqi officials that this drew a mistaken American attack.

The survivors insist the Americans were wrong to target them.

"They're lying," Nawaf said. "They have to show us evidence that we fired a shot or were hiding foreign fighters. Where are the foreign fighters then? Why kill and dismember innocent children?"

Nawaf and more than a dozen men from the Bou Fahad tribe transported the dead to Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, which includes Mogr el-Deeb. Twenty-eight graves were dug in the tribe's cemetery outside Ramadi, each containing one to three bodies. A wake was held Thursday at a home in Ramadi.

Nawaf's brother, Taleb, lost his wife, Amal, and two daughters, 2-year-old Anoud and 1-year-old Kholood. His wife's body was found clutching the two children, survivors said.

All the men interviewed insisted there were no foreign fighters in Mogr el-Deeb. The U.S. military suspects militants cross the area from Syria to fight the Americans, and it is under constant surveillance by American forces.

"We would know if any outsider comes to our area," said Hamed Abdul-Razaq, another survivor.

Sheik Dahan Haraj, the tribe's chief who was also at the wedding, said that if the Americans suspected terrorists, "why not seal off the area and make sure they were indeed foreign fighters?"

Survivors said they became fearful when they heard aircraft overhead about 9 p.m. Tuesday. Then came military vehicles, which stopped about two miles away from the village and switched off their headlights. The planes were still overhead at 11 p.m.

They decided to end the celebration, and the bride and groom, Azhar Rikad and Rutba Sabah, went into their tent.

About 25 male guests who came from Ramadi for the wedding and five band members from Baghdad stayed in the main tent. All the women went to bed in an adjacent one-story stone house. Many men, including Nawaf, drifted away to their nearby homes.

The first bomb struck the main tent at about 2:45 a.m., the survivors said. Among those who died was Hussein al-Ali, a prominent wedding singer from Baghdad. The second bomb struck the stone house, killing everyone inside.

"They didn't even spare one child, one elderly," said the 54-year-old Nawaf.

Survivors said shells rained down for hours.

Two helicopters landed and about 40 soldiers searched the house where the women had stayed and a second, vacant house. Soon after, the two houses were blown up — although witnesses offered differing accounts of how. Some said the houses were attacked by helicopters. Others said the Americans detonated them with explosives.

"They asked us no questions," said Adel Awdeh.

Some of the men tried to approach the Americans but were driven back by gunshots, the survivors said. The troops took money and jewelry the dead women had brought for the party, survivors said.

At the cemetery outside Ramadi, Taleb Nawaf pointed to a fresh grave with a headstone marked "Amal Rikab and Kholood."

"This is my daughter," he said.

Mourners displayed photographs of six children and their parents, Mohammed and Morifa Rikad, saying all had died in the bombing.

The U.S. occupation has never been popular in Anbar, a Sunni Muslim province which includes Fallujah, Khaldiyah and other centers of resistance.

"For each one in those graves, we will get 10 Americans," Ahmed Saleh warned.

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