BAGHDAD, Iraq – A U.S. airstrike targeting an alleged militant safehouse in Fallujah (search) killed some 17 people including three children, according to doctors and accounts from the scene of the blast, and angry crowds gathered to mourn the victims and denounce the United States.
"There is only one God, Allah!" crowds chanted at the Fallujah General Hospital, where the bombing casualties were brought before dawn Thursday. A blanket filled with body parts could be seen lying on the ground, while relatives loaded corpses into the back of a pickup truck for burial.
"It is because of the Americans," one man shouted.
The U.S. military said it had carried out a precision strike late Wednesday on a safehouse in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, used by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). He is a Jordanian militant believed responsible for bombings, kidnappings and other violence in Iraq.
Witnesses said the strike hit a residential house in the southern neighborhood of al-Jubail.
Dr. Ahmed Hamid, of Fallujah General Hospital, said the bodies of nine civilians, including three children, had been brought to the hospital. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw eight more bodies pulled from the rubble.
U.S. forces have repeatedly carried out airstrikes in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, since Marines pulled back after a three-week siege of the city in April aimed at rooting out Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Meanwhile, French envoys planned crisis talks Thursday in Iraq and Jordan in a desperate bid to free two journalists seized by militants seeking to overturn France's law banning Islamic head scarves in public schools.
A group of French Muslims was expected in Baghdad to try to pursue negotiations with the militant group holding the journalists. Representatives of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, which serves as a link to President Jacques Chirac's government, left Paris on Wednesday in hopes of retrieving the journalists.
The vigorous French efforts to secure the release of veteran Middle East reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot came as a separate militant group released seven foreign truck drivers Wednesday, whom they held hostage for six weeks, after receiving a half million dollar ransom payment.
In other violence, two people were killed Thursday in a roadside bomb explosion about 45 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, according to police Col. Sarhat Qadir.
West of the capital, U.S. forces detained the mayor of Qaim, near the Syrian border, along with some two dozen councilmen during a raid on City Hall offices, said police Capt. Ahmed al-Ugaili.
The U.S. military did not immediately comment on the raid.
Also Thursday, about 100 Iraq policemen protested in front of the governor's office in the northern city of Mosul, saying they had not received their salaries in five months.
Dressed in civilian clothes, some of the demonstrators sat on the street in front of the building. Others asked that the police chief resign.
"Where is our government? We want our salaries," they chanted.
Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. Other groups have taken hostages in hopes of extorting ransom, sometimes masking their greed under a cloak of politics.
The group holding the seven truck drivers, which called itself "The Holders of the Black Banners," had demanded their employer stop working in Iraq, that Iraqi detainees be released and that compensation be paid for the victims of fighting in Fallujah.
By last week, they had dropped all the other demands and said they just wanted a commitment from the company, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co., to stop working here, which it soon received.
But after the seven men — one Egyptian, three Indians and three Kenyans — were released Wednesday and whisked out of the country, the company gave a different version of events, saying the kidnappers had actually demanded $6-7 million in ransom.
In the end, a team of employees drove to an unspecified location where the drivers were held and paid $500,000 — an immense fortune here — to secure their release, KGL chief executive officer Said Dashti said.
"They (the kidnappers) were not trying to make a political statement, they were purely extortionists," he said.
The announcement the men were freed sparked celebrations in their home countries.
"My joy today as big as the whole world. I feel he is born again," said Nadia al-Shanawani, mother of Egyptian hostage Mohammed Ali Sanad.
In a bizarre video given to news agencies soon after the release, the seven hostages area shown standing against a wall as a masked man shakes each man's hand, hugs him and hands him a Quran, another Islamic book and what appears to be a CD or cassette.
"We warn all companies that work with the occupiers of the black destiny awaiting them in Iraq if they continue with this work," a voiceover on the video said.