FALLUJAH, Iraq – A senior officer of the U.S.-backed Fallujah Brigade (search) on Sunday disputed U.S. claims that an American airstrike had hit a safehouse of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's (search) network.
The Health Ministry said at least 16 people were killed in the attack Saturday; witnesses put the number of dead at least 20, including women and children.
Col. Mohammed Awad said members of the Fallujah Brigade had investigated the site. He said the brigade members "affirmed to us that the inhabitants of the houses were ordinary families including women, children and elders."
"Some of our soldiers who participated in the rescue operation after the attack said they saw the remains of bodies apparently belonging to women and children," Awad said.
"Through our inspection in the ruins, we could see clothes and stuff of women and children. There was no sign that foreigners have lived in the house."
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy operations chief, told reporters Saturday that multiple intelligence sources reported that the house was used by the al-Zarqawi network, which U.S. officials believe operate in Fallujah (search).
The discrepant versions of the attack could strain relations between the Americans and the Iraqi force established last month to take responsibility for law and order in Fallujah after the end of the three-week Marine siege.
Marines besieged Fallujah in April after four American security contractors were killed in an ambush in the city and their bodies mutilated. Ten Marines and hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians, died before the siege was lifted and security was handed over to the Fallujah Brigade.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant thought to have ties to Al Qaeda (search), has been blamed for a string of car bombs across Iraq, including a blast Thursday that killed 35 people and wounded 145 at an Iraqi military recruiting center in Baghdad.
Last week, U.S. aircraft dropped pamphlets over Fallujah urging residents to turn in al-Zarqawi, and American intelligence officials in Washington had said he was spending time in Fallujah.