U.S. Disputes Strike Report on Iraqi Wedding Party
FOX-News   May 19, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. military officials disputed suggestions that an American helicopter struck a wedding party in western Iraq on Wednesday and said coalition forces staged an attack against suspected foreign fighters.

Arab television and The Associated Press aired video showing the bodies of small children in a truck full of bodies and people digging graves as they quoted witnesses and Iraqi officials who discussed the attack.

But senior military officials in Washington said U.S. and coalition forces conducted a strike on "anti-coalition vehicles" along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

According to the military, at 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, coalition forces conducted an operation against a suspected foreign fighter safe house in the open desert.  The house was 25 kilometers from the Syrian border, 85 kilometers southwest of Husaybah (^), military officials said.

Coalition forces came under hostile fire and called for support from the air.  After the strike, coalition forces recovered numerous weapons, foreign passports, a SATCOM radio and two million Iraqi and Syrian dinars, military officials said.

The attack killed about 40 people, officials said.

A Coalition Press Information Center official said that since it was carried out during a raid on a suspected safe house, the air strike would therefore be "within the rules of engagement."

That official reiterated that the objective was a suspected hideout, and had no information about a wedding party.

Iraqi officials and others described a very different scenario.

Lt. Col Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of the city of Ramadi (^), said between 42 and 45 people died in the attack, which took place about 2:45 a.m. in a remote desert area near the border with Syria and Jordan. He said those killed included 15 children and 10 women.

Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

The Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television reported that more than 20 people were killed and 10 injured in the attack.

The videotape, obtained and aired by Associated Press Television News, showed about a dozen bodies, one without a head. But it appeared that bodies were piled on top of each other and a clear count was not possible.

Iraqis interviewed on the videotape said partygoers had fired into the air in a traditional wedding celebration. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

The video footage showed mourners with shovels digging graves.  A group of men crouched and wept around one coffin.

Al-Ani said people at the wedding fired weapons in the air, and that American troops came to investigate and left.  However, al-Ani said, helicopters attacked the area at about 3 a.m. Two houses were destroyed, he said.

"This was a wedding and the (U.S.) planes came and attacked the people at a house. Is this the democracy and freedom that (President) Bush has brought us?" said a man on the videotape, Dahham Harraj. "There was no reason."

Another man shown on the tape, who refused to give his name, said the victims were at a wedding party "and the U.S. military planes came... and started killing everyone in the house."

Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a U.S. military spokesman, said earlier that the military was investigating.

"I cannot comment on this because we have not received any reports from our units that this has happened nor that any were involved in such a tragedy," Williams wrote in an e-mail in response to a question from The Associated Press.

"We take all these requests seriously and we have forwarded this inquiry to the Joint Operations Center for further review and any other information that may be available," Williams said.

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 investigative report released by the U.S. Central Command said the airstrike was justified because American planes had come under fire.

Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.