Dozens Killed in U.S. Attack Near Syria; Target Disputed
By Scott Wilson and Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 19 -- U.S. ground forces and aircraft attacked a village in Iraq's western desert before dawn Wednesday, striking what Iraqi witnesses said was a wedding celebration but U.S. officials called a way station for foreign infiltrators. More than 40 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed, according to witnesses, Iraqi police officers and provincial health officials.
Video footage from the scene showed fresh graves and the corpses of several children. A man in a red-and-white head scarf told the Associated Press Television Network: "The planes came in and shot the whole family. They kept shooting until the morning, until they destroyed all the houses. They didn't leave anything."
The images of civilian casualties, broadcast widely on Arab television, are likely to further inflame anti-American sentiment in Iraq at a time when U.S. forces are confronting armed resistance on multiple fronts.
U.S. officials acknowledged that their troops attacked in the area, saying they were responding to hostile fire. They later recovered weapons, large amounts of cash and other evidence of an insurgent supply route, officials said.
The attack on the village of Makr al-Deeb occurred at about 2:45 a.m. in the desert region near the border with Syria, the deputy police chief of the city of Ramadi, Lt. Col. Ziyad Jabouri, told the Associated Press. Jabouri said between 42 and 45 people died, including 15 children and 10 women.
For months, U.S. forces have waged a largely clandestine war in the region in an attempt to interdict foreigners who cross the largely unguarded Syrian border to join in attacks against the U.S.-led occupation. The U.S. government classifies Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and last week imposed sanctions on it.
Regarding Wednesday's attack, "our sense is that this was a legitimate military target," said a U.S. military official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We suspect that this was a smuggler or foreign-fighter" route, the official said. "It's our estimation right now that the personnel involved in this matter were part of the foreign-fighter safe house."
In a separate action, U.S. soldiers battled the Mahdi Army, a militia group loyal to the rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Karbala through much of the afternoon. In the evening, soldiers fought Sadr's militiamen in the sacred cemetery on the outskirts of Najaf after a day of relative calm.
The fighting in the two holiest cities of Iraq's Shiite majority came a day after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in the country, called on all armed groups to leave Najaf. He also appealed to potential Sadr supporters beyond Najaf and Karbala to ignore the young cleric's call to join the uprising.
U.S. officials, who have charged Sadr with the April 2003 killing of a moderate rival cleric, had hoped Sistani's order would defuse one of the most serious security challenges that U.S.-led forces must address before an interim Iraqi government assumes limited authority June 30. Instead, the order appeared to open new divisions among Iraqi Shiites, once largely supportive of the U.S. invasion after suffering for decades under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-led government.
Sadr's supporters demonstrated in front of Sistani's headquarters in Najaf and the shrine of Imam Ali, the city's holiest site, which has been threatened by recent fighting. Before the afternoon fighting, Sistani's supporters demonstrated peacefully in Karbala.
Hasan Azawi, a Sadr representative in Baghdad, issued a statement calling for Iraqis to attend a Thursday demonstration at Sadr's office in Najaf -- a direct rejection of Sistani's call not to enter the city.
Also Wednesday, the military announced the death of a soldier from the Army's 1st Infantry Division. The soldier was killed by gunfire around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday while on patrol near Miqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad.
In a statement concerning the disputed attack in western Iraq, the U.S. military said its forces came under fire during an operation in the western desert at 3 a.m. Ground troops moved against a suspected safe house used by foreign fighters and were fired on, the statement said. A Defense Department official said U.S. warplanes provided close air support.
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