U.S. to Investigate Controversial Assault in Western Iraq
Military Denies Strike Hit Wedding Party
By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 21, 2004; 3:50 PM
BAGHDAD, May 20 -- U.S. military officers said Thursday that they would open an investigation into a ground and air assault on a desert site in western Iraq that has produced sharply conflicting accounts of whether the approximately 40 people killed were mostly foreign insurgents or included civilians engaged in a wedding celebration.
Witnesses near the village of Makr al-Deeb, near the Syrian border, told television crews that a U.S. military aircraft strafed innocent people, mostly women and children, at a wedding party. However, U.S. military officers maintained for a second day that the target was a desert way station used by armed foreign insurgents who cross the porous border into Iraq.
"How many people go into the middle of the desert 10 miles from the Syrian border to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?" asked Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, whose unit operates in western Iraq.
The dead included "more than two dozen military-age males," said Mattis, speaking at a press conference in Fallujah. "Let's not be naive."
The senior military spokesman in Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, said an investigation is "the only prudent thing to do" because of the seriousness of allegations raised by people interviewed on television.
Among those killed in the attack were "34 to 35 men" and "less than a handful of women," Kimmitt said, speaking at a press conference here. U.S. ground troops remained at the site "for an extensive period of time," he said, and did not find any dead children among the casualties.
Kimmitt did not directly answer a question about whether foreign fighters were the only people killed. "At this point, the intelligence that we have and the intelligence that we drew on to conduct this operation was sufficient for us to believe -- to conduct that operation," he said. "We believe that we operated within the rules of engagement for that operation."
In a telephone interview, an Iraqi Health Ministry official said the hospital in Qaim, the town closest to the attack site, reported 42 dead and nine wounded in the attack. The dead included 17 men, 11 women and 14 children, and the wounded included one man, four women and four children, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official declined to offer a view as to whether any of the dead were fighters.
Footage broadcast Wednesday by the Associated Press Television Network showed several bodies, including those of children, being unloaded from a truck and villagers digging dirt graves. There was no footage of the attack itself.
A popular wedding singer, Hussein Ali, and his brother, Mohaned Ali, were killed while sleeping after the party, the Reuters news agency quoted a cousin of the two men as saying. Their bodies were buried Thursday in Baghdad, the cousin said.
Kimmitt said the attack was based on military intelligence indicating that the site was part of a "rat line," or supply route, used by foreigners infiltrating the country "to terrorize and kill" Iraqis.
"This is one of those routes that we have watched for a long period of time as a place where foreign fighters and smugglers come into this country," Kimmitt said at a news conference here. He added: "We are satisfied at this point that the intelligence that led us there was validated by what we found on the ground, and it was not that there was a wedding party going on."
Ground forces at the site found AK-47 rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, handguns and machine guns at the desert site, along with foreign passports, satellite communication equipment and roughly $1,000 in Iraqi dinars, Kimmitt said.
Kimmitt characterized the people at the site as "town dwellers" rather than Bedouin desert inhabitants. He said that four-wheel-drive vehicles and jewelry were found at the site.
Similarly, Kimmitt said the proportion of men and women who were killed appeared inconsistent with a wedding party. The time of the attack, which occurred around 3 a.m., is "kind of an odd time to be having a wedding," he said.
In a separate development, the military announced that two American soldiers died in combat.
One was killed and three wounded when their unit was attacked with hand grenades early Wednesday in central Baghdad.
A 1st Infantry Division soldier was killed and another was wounded by a roadside bomb and gunfire near the northern town of Samarra on Wednesday afternoon. A third soldier was slightly injured trying to put out a fire caused by the explosion. Three suspected attackers were wounded when the soldiers returned fire. Two of the suspects were detained, while the third escaped.
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