U.S. Forces Pull Out From Shiite Mosque
Attack Near Syrian Border Will Be Probed
By Daniel Williams and Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page A18
KARBALA, Iraq, May 21 -- U.S. forces withdrew overnight from the headquarters here of Shiite Muslim fighters that they had taken only days before, leaving the areas around two major shrines firmly in the hands of the insurgents.
Earlier, on Thursday in Baghdad, U.S. military officers said that they would open an investigation into a ground and air assault in western Iraq that has produced sharply conflicting accounts of whether the approximately 40 people killed were mostly foreign insurgents or civilians celebrating a wedding.
Overnight in Karbala, rebels loyal to the Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons on a company of U.S. troops as they withdrew from the mosque. There were no American casualties.
U.S. Apache helicopters fired on rebel attackers as troops wound out of the center of the city. Capt. Noel Gorospe, a spokesman for the 1st Armored Division's Task Force 1-37, said the withdrawal from the mosque does not mean retreat from the city. "We are certainly not pulling out of Karbala. We will continue to do normal operations," he said. Gorospe said U.S. forces will take measures to keep Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, from reoccupying the Mukhaiyam Mosque, which it had used as a major operations center and weapons depot.
For several weeks, U.S. military commanders said U.S. forces here and in other cities expected to chip away at the Mahdi Army and isolate Sadr in Najaf. They had hoped that Shiite religious and political leaders who cooperate with occupation forces would persuade Sadr to give himself up and disband his militia. Sadr is wanted by the United States for the murder last year of a moderate Shiite cleric.
Sadr has refused to surrender and his forces, despite absorbing more than 100 fatalities in Karbala and scores of others elsewhere, have held on. "They have shown a remarkable willingness to die," said Col. Peter Mansoor, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division.
Witnesses near the village of Makr al-Deeb, in the desert near the Syrian border, told television crews that a U.S. military aircraft strafed innocent people, mostly women and children, at a wedding party. U.S. military officers, however, maintained for a second day Thursday that the target was a 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, which operates in western Iraq. "Let's not be naive."
The dead included "more than two dozen military-age males," Mattis said at a news conference in Fallujah.
On Thursday, the Associated Press quoted people who identified themselves as survivors saying that the attack was directed at a wedding party of the Bou Fahad tribe, a group whose members often herd animals into the desert to graze.
By this account, about 25 men had come from the town of Ramadi for the celebration. A band was playing tribal music Tuesday night when airplanes were heard circling overhead. Out of fear, the celebration was called off. Many of the men retired to a tent to sleep, and women and small children went to a stone house.
The first bomb struck the tent at about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, people told the news service. Among the dead was Hussein Ali, a popular wedding singer. A second bomb struck the house, killing everyone inside. Two helicopters landed, and about 40 troops searched the area, taking money and jewelry that guests had brought, and blowing up a pair of houses.
The people denied that fighters were in the area, the Associated Press reported.
In a telephone interview, an Iraqi Health Ministry official said a hospital in Qaim, the town closest to the site, reported that 42 people were killed -- 17 men, 11 women and 14 children. One man, four women and four children were wounded, the official said on condition of anonymity. The senior military spokesman in Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, said an investigation was "the only prudent thing to do" because of the seriousness of the allegations. TV footage from the scene Wednesday showed several bodies, including those of children, being unloaded from a truck and villagers digging dirt graves.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company