U.S. military officials in Washington and Iraq disputed Iraqi claims that that U.S. aircraft had attacked a wedding party Wednesday morning, killing dozens of people in the remote Iraqi desert near the Syrian border.
News services, quoting Iraqi officials and witnesses, reported that more than 40 people, including women and children, were killed in an early morning attack by some kind of U.S. aircraft, either an airplane or a helicopter.
But Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's deputy director of operations in Baghdad, told reporters that the fighting involved foreign insurgents, not a wedding party.
"We took ground fire and we returned fire," Kimmitt said, according to the Reuters news service.
The military said the incident occurred west of Baghdad in a remote part of Anbar Province, 15 miles from the Syrian border and 50 miles southwest of the town of Husaybah, at about 3 a.m. local time (7 p.m. EDT Tuesday).
Video gathered in the western town of Ramadi by Associated Press Television News showed bloody bodies piled into a truck. The bodies included children, one of whom was decapitated, AP reported. Iraqi witnesses interviewed in the video said revelers at a wedding had been celebrating by shooting guns in the air before they came under fire.
The military presented a sharply different account of events, with a news release from U.S. Central Command and a Defense Department official in Washington saying "coalition forces" had attacked a suspected location of foreign fighters.
"There was an operation against a safe house believed to hold foreign fighters," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
During the operation, according to the official, the forces came under fire. "They returned fire, including close air support," the official said, adding that he did not know whether the air support came from an helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft.
According to the official and the military news release, the forces subsequently found weapons, cash, foreign passports and sophisticated communications equipment.
"It doesn't sounds like a wedding," given the material that was found, the official added.
Lt. Col. Ziyad Jbouri, a deputy police chief in Ramadi, told the AP that Wednesday's assault killed between 42 and 45 people, including 15 children and 10 women. Salah Ani, a doctor who works at a hospital in Ramadi, told the news service that the death toll was 45.
U.S. officials have said foreign fighters regularly slip into Iraq from Syria through the restive border region where Wednesday morning's incident occurred. The area also has been the scene of a number of deadly -- and murky -- exchanges between American forces and locals, some of whom have been identified by Iraqis as shepherds and by military spokesmen as terrorists and smugglers.
In June 2002, a U.S. AC-130 gunship fired on a wedding party in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 34 people and wounding more than 50, according to a military investigation completed two months later (Afghan estimates put the death toll at more than 40). The military investigation found that airstrike was justified because U.S. aircraft in the area had come under hostile antiaircraft fire beforehand.