Senior U.S. commanders today denied Iraqi claims that the target of a deadly attack early Wednesday turned out to be a wedding party, insisting for a second day that a U.S. ground and air assault on the desert site near the Syrian border had destroyed a way station for foreign fighters infiltrating into Iraq.
In a press briefing in Baghdad, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said U.S. troops found weapons, foreign passports, satellite communications equipment and about a $1,000 worth of Iraqi dinars at the site after air strikes that killed more than 40 people. He said that contrary to Iraqi claims, the troops found no dead children at the scene.
Maj. Gen. James Matthis, commander of the 1st Marine Division that operates in western Iraq, expressed incredulity that the site could have been a wedding party and said he saw no need to apologize for the conduct of his troops.
"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?" he told reporters in Fallujah. "These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive."
The generals' accounts conflicted with those of Iraqis who said they witnessed or had knowledge of the attack, which took place shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday in the remote desert region. An Iraqi police official and a doctor in Ramadi, a town about 250 miles east of the scene that is known as a stronghold of Sunni Muslim opposition to the U.S. occupation, said that as many as 45 people were killed in the raid.
Lt. Col. Ziyad Jbouri, the deputy police chief of Ramadi, said the dead included 15 children and 10 women, the Associated Press reported.
Iraqis said revelers had fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack , AP reported. Among those alleged to have been killed were the bride and groom, the wedding singer and the singer's musician brother.
The 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 in Baghdad today.
Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said that U.S. forces "took ground fire, and we returned fire." He said that about 40 people were killed by U.S. forces that "operated within our rules of engagement."
In the press briefing, Kimmitt said that among the weapons found afterward at the site were "several" AK-47 assault rifles and shotguns, as well as handguns, sniper rifles and machine guns. He said that in addition to Iraqi and Syrian currency and "foreign passports," troops also recovered satellite telephone equipment.
Questioned about whether the amount of weaponry described was all that unusual in Iraq, Kimmitt said, "We're going to have an investigation. Some of the allegations that have been made would cause us to go back and look at this. But it's important to understand that this operation was not something that just fell out of the sky. We had significant intelligence which caused us to conduct a military operation into the middle of the desert 85 kilometers [51 miles] south of Husaybah al Qaim and 25 kilometers [15 miles] inside from the Syrian border, a relatively barren area."
Kimmitt said the people there were not Bedouins but appeared to have been "town-dwellers." He said the target of the attack "was one of those routes we have watched for a long period of time as a place where foreign fighters and smugglers come into this country."
U.S. intelligence "suggested that this was a foreign fighter rat line, as we call them, and one of the way stations." In last night's military operation, "the ground force that swept through the objective found a significant amount of material and intelligence which validated that attack. And 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."
Asked about television news footage showing civilians, including children, who were allegedly killed at the site, Kimmitt said, "The persons that we had on the ground -- and they were on the ground for an extensive period of time -- did not find any dead children among the casualties of that engagement." But he did not directly answer a question on whether all of those killed in the attack were foreign fighters.
At this point, Kimmitt said, citing intelligence that has been collected, "we believe that we operated within the rules of engagement for that operation."