-- 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.
In the aftermath, U.S. soldiers found "numerous weapons," large amounts of Iraqi and Syrian currency, foreign passports and a two-way satellite radio, the statement said. U.S. officials suggested that the village, 16 miles east of the Syrian border, had been a focus of intelligence efforts for some time.
Villagers shown on the television broadcasts said the attack came during a wedding celebration.
Among the first U.S. military decrees following the April 2003 fall of Baghdad was a prohibition on celebratory gunfire, an age-old custom in tribal areas across the Middle East and Central Asia. The sight of tracer bullets streaking through the night sky can lead U.S. forces to believe they are under attack.
But few Iraqis have heeded the rule. Celebratory fire rang out over Baghdad last week after the Iraqi soccer team qualified for the Olympics.
In July 2002, 48 people were killed and more than 100 others were wounded after U.S. warplanes flying over Afghanistan bombed and strafed the village of Miandao and three nearby villages in Uruzgan province during a wedding celebration. U.S. officials, while expressing condolences to the victims, said they were responding to hostile ground fire.
The Associated Press video from Iraq showed about 40 people digging or gathered around a set of dirt graves. A man who wore a white shirt said 26 people from one family were killed and five others were in serious condition.
Several people could be heard shouting anti-American slogans in Arabic. "Those Americans, they don't believe in God, they don't believe in anything," one man said.
Nine people surrounded a wooden coffin covered in cloth, loudly wailing and moaning. A tearful man dressed in white lunged toward the prone body of another man before being pulled away by others.
The body of a boy, who appeared to be 4 or 5 years old, was shown wrapped in a brown blanket, flies buzzing about his head. People around him identified him as Hamza Rikad. "Come here, help us," a man said on the video as they lifted the boy. "Take him by the hand."
"The U.S. planes dropped more than 100 bombs on us," one man, who said he was from the village, told the al-Arabiya satellite television network. "They hit two homes where the wedding was being held and then they leveled the whole village. No bullets were fired by us, nothing was happening."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.