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U.S.: That 'Wedding Party' Was a Haven for Syrian Terrorists

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BAGHDAD, Iraq – A U.S. air strike near the Syrian border killed more than 40 people, Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria, but Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party.

The attack Wednesday happened about 2:45 a.m. in a desert region near the border with Syria and Jordan, according to Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east. He said 42 to 45 people died, including 15 children and 10 women. Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

The strike came before American soldiers clashed Wednesday with Shiite militiamen in two cities south of the capital, killing at least eight of them, U.S. officials said. Mortars and rockets fell on widely scattered areas of the Iraqi capital.

U.S. officials reported no American casualties during engagements in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. But assailants with hand grenades killed a U.S. soldier and wounded three in central Baghdad early Thursday, the military said.

A total of 790 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq last year. Of those, 576 died as a result of hostile action and 214 died of non-hostile causes.

Meanwhile Thursday, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a Spanish patrol protecting troops pulling out of Iraq, the Defense Ministry said. One soldier was injured.

The patrol came under rifle fire while returning to a Spanish base in the south-central city of Diwaniya after accompanying a convoy heading for Kuwait en route back to Spain, a ministry official said.

Associated Press Television News footage from the area near the Syrian border showed a truck containing bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets, piled one atop the other. Several were children, one of whom was decapitated. The body of a girl who appeared to be less than 5 years of age lay in a white sheet, her legs riddled with wounds and her dress soaked in blood.

The area, a desolate region populated only by shepherds, is popular with smugglers, including weapons smugglers, and the U.S. military suspects militants use it as a route to slip in from Syria to fight the Americans. It is under constant surveillance by American forces.

Military officials in Washington refused to address the question of whether anyone from a wedding party was among the people killed.

In a statement, the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces conducted a military operation at 3 a.m. against a "suspected foreign fighter safe house" in the open desert, about 50 miles southwest of Husaybah and 15 miles from the Syrian border.

The coalition troops came under hostile fire and "close air support was provided," the statement said. The troops recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian currency, some passports and some satellite communications gear, it said.

APTN video footage showed mourners with shovels digging graves over a wide dusty area in Ramadi, the provincial capital where bodies of the dead had been taken to obtain death certificates. A group of men crouched and wept around one coffin.

Iraqis interviewed on the videotape said revelers had fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack took place. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

Al-Ani, the doctor, said American troops came to investigate the gunfire and left. However, al-Ani said, helicopters later arrived and attacked the area. Two houses were destroyed, he said.

"This was a wedding, and the planes came and attacked the people at a house. Is this the democracy and freedom that Bush has brought us?" said a man on the videotape, Dahham Harraj. "There was no reason."

Another man shown on the tape, who refused to give his name, said the victims were at a wedding party, "and the U.S. military planes came ... and started killing everyone in the house."

Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a U.S. military spokesman, said earlier that the military was investigating.

The strike, widely reported in Iraq and the Middle East as an attack on a wedding party, comes at a time when American prestige is under fire as the United States tries to stabilize this country before the June 30 transfer of sovereignty are foundering.

Anti-American sentiment has risen following last month's bloody Marine siege of Fallujah, a Shiite Muslim uprising and the scandal over treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

In Karbala on Wednesday, U.S. military officials said the eight Shiite gunmen were killed during scattered clashes between coalition forces and militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Most of the fighting took place around the Mukhaiyam mosque, which al-Sadr's forces had been using as a base.

In Najaf, about 50 miles south of Karbala, strong explosions could be heard late Wednesday along with the rattle of machine gun fire.

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