US warplanes and helicopters bombed two villages near the Iraq city of Ramadi, killing an estimated 70 militants, the military said today. But witnesses said at least 39 were civilians.
The bombings occurred a day after Iraq voted on — and apparently passed — a landmark constitution that many Sunnis opposed. On referendum day, a roadside bomb killed five US soldiers in a vehicle in the Al-Bu Ubaid village on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, said to be a hotbed of Sunni-Arab insurgents west of Baghdad.
Yesterday, a group of about two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the US vehicle destroyed the day before by the roadside bomb and were hit by the airstrikes by US warplanes, the military and witnesses said.
The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing around 20 people, described by the statement as "terrorists".
But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the US vehicle or pick pieces off of it — as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit. The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 civilians, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their names to protect their security.
The other deaths occurred in the nearby village of Al-Bu Faraj.
The military said a group of gunmen opened fire on a Cobra attack helicopter that had spotted their position. The Cobra returned fire, killing around 10. The men ran into a nearby house, where gunmen were seen unloading weapons. An F/A-18 warplane struck the building with a bomb, killing 40 insurgents, the military said.
Witnesses said at least 14 of the dead were civilians. First, one man was wounded in an airstrike, and when he was brought into a nearby building, warplanes struck it, said the witnesses, refusing to give their names for concern about their safety.
An Associated Press stringer later saw the 14 bodies and the damaged building. He said residents, many of them crying, removed the bodies from the scene and buried them, some wrapped in white cloth, others in wooden coffins. One of the bodies was that of a boy who appeared to be between the ages of 10 and 15, the stringer said.
Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, is a stronghold for Sunni insurgents, and few people cast ballots there during Saturday's referendum — either out of fear of militants' reprisals or out of rejection of the new constitution.