Forty killed after American helicopter opens fire on wedding party, claim Iraqis

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The Independent Online

An American helicopter fired on a wedding party in a remote village yesterday, killing more than 40 people, Iraqi officials claimed. If the reports are true, the mistake could prove disastrous for US forces as they try to stem rising Iraqi anger and fight off resistance to the occupation.

An American helicopter fired on a wedding party in a remote village yesterday, killing more than 40 people, Iraqi officials claimed. If the reports are true, the mistake could prove disastrous for US forces as they try to stem rising Iraqi anger and fight off resistance to the occupation.

The Associated Press television news agency obtained a video tape which showed bodies piled in the back of a pick-up truck - allegedly those killed in the attack. One of the bodies was without a head. About a dozen were clearly visible, but the bodies were piled on top of each other and those underneath could not be seen clearly.

The incident was first reported by Iraqi officials in the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province where the attack allegedly took place. Between 42 and 45 people were killed, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Ziyad al-Jbouri, the deputy police chief in Ramadi. He said the dead included 15 children and 10 women.

The al-Arabiya television network reported that more than 20 people had been killed in the incident. It reportedly took place in a village in the desert near the Iraqi-Syrian border, at around 3am local time (midnight BST). US forces said they could not confirm the reports.

It would not be the first time US forces have mistakenly fired on a wedding party. In 2002, 48 civilians were killed in a US air strike on a wedding party in Afghanistan. That was believed to have been caused when US forces mistook wedding guests firing in the air in celebration for hostile fire. There were immediate suspicions the same thing had happened in Iraq, where people routinely fire in the air at celebrations. A few nights ago, Baghdad echoed to gunfire when the Iraqi football team beat Saudi Arabia. Several wedding guests interviewed on the videotape obtained by the Associated Press said there had been firing in the air before the attack.

But Dr Salah al-Ani, a doctor at Ramadi hospital, claimed that American soldiers had visited the village to find out what the shooting was, and that the helicopter fired after they left. It was not clear how Dr Ani knew this if the incident took place near the border, a long way from Ramadi - although the injured may have been brought to Ramadi hospital. Anbar province, a vast area of largely empty desert in western Iraq, is the scene of some of the fiercest resistance to the US occupation. In the city of Fallujah, four contractors were lynched in March, prompting a heavy-handed US response in which hundreds of civilians are believed to have died. Most of the Sunni tribes in Anbar are implacably opposed to the occupation, and heavily involved in the insurgency.

But news of the reported attack on the wedding party will spread like wildfire across Iraq, igniting new fury among Iraqis already incensed by the photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners being abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail.

US commanders claim foreign fighters are entering Iraq across the Syrian border, and it is possible the helicopter crew thought the gunfire came from intruders. Although some foreign mujahedin have crossed into Iraq, and are mounting attacks against US forces, the evidence that has emerged so far has not indicated that they are here in large numbers.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the US in Iraq, told Reuters the attack yesterday was within the military's rules of engagement.

"We conducted an operation about 85 kilometres south-west of al-Qaim...against suspected foreign fighters in a safe house," he said. "We took ground fire and we returned fire."

Kimmitt said there were no indications that the victims of the attack were part of a wedding party. He said a large amount of money, Syrian passports and satellite communications equipment had been found at the site after the attack.

There has been a string of disastrous blunders and misjudgements by the US in Iraq. Their April assault on Fallujah transformed a local insurgency into a resistance movement whose fighters are regarded as national heroes across Iraq.

Then the US found it could not overwhelm Fallujah without inflicting high civilian casualties, and brokered a ceasefire under which a former general under Saddam Hussein took security control in the city. This appeared to many Iraqis to be a humiliating defeat for the Americans. As the scandal over the Abu Ghraib photographs rolls on, US forces seem to be getting bogged down in a potentially even more damaging assault on Shia militiamen in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

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