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Iraqis blame US for wedding deaths

Baghdad, May 20 (Reuters): Grieving Iraqis said US forces killed dozens of guests at a desert wedding but an American general insisted today that the air strike had killed foreign guerrilla fighters and said “bad things happen in wars”.

Images of dead women and children on Arab television were a new setback for a US mission already beset by a scandal over torture in prisons, as President George W. Bush prepares this week to detail plans for handing limited sovereignty to Iraqis.

A US-backed raid on the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, once the Pentagon’s favourite Iraqi leader, blew into the open growing turbulence in the handover process; Chalabi said the Americans, who this week cut off funds to his party, were out to get him because he wanted more independence than was on offer.

An opinion poll found that only seven per cent of Iraqis now viewed US troops as “liberators”, compared to 45 per cent six months ago. It was conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in April, before pictures of soldiers abusing prisoners drove another wedge between Americans and Iraqis.

Forty-three per cent said they would feel more secure if US troops left now. Just 29 per cent would feel less secure, though many Iraqi leaders fear instant withdrawal could mean anarchy.

It remained unclear just what happened in the early hours of yesterday at a remote spot near the Syrian border. The US military said an air strike killed about 40 foreign fighters. Local people said the dead were civilians attending a wedding.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said the attack targeted “a suspected foreign fighter safe house”.

“We took ground fire and we returned fire,” he said. “We estimate that around 40 were killed. But we operated within our rules of engagement.”

Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division which controls the area, told reporters that more than two dozen men of fighting age were among the dead.

Asked about witnesses who told Reuters and other media there were many women and children among about 40 civilians killed, Kimmitt told a news conference in Baghdad: “We had significant intelligence that caused us to conduct a military operation.”

Shotguns, rifles and pistols, as well as jewellery and about $1,000 in Iraqi and Syrian currency, a satellite telephone and four-wheel drive vehicles were found, Kimmitt said.

“How many people go to the middle of the desert 16 km from the Syrian border to hold a wedding 130 km from the nearest civilisation'” Mattis said in Falluja.

“These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive... Bad things happen in wars. I don't have to apologise for the conduct of my men.”

Munif Abdullah, who said he witnessed the attack at Wakr al-Deeb but was not at the wedding, told Reuters at a memorial service in the regional capital Ramadi: “They hit the cars and houses. They even hit the families running away.”

Mourners at the funeral of a noted Baghdad wedding singer told Reuters he was killed after performing at the gathering.

A member of Iraq’s US-appointed governing council said he found it hard to believe the American version of events. Mahmoud Othman said: “I think they have made a mistake.”

US commanders say the western desert, where smuggling is common, has become a route for foreign fighters, including al Qaida-linked Muslim militants, to enter Iraq from Syria.

Impatience appears to be growing all round — among Iraqis, US allies and among Americans, wearying of US losses, who will pass judgment on Bush in November’s election.

Symptomatic of strains between US officials and impatient Iraqi leaders was an angry outburst from Chalabi after Iraqi police, backed by American troops, roused him from his bed and raided his home and offices as part of a fraud investigation.

The former exile accused police of taking valuables, including a Quran and prayer beads, and said the US authority was giving top jobs to former Saddam allies in the Baath party.

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