| Iraqis gather around a hole in the ground caused by a rocket which landed in Falluja. (Reuters)
Falluja, June 19 (Reuters): US forces killed 22 people today in a “precision strike” on a house in the flashpoint Iraqi city of Falluja that the military said was being used as a safehouse by militants linked to al Qaida.
Furious Iraqis said the dead included women and children. But Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad the house was being used by fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, accused by Washington of leading a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and of decapitating a US hostage last month.
“We have significant evidence that there were members of the Zarqawi network in the house,” Kimmitt said. But officers said there was no sign that Zarqawi himself — who has a $10 million price on his head — was there when the house was destroyed. Falluja residents said two missiles had been fired at the house by a US plane this morning, flattening the building. Kimmitt said the US strike had caused secondary blasts as ammunition inside the house exploded.
“An American plane hit this house and three others were damaged. Only body parts are left,” a witness said, as rescuers dug through the rubble of the shattered house for survivors.
“They brought us 22 corpses, children, women and youth,” Ahmed Hassan, a cemetery worker, said after the blast.
Washington says the Jordanian-born Zarqawi has been the mastermind between a series of bloody suicide attacks in Iraq that have sowed chaos and claimed hundreds of lives. It says he was also the man shown beheading US hostage Nicholas Berg in a grisly video posted on the Internet last month.
US commanders say pacifying Falluja, one of Iraq’s most rebellious cities, is crucial for stability ahead of the formal handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30.
Hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the city in April in fighting between US Marines and guerrillas, sparking outrage in Iraq. The US military agreed a truce and handed responsibility for security to an Iraqi force that includes many former officers in Saddam Hussein’s armed forces.
Last month, Marines killed around 40 Iraqis in an attack on a house in the western desert near the Syrian border. Rebels bent on disrupting this month’s handover of sovereignty brought Iraq’s crucial oil exports to a halt this week with attacks on two key southern pipelines.