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Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 01:25 A.M.

Survivors tell of attack after Iraqi wedding

By Scheherezade Faramarzi
The Associated Press

Iraqi family members and Bou Fahad tribe chief Sheik Dahan Haraj, center, attend a funeral yesterday for their relatives killed in Ramadi.
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Arab media dispute U.S. attack claims
RAMADI, Iraq — As survivors tell it, the wedding party was in full swing. The band was playing tribal music and the guests had just finished eating dinner when, at about 9 p.m., they heard the roar of U.S. warplanes. Fearing trouble, the revelers ended the festivities and went to bed.

About six hours later, the first bomb struck the tent.

"Mothers died with their children in their arms," said Madhi Nawaf, 54, who survived the attack Wednesday in Mogr el-Deeb on the Syrian border. Up to 45 people died — many women and children from the Bou Fahad tribe.

"One of them was my daughter," Nawaf told The Associated Press. "I found her a few steps from the house, her 2-year-old son, Raad, in her arms. Her 1-year-old son, Raed, was lying nearby, missing his head."

Videotape reportedly of the victims' bodies has aired on Arab television and is fueling further outrage against the United States for what many Iraqis see as a pattern of abuse and disregard for Iraqis by American soldiers.

In Baghdad yesterday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, said the U.S. military would investigate after Iraqi officials reported the survivors' story.

"Because of the interest shown by the media, we're going to have an investigation. Some of the allegations that have been made would cause us to go back and look at this," Kimmitt said. "But it's important to understand that this operation was not something that just fell out of the sky."

Kimmitt said the operation was based on intelligence gathered by the military about the location, which he said was believed to be a way station on a "rat line," a route known to be traveled by smugglers and foreign fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.

Kimmitt disputed a videotape that shows dead children allegedly killed in the attack. He said forces on the ground after the incident "did not find any dead children among the casualties."

In a telephone interview, an Iraqi Health Ministry official, who requested anonymity, said a hospital in Qaim, the town closest to the site, reported that 42 people were killed — 17 men, 11 women and 14 children.

Kimmitt said several shotguns, handguns, Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns were found at the site. And he said soldiers also found foreign passports, jewelry, a satellite telephone and four-wheel-drive vehicles that indicated the people were not wandering Bedouin but "town dwellers."

"Ten miles from the Syrian border and 80 miles from the nearest city and a wedding party? Don't be naive," Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis told reporters in Fallujah. "Plus, they had 30 males of military age with them. How many people go to the middle of the desert to have a wedding party?"

Members of the Bou Fahad tribe say they consider the border area part of their territory and follow their goats, sheep and cattle there to graze. They leave spacious homes in Ramadi and roam the desert, as far as 250 miles to the west, in the springtime.

Another person who claims to have witnessed the attack, Basim Shehab, who says his band had been hired for the wedding, said yesterday that five bandmates, including a popular Baghdad singer, were killed in the attack.

Shehab, 26, who said he was sleeping in a tent when the airstrike occurred, said the attack "was like hell. Everything was on fire."

When the attack began, Shehab said, he hid in some bushes. He said that two hours later he saw two Chinook helicopters arrive and unload several tanks.

He also said that he saw U.S. troops shoot the wounded as they lay on the ground and then plant explosives in the house to destroy what remained.

Weddings are often marked in Iraq with celebratory gunfire. However, survivors insisted no weapons were fired Wednesday.

The survivors said the Americans were wrong to target them.

"They're lying," Nawaf said. "They have to show us evidence that we fired a shot or were hiding foreign fighters. Where are the foreign fighters then? Why kill and dismember innocent children?"

Nawaf and more than a dozen men from the Bou Fahad tribe took the dead to Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, which includes Mogr el-Deeb. Twenty-eight graves were dug in the tribe's cemetery outside Ramadi, each containing one to three bodies.

All the men interviewed insisted there were no foreign fighters in Mogr el-Deeb, a desolate area popular with smugglers. The U.S. military suspects militants cross the area from Syria to fight the Americans, and it is under constant surveillance by American forces.

"We would know if any outsider comes to our area," said Hamed Abdul-Razaq, another survivor.

Survivors said they became fearful when they heard aircraft overhead about 9 p.m. Tuesday. Then came military vehicles, which stopped about two miles away from the village and switched off their headlights. The planes were still overhead at 11 p.m.

"We began to expect some kind of catastrophe," Nawaf said.

They decided to end the celebration, and the bride and groom, Azhar Rikad and Rutba Sabah, went into their tent. They reportedly were killed in the attack.

About 25 male guests who came from Ramadi for the wedding and five band members who died stayed in the main tent. All the women went to bed in an adjacent one-story stone house. Many men, including Nawaf, drifted away to their nearby homes.

The first bomb struck the main tent at about 2:45 a.m., the survivors said. Among those who died was Hussein al-Ali, a prominent wedding singer from Baghdad. The second bomb struck the stone house, killing everyone inside.

Survivors said shells rained down until nearly sunrise.

The strike was conducted by an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship, which carries machine guns, cannons and a 105-mm howitzer, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some survivors said they tried to approach the Americans who landed in the Chinooks but were driven back by gunshots. The troops took money and jewelry the dead women had brought for the party, survivors said.

The U.S. occupation has never been popular in Anbar, a Sunni Muslim province that includes Fallujah, Khaldiyah and other centers of resistance.

"For each one in those graves, we will get 10 Americans," Ahmed Saleh warned.

Material from Knight-Ridder Newspapers and The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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