[A Wedding Party after All] Iraq Desert Bombing Video Shows Carnage

Scheherezade Faramarzi, 5/24/2004

Associated Press Friday 21 May 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Fragments of musical instruments, tufts of women's hair, and a large blood stain are among the scenes in Associated Press Television News film of a destroyed house that survivors say U.S. planes bombed during a wedding party.

It is the first known footage from the site of Wednesday's attack, which killed up to 45 people, mostly women and children from the Bou Fahad tribe in Mogr el-Deeb, a desert village on the Syrian border.

The U.S. military has said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria and denied Friday that children were killed in the airstrikes.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad that U.S. troops who reported back from the operation "told us they did not shoot women and children."

"There were a number of woman, a handful of women, I think the number was four to six, caught up in the engagement. They may have died from some of the fire that came from the aircraft," Kimmitt said.

But an Associated Press reporter in the Ramadi area, at least 275 miles east of Mogr el-Deeb, was able to identify at least 10 of the bodies as those of children.

At the Bou Fahad cemetery outside Ramadi, where the tribe is based, each of the 28 fresh graves contain one to three corpses, mostly of mothers and their young children.

Relatives said they include those of 2-year-old Kholood and 1-year-old Anoud, daughters of Amal Rikad, who was killed; of 2-year-old Raad and 1-year-old Ra'ed whose headless body was found near his house sons of Fatima Madhi, who was killed; of Saad, 10, Faisal, 7, Anoud, 6, Fasila, 5, Kholood, 4, and Inad, 3 children of Mohammed and Morifa Rikad, who were killed.

There also are photo images of dead children, but it was not possible to determine if those victims were already accounted for by relatives.

In Washington, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers told Congress that "we feel at this point very confident that this was a legitimate target, probably foreign fighters" who may have ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian wanted for allegedly organizing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq on behalf of al-Qaida.

"The intelligence right now and what we found at the site, which were weapons and the sort of things you might not expect at a wedding party, were not consistent with that. They were consistent with folks trying to come into the country, across the desert, in vehicles, staying for the night, trying to make it into Iraq."

Several shotguns, handguns, Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns were found at the site, according to Kimmitt.

But Bou Fahad tribesmen denied that any foreign fighters were among them. They consider the desolate border area part of their territory and follow their goats, sheep and cattle there to graze. In the springtime they leave spacious homes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and roam the desert.

Smuggling livestock into Syria is also part of a herdsman's life, although no one in the tribe acknowledged that.

Weddings are often marked in Iraq with celebratory gunfire, but survivors insisted no weapons were fired Wednesday despite speculation by Iraqi officials that this drew a mistaken American attack.

The first bomb hit the huge goat-hair tent where male guests were said to be sleeping at about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday. The barrage didn't stop until sunrise, witnesses said. Women and children were in an adjacent one-story house and the men went to their nearby homes, they said.

After the first missile, Hamdan Khalaf ran in panic and hid in a grassy area. "In the morning, we went back to the hill and saw people torn apart, attacked by the plane," Khalaf, who was not wounded, told APTN.

"We pulled them out of here," another man told APTN, standing on a pile of stones as he picked up a stained green cloth that looked like part of a young man's shirt. A severed arm lay in the rubble. "We took them to hospital straight to the fridge," the unidentified man said.

An angry voice in the background of the tape denounced President Bush. "This is his terrorism," the voice said.

The body of what survivors said was the wedding's cameraman was pulled out of the debris Thursday.

The footage also showed women in colorful clothes sifting through the wreckage and carrying away blankets and other goods. Pieces of rockets and bullet casings were strewn across the sandy plain, as were pots and pans and a satellite dish. Partly charred pickup trucks and a water tanker stood in the desert.

The attack left few survivors. About a dozen wounded were taken to the town of Qaem, about 140 miles northwest of Ramadi and 130 miles north of Mogr el-Deeb. Witnesses, interviewed Thursday by AP in Ramadi, said revelers at the wedding party began worrying when they heard aircraft overhead at 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, so the hosts told the band to stop playing and everyone went to bed.

About four hours later, airstrikes began and continued until dawn when two helicopters landed and about 40 soldiers searched the house where the women had stayed and a second, vacant house. Soon after, the two houses were blown up. Some witnesses said the houses were attacked by helicopters; others said Americans detonated them with explosives.

Kimmitt confirmed that the operation was an air and ground assault. "Those people on the ground identified no children as part of that location that were killed," he said, adding that they reported only adult deaths.

He also referred to the APTN video, shot Thursday in Mogr el-Deeb, as well as separate APTN footage from Wednesday in Ramadi that showed a headless body of a child and other bodies of children.

"What we saw in those APTN videos were substantially inconsistent with the reports we received from the unit that conducted the operation," Kimmitt said. "We're now trying to figure out why there's an inconsistency.

"We're keeping an open mind as to exactly what happened on the ground. That's why we're continuing to try to gather all the facts; that's why we're not ruling out anything based on information coming forward," he added. -------