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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Did U.S. Strike a Wedding or a Way Station for Militants?

Iraqi survivors describe the party in detail. The military is confident it targeted smugglers.

May 21, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — With the smell of roasted lamb still in the air, Bassem Hameed Dulaimi left the tent where wedding guests were sleeping after three days of revelry and walked to a far field to wash up. Then, the musician said, he saw a flash in the desert sky, and another. He described blast after blast as rockets rained down on the tiny hamlet in the early-morning hours.

"They fired more than 40 rockets -- I counted," the 26-year-old organ player recounted Thursday at a funeral in Baghdad for two of the seven fellow musicians he said were killed in the attack by U.S. forces.

U.S. military officials continued to doubt Thursday that the "men of fighting age" they say died in the desert early Wednesday had gathered for a wedding. They say three large buildings in the hamlet were safe houses along a trail used by smugglers to move arms and insurgents into Iraq. They say troops found passports, weapons and the equivalent of $1,000 in Iraqi dinars at the site.

The Iraqis and the U.S. military agree on some details of the attack. But on the crucial question they disagree: Was this an innocent gathering of revelers fast asleep at the time, or a band of gunmen who fired on the Americans?

About 40 people were killed in the remote village just 15 miles from the Syrian border, said the U.S. military and Iraqis on the scene. A doctor in the hospital in the nearby town of Qaim put the number of dead at about 45.

Iraqi witnesses said that at least some of the dead were children, a charge U.S. officials have said they are investigating.

U.S. military officers reiterated that those killed were involved in smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq and that the houses attacked were way stations for militants.

The mission was based on sound intelligence from "multiple correlated evidence," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. There was no wedding, military officials say.

But Iraqis in the village tell a different story, giving a vivid account of a traditional wedding celebration turned into a bloody slaughter. They painted a picture of simple desert people: Bedouin tribesmen, their wives, sisters and children who had nothing to do with foreign fighters. They talk of the seven slain musicians. They mention going to get the 12 sheep that they had slaughtered and roasted to feed the guests.

The musicians' deaths are hard to dispute. They were being mourned Thursday by hundreds of relatives in the run-down Hurriya neighborhood of Baghdad where they lived. Relatives passed around business cards that showed the musicians with their instruments and carried a phone number for a recording studio in Syria.

Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of Marines in Al Anbar province, where the assault occurred, defended the mission. "These were more than two dozen military-aged males," Reuters news service quoted him as saying. "Let's not be naive."

In Washington, a senior Defense Department official described a classified photograph of the target that showed that the site consisted of three warehouse-like complexes in the desert terrain, about seven miles from the nearest town.

"Why would you have the wedding there, at 3 a.m.?" said the official, who requested anonymity. "I'm not denying that civilians were killed -- we don't know. But just because there are civilians killed does not mean that's not a safe house used to store weapons."

In the end, the accounts left open the possibility that both versions of events might contain elements of truth: that smugglers and innocent civilians might have been together in the hamlet for a wedding.

Many Iraqis, especially those with Bedouin roots, do go to the desert for celebrations, setting up tents for guests, slaughtering sheep and providing traditional tribal music.

Hamdan Khalaf Hammadi, 18, a survivor of the attack, corroborated several witnesses who said that at dawn, U.S. troops arrived to search the area of the nighttime assault.

"A water tank that was attached to a truck was first hit, and then everybody ran toward a small hill, then they were shot one by one by the U.S. forces -- they were slaughtered," Hammadi said. "The next morning [the soldiers] came and searched" houses in the village.

Hammadi and other witnesses charged that some of those who survived the airstrike were later shot by troops, an accusation that could not be corroborated.

Military officials offered few details of the raid, including what types of weapons were used. But their comments suggested that at least some of the accounts of the Iraqis on the scene were correct.

For instance, both the military and the Iraqis said the soldiers spent some time in the area, both during the fighting and afterward, when they entered buildings they had attacked. Reports differed, however, on the casualties. Iraqis said several children were killed, with some putting the number as high as 10.

However, Kimmitt, the military spokesman, strongly suggested that no children died.

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