Arab media gave little credence Thursday to U.S. military claims that a devastating air strike near the border with Syria — in which more than 40 people were reported killed — targeted a safehouse for foreign fighters.
The newspapers instead cast the attack as another example of an American campaign against Arabs and universally backed Iraqi claims that a helicopter had attacked a wedding party.
The attack Wednesday happened about 2:45 a.m. in a desert region near the border with Syria and Jordan, according to Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east. He said 42 to 45 people died, including 15 children and 10 women. Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.
Al-Arabiya, a popular Arabic satellite station, quoted witnesses as saying 40 Iraqis were killed "in shelling that hit a wedding party."
In other developments:
The strike near the Syrian border, widely reported in Iraq and the Middle East as an attack on a wedding party, comes at a time when American prestige is under fire as the United States tries to stabilize this country before the June 30 transfer of sovereignty are foundering.
Al-Messa, an Egyptian daily close to the government, declared "a new American massacre against the Iraqis" and quoted unnamed news agencies as saying 60 people, "mostly children and women," were killed.
Al-Wafd, an opposition daily in Egypt, said 42 Iraqis were killed "in a savage American attack on a wedding."
All Lebanese papers drew parallels between the helicopter strike in Iraq and violence Wednesday, with one, An-Nahar, lamenting in banner headline: "a long bloody day from Gaza to Iraq."
Associated Press Television News footage from the area near the Syrian border showed a truck containing bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets, piled one atop the other. Several were children, one of whom was decapitated. The body of a girl who appeared to be less than 5 years of age lay in a white sheet, her legs riddled with wounds and her dress soaked in blood.
The area, a desolate region populated only by shepherds, is popular with smugglers, including weapons smugglers, and the U.S. military suspects militants use it as a route to slip in from Syria to fight the Americans. It is under constant surveillance by American forces.
Military officials in Washington refused to address the question of whether anyone from a wedding party was among the people killed.
In a statement, the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces conducted a military operation at 3 a.m. against a "suspected foreign fighter safe house" in the open desert, about 50 miles southwest of Husaybah and 15 miles from the Syrian border.
The coalition troops came under hostile fire and "close air support was provided," the statement said. The troops recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian currency, some passports and some satellite communications gear, it said.
APTN video footage showed mourners with shovels digging graves over a wide dusty area in Ramadi, the provincial capital where bodies of the dead had been taken to obtain death certificates. A group of men crouched and wept around one coffin.
Iraqis interviewed on the videotape said revelers had fired volleys of gunfire into the air in a traditional wedding celebration before the attack took place. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.
Al-Ani, the doctor, said American troops came to investigate the gunfire and left. However, al-Ani said, helicopters later arrived and attacked the area. Two houses were destroyed, he said.
"This was a wedding and the (U.S.) planes came and attacked the people at a house. Is this the democracy and freedom that (President) Bush has brought us?" said a man on the videotape, Dahham Harraj. "There was no reason."
Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a U.S. military spokesman, said earlier that the military was investigating.
Also Thursday, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a Spanish patrol protecting troops pulling out of Iraq, the Defense Ministry said. One soldier was injured.
A day earlier, American soldiers clashed with Shiite militiamen in two cities south of the capital, killing at least eight of them, U.S. officials said. Mortars and rockets fell on widely scattered areas of the Iraqi capital.