BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. helicopter gunships and ground troops struck a village in Iraq's western desert before dawn yesterday, hitting what Iraqis said was a wedding celebration, but what the Americans said was a suspected safe house for foreign fighters.
Iraqi and U.S. officials estimated that about 40 people were killed in the attack on a hamlet of 11 houses about 15 miles from the Syrian border and about 50 miles southwest of Husaybah.
"We received about 40 martyrs today, mainly women and children below the age of 12," Hamdy Lousy, the director of a nearby hospital, told the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya.
"We also have 11 people wounded, most of them in critical condition," Lousy said.
In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the U.S. military in Iraq, said the attack targeted a suspected safe house for foreign fighters.
Asked about reports of dozens killed, he told Reuters, "We are not disputing the numbers you are hearing. We estimate that around 40 were killed. But we operated within our rules of engagement."
Officials at the State Department and Pentagon said they had no information on the incident.
Associated Press Television News footage showed a truck containing a pile of bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets.
Several were children, one of whom was decapitated.
The body of a girl who appeared to be younger than 5 years old lay in a white sheet, her legs riddled with wounds and her dress soaked in blood.
Pictures of several shrouded bodies and of men digging graves were shown on Arab television.
According to the U.S. Central Command, forces conducted a military operation about 3 a.m. yesterday.
Iraqis said a wedding party came under fire from U.S. troops because guests were shooting into the air in celebration.
Such celebratory gunfire is common across the Middle East and Central Asia, and it has led to mistakes before.
In July 2002, 48 people were killed and 117 others were wounded by a U.S. air attack on the Afghanistan village of Miandao and the surrounding area where a wedding was being celebrated.
U.S. officials apologized but said they had acted properly in response to what they thought was hostile fire.
'Under hostile fire'
In a statement released late yesterday after questions from the media, the military said it had conducted an "operation against a suspected foreign fighter safe house in the open desert. ... During the operation, Coalition forces came under hostile fire and close air support was provided.
"Coalition forces on the ground recovered numerous weapons, 2 million Iraqi and Syrian dinar, foreign passports, and a SATCOM radio."
U.S. military commanders have complained repeatedly that foreign fighters are infiltrating Iraq from Syrian, and American soldiers have arrested large numbers of foreigners attempting to cross the border in the area, about 450 miles west of Baghdad.
The region is also on a well-known smugglers trail on which many Syrians, Iraqis and Jordanians move.
It is also possible that the items captured - foreign currency and foreign passports - were the property of smugglers.
The village that was attacked is in a tribal area of herdsmen and smugglers.
In the nearest town of any size, Al Qu'aim, more than an hour away, the mosques' loudspeakers blared out appeals for blood, and some of the victims were taken as far as the city of Ramadi for treatment, about two hours to the east, said a local resident who asked not to be identified.
The number killed was not confirmed, but the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya first reported 20 dead and then doubled it to 40.
The satellite channels broadcast video of local residents burying their dead in what looked like mass graves.
An Arab journalist in Al Qu'aim, who asked not to be identified, said he understood there were at least 21 dead and 14 wounded.
A similar attack occurred there last summer when U.S. troops shot at a convoy in the area, thinking that it might be carrying former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or another wanted figure from Hussein's government.
Neither was in the convoy, and the circumstances surrounding the attack remained unclear.
Mugr Altheed attack
The attack on Mugr Altheed, about five miles from the Syrian border, killed at least a 22-year-old woman and her infant.
Also killed, villagers said, were some smugglers passing through the area.
"I ran for my life with my wife and children," Mneef Abdullah, whose house was destroyed in the attack, told the Los Angeles Times. "The Americans came here at the start of the war, and we welcomed them.
"No one attacked them as they passed. Why do they do this now?"
Pentagon officials have said the attack on the six-vehicle convoy was carried out by AC-130 gunships and other aircraft commanded by Task Force 20, a covert unit specializing in tracking and targeting Iraqi officials.
Five Syrians were held after U.S. troops entered Syrian territory in pursuit of the convoy.
In other action, U.S. forces continued to battle the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fights were reported in Karbala and in the holy city of Najaf.
The United States also announced the death of a soldier from the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
The soldier was killed about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday near Miqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad.
That brings the unofficial toll to about 780 U.S. soldiers killed since Iraq was invaded in March last year.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.