BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - A U.S. airstrike that killed at least 19 people in Fallujah yesterday targeted a safehouse used by insurgents working for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked militant blamed for a deadly wave of car bombings and other attacks in Iraq in recent months, the U.S. military said.
It was possible that al-Zarqawi might have used the targeted building as a hideout, said a coalition military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, though there was no indication he was there at the time of the attack.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said that a safehouse for al-Zarqawi's network was the target of the U.S. military strike, which razed a small building in the southwest section of the city. Witnesses said a U.S. military plane delivered the missile strike, but Kimmitt refused to say whether aircraft or cruise missiles had been used.
"Wherever and whenever we find elements of the Zarqawi network, we will attack them," Kimmitt said.
While Kimmitt said the strike killed 19 people, Fallujah medical personnel said 22 people died, all described as foreign fighters.
Site of siege
Yesterday's airstrike marked the first major military action in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, since coalition forces reached a tenuous cease-fire with insurgents there seven weeks ago.
Situated in the so-called Sunni triangle, where anti-American sentiment runs high, Fallujah was the site of a three-week siege by Marines against insurgents in April, the fiercest fighting in Iraq since coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime last spring.
Coalition forces worked with local tribal leaders and former Iraqi generals to hammer out a truce with insurgents and established a special unit of Iraqi security forces called the Fallujah Brigade to restore order. Since then, the presence of insurgents in Fallujah has not waned.
After spending months trying to track down the whereabouts of al-Zarqawi and his associates, coalition military officials last week said the Jordanian-born insurgent was believed to be operating out of Fallujah.
However, the handover of sovereignty is just two weeks away, and that intelligence puts coalition forces in the position of having to balance the need to eliminate a driving force behind the insurgency with the need to keep Fallujah calm.
Some Iraqis surveying the rubble created by yesterday's airstrike lashed out at U.S. forces for what they argued was a violation of the cease-fire agreement reached earlier this spring.
"These are their missiles, and this is their arrogant policy," said Akhmed Sabah Nail, 36, a Fallujah Iraqi and a soldier in Iraq's new army. "Damn them and damn their democracy. They have no mercy, no humanity."
Associated Press Television News showed water pooling into a 20-foot bomb crater in front of what appeared to be several destroyed houses.
However, amid charred cars and mounds of broken brick at the scene were signs that the targeted building was being used by insurgents. Within the debris lay torn flak jackets, shards of artillery and mortar shells, thousands of bullets and shreds of the red-and-white scarves commonly used by Iraqi insurgents.
"We know that there were members of the Zarqawi network inside the house," Kimmitt said, adding that secondary explosions occurred at the site "for about 20 minutes from bomb-making material, weapons, ammunition."
Coalition and Iraqi officials have blamed al-Zarqawi for a series of suicide car bombings and other attacks throughout the war-battered nation. On Thursday, a suicide car bombing killed 35 people and wounded 145 outside an Iraqi military recruiting center in downtown Baghdad, an attack Iraqi officials attributed to al-Zarqawi. He was also implicated in the beheading of American Nicholas Berg last month.
Elsewhere in Iraq, clashes between insurgents and U.S. troops continued for a fourth day in the Baqouba region, northeast of Baghdad, the AP reported. At least six Iraqis and a U.S. soldier have been killed. Also yesterday, a roadside bomb killed a Portuguese security officer and another person in southern Iraq.
Insurgents also hit Iraq's strategic pipeline system, cutting off all exports from the southern oilfields in bombings this week. Iraq hopes to resume partial exports by next weekend.
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it would be unlawful for the United States to hold detainees, including Saddam Hussein, after the June 30 power transfer without charging them with crimes.
The U.S. military has said it will continue to hold thousands of prisoners detained since invading Iraq last year and it could do so legally until a "cessation of hostilities."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.