BAGHDAD, Iraq - A U.S. aircraft fired on a house in the desert near the Syrian border Wednesday, and Iraqi officials said more than 40 people were killed, including children.
The U.S. military said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria, but Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party.
Associated Press Television News footage showed a truck containing bloodied bodies, many wrapped in blankets, piled one atop the other. Several were children, one of whom had been decapitated.
The attack 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.
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.
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 U.S. troops recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian currency, some passports and some satellite communications gear, it said.
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.
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.
Al-Ani, the doctor, said people at the wedding fired weapons in the air, and that American troops came to investigate 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."
Another man shown on the tape, who refused to give his name, said the victims were at a wedding party "and the U.S. military planes came ... and started killing everyone in the house."
Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a U.S. military spokesman, said earlier that the military was investigating.
"I cannot comment on this because we have not received any reports from our units that this has happened nor that any were involved in such a tragedy," Williams wrote in an e-mail in response to a question from The Associated Press.
"We take all these requests seriously and we have forwarded this inquiry to the Joint Operations Center for further review and any other information that may be available," Williams said.
The strike, 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.
Anti-American sentiment has risen following last month's bloody Marine siege of Fallujah, a Shiite Muslim uprising and the scandal over treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
"Many Iraqis have been killed so far" during the occupation, said Adnan Pachachi, one of the most pro-American figures on the Iraqi Governing Council. He said Iraqis "hope that these acts, from all parties, come to an end because the victims are Iraqis."
In July 2002, Afghan officials said 48 civilians at a wedding party were killed and 117 wounded by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province. An investigative report released by the U.S. Central Command said the airstrike was justified because American planes had come under fire.