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Iraq wedding film challenges US on air strike { May 24 2004 }

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Iraq Wedding Film Challenges U.S. on Air Strike
Mon May 24, 2004 04:31 AM ET

By Tom Perry
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - New video showing Iraqis singing and dancing at a desert wedding begged more questions on Monday about a U.S. air strike last week that killed about 40 people.

The U.S. military has insisted most of the dead were foreign guerrilla fighters who had slipped over the nearby Syrian border. Local people say the Americans massacred wedding guests.

Associated Press Television News said it obtained the footage from a survivor of the strike early on May 19.

The U.S. military says troops found no signs of a wedding in the wreckage left at the remote hamlet of Mogr al-Deeb. But a spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, conceded on Saturday that six women were killed in the strike and a celebration may have been taking place: "Bad people have parties too," he said.

The film shows pick-up trucks racing across the desert -- many of the dead came from the regional capital Ramadi -- men dancing in a tent, children playing and a musician playing an electric organ. The same man later appeared dead in a shroud.

Ultimately the truth may count for less than the perception; many Iraqis, exasperated by 14 months of occupation and by a scandal over the abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers, find it easy to believe a tale of American brutality or incompetence.

The video is unwelcome news for Washington on a day when it is to present a proposal at the United Nations seeking approval for its continued military presence in Iraq following a handover of sovereignty to an interim government on June 30.

Nor will it help President Bush, who is to make a televised speech to the nation at midnight GMT that will lay out his strategy in Iraq. Bush's chances of re-election in November have suffered as Americans question the cost in lives and dollars of occupying Iraq.

It remains to be seen how close an ally the future independent Iraq will be to Washington.


The top U.N. human rights official, Bertrand Ramcharan, said even if some of those at the house in Mogr al-Deeb were involved in criminal activity, that was no excuse for killing so many people.

"The acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed shock over the deaths of some 40 civilians at a wedding party in Iraq near the Syrian border," his office said in a statement on Friday.

"Even if there are security-related concerns, there can be no license to commit carnage."

On Saturday, General Kimmitt said there was strong evidence of illegal activity at what he called a safe house for fighters.

"The more we look at the post-strike intelligence, the more that we continue to dig in to what we found at that location, the more we are persuaded that there was not a wedding going on," he said. "There may have been some kind of celebration. Bad people have celebrations too. Bad people have parties too."

He said no children were killed, though footage of funerals taken by the Arab television channel Al-Arabiya on Wednesday showed at least one child being buried.

Kimmitt said there were "several inconsistencies" between what soldiers found at the site and the television footage of relatives of the victims, which were still being investigated.

Among items found at the house were weapons, binoculars modified for aiming artillery, significant amounts of medical equipment, fake identity cards and the machines for making them, "terrorist training manuals" and suspected cocaine, he said.

The house also seemed to have been used as a dormitory, with more than 300 sets of bedding gear and about 100 sets of prepackaged clothing, Kimmitt said. This suggested it was a staging post for foreign fighters coming into Iraq, he said.

Kimmitt said there was no sign of food or wedding gifts, but relatives of a well-known Iraqi singer said he had traveled from Baghdad to perform at a wedding at the house and had been killed in the attack. Reuters witnessed his funeral on Thursday.


With domestic support for his Iraq policies at an all-time low, Bush will deliver a prime-time speech on Monday trying to assure the public he has a strategy for handing over power to Iraqis and keeping the violence from getting out of control.

In heavy fighting over the weekend, U.S. troops said they killed at least 32 guerrillas in a raid on Sunday on Shi'ite militia fighters in Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf.

Two Americans were killed in an attack on a Marine convoy near the restive Sunni Muslim city of Falluja on the same day.

Monday night's speech at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, marks the start of a public relations campaign designed to shore up Bush's standing and draw public attention away from bloodshed to the transition to Iraqi rule.

The stakes are enormous for Bush, presidential historian Doug Brinkley said. With his public standing "heading into a downward spiral, it is imperative that the president appeal directly to the American public. It's one of those moments historians will look at decades from now," he added.

Bush's approval ratings have slipped to the mid-to-low 40 percent range. No recent president has been re-elected with such numbers so close to the November elections.

"There isn't panic, but there is considerable concern," one senior Republican aide said.

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