BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi officials said a U.S. helicopter fired on a wedding party Wednesday in western Iraq, killing more than 40 people, including children. Senior Pentagon officials confirmed that approximately 40 were killed in an airstrike near the Syrian border, but they told NBC News that the incident involved an AC-130 warship — not a helicopter — and that the aircraft returned fire after coming under attack from militants.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the divergent accounts or even verify that both descriptions were of the same incident.
Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, said between 42 and 45 people were killed in the attack, which took place about 2:45 a.m. in a remote desert area near the border with Syria and Jordan. He said the dead included 15 children and 10 women.
Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.
The Abu Dubai-based Al Arabiya television reported that 41 people were killed and 10 injured in the attack. The Arabic-language network, quoting witnesses in the border town of al-Qaim, said U.S. planes had bombarded the village of Makr al-Deeb while families were attending a wedding party. Arabiya had earlier said at least 20 people were killed in the bombing.
Videotape shows bodies on truck
Associated Press Television News obtained videotape showing a truck containing bodies of people who were allegedly killed in the incident. Most of the bodies were wrapped in blankets and other cloths, but the footage showed at least eight uncovered, bloody bodies, several of them children. One of the children was headless.
Iraqis interviewed on the videotape said partygoers were firing in the air in traditional wedding celebration. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.
Lt. Col. Dan Williams, a U.S. military spokesman, wrote in an e-mail in response to a question about the incident from The Associated Press that he had no information confirming the account of the attack.
“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.
But the senior Pentagon officials, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said that suspected enemy fighters fired on the AC-130 gunship around 3 a.m. The aircraft returned fire from the air, killing as many as 40 people, they said.
Afterward, U.S. soldiers recovered a cache of weapons and obtained intelligence that links those killed to anti-coalition forces, the officials said.
Investigation is continuing
They acknowledged that the information was preliminary, however, and said an investigation was continuing.
The APTN footage showed the truck of bodies and mourners with shovels digging graves over a wide, dusty area in Ramadi, a stronghold of insurgents who are fighting the U.S.-led coalition. A group of men crouched and wept around one coffin.
Al-Ani said people at the wedding were firing weapons in the air, and that American troops came to investigate and then left. However, he said, helicopters attacked the area at about 3 a.m.
Two houses were destroyed in the attack, he said.
The report is reminiscent of an incident in July 2002, when 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.
Earlier Wednesday, a group linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility for Monday?s car bomb assassination of the Iraqi Governing Council president in a statement posted on a militant Islamic Web site.
The head of the Monotheism and Jihad Group is believed to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian wanted by the United States in connection with numerous terrorist attacks. He is suspected of strong links to Osama bin Laden?s network. It was the second group to claim responsibility.
Militia said to be shooting from Shiite shrine
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. military accused fighters loyal to a rebel cleric of firing on American forces from one of Shia Islam?s holiest shrines.
In Karbala, the militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was operating from the Imam Hussein shrine in the center of Karbala, said Cpt. Noel Gorospe, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division.
The city south of Baghdad has been the scene of heavy fighting since al-Sadr launched an uprising against the U.S.-led coalition last month.
?They use mainly the windows of the second floor of the shrine,? to fire at troops, Gorospe said at Camp Lima, a coalition base on the outskirts of Karbala. Insurgents were using small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and their use of the shrine was more noticeable in the past three days, he said.
American troops and militiamen fought Wednesday near a militia checkpoint 100 yards from another holy site in Karbala, the Imam Abbas shrine, witnesses said. The U.S. military confirmed there was fighting Wednesday, but did not say where. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Daily insurgent attacks have centered on Karbala?s Mukhaiyam mosque and the surrounding area, which the U.S. military took over in operations last week. The coalition said Iraqi fighters were using the mosque as a military base, and said it had no intention of relinquishing the mosque until militias leave the town.
Gorospe said an AC-130 gunship was used in an airstrike against insurgents around the Imam Hussein shrine in recent days, but said it did not shoot into the shrine.
Since Tuesday, U.S. F-16 jets have been flying over Karbala around the clock.
Al-Sadr has accused U.S. forces of desecrating shrines in Karbala and another holy city, Najaf. The U.S. military denies the allegations, saying militiamen have used Muslim holy places as firing positions and storerooms for weapons.
Meanwhile, a statement Wednesday attributed to the Monotheism and Jihad Group was the second Internet claim of responsibility for the killing of Abdel-Zahraa Othman, better known by the name he had adopted in exile, Izzadine Saleem. A statement had been posted Monday by a previously unknown Iraqi group, the Arab Resistance Movement.
?Another lion of the lions of the Monotheism and Jihad Group leapt to seize a rotten head from among the heads that betrayed God and his prophet and those who sold their religion and lives to their American masters and those who are allied with them,? the statement read.
The statement, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, said other members of the Iraqi Governing Council could meet the same fate.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, initially said the car bombing that killed Saleem had the ?classic hallmarks? of al-Zarqawi. But Kimmitt later said another group may be to blame ?because of methodology in some of the techniques that were used.? Kimmitt did not elaborate.
On May 6, the Monotheism and Jihad Group issued a Web claim of responsibility for an attack on the U.S.-led coalition?s headquarters in Baghdad that killed five Iraqi civilians and a U.S. soldier.
An earlier purported al-Zarqawi statement appeared on a Web site claiming responsibility for an April 24 suicide boat attack on Iraq’s oil terminal in the Gulf that killed three American service members.
Jim Miklaszewski and Scott Foster of NBC News and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.