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Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross today condemned what it called the "excessive" use of force by the U.S. military following claims by Iraqi officials that U.S. air strikes yesterday killed more than 40 people at a wedding party near the Syrian border.
The Pentagon has confirmed that U.S. ground troops conducted an operation in the pre-dawn hours yesterday near the desert town of Qaim and had called in air strikes.
In a written statement, the Pentagon said close air support had been requested by those ground troops after they were fired upon by suspected anti-coalition forces. The Pentagon confirmed that it had killed dozens of Iraqis in the air strikes, but says the dead were enemy fighters.
The Pentagon also said coalition ground troops recovered numerous weapons in the area, along with foreign passports, satellite communications equipment, and some 2 million Iraqi dinars ($1,363) and Syrian pounds.
In Baghdad, U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters the air strikes had targeted what he called a "suspected foreign fighter safe house."
Nada Dumani, an ICRC spokeswoman in Baghdad, criticized the U.S. operation today. She said even if U.S. ground troops had come under hostile fire, there are "rules of proportion in retaliation" and an "absolute need to prevent civilian casualties."
Analysts say the killing of civilians, if proven, would likely further damage the reputation of the U.S. military in Iraq -- which already has suffered from criticism over last month's operations in Al-Fallujah and the scandal over the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghurayb prison in Baghdad.
Residents of a village near the western Iraqi desert town of Qaim claim that many of the victims were guests at a wedding party and were sleeping at the time of the attack. Among them was Seham Ibrahim, a woman who says she witnessed the air strikes.
"We were at the wedding in Qabr el-Deen [near Qaim], and 47 people were killed. One of them was my cousin Hussein and another was my cousin Ahmad. They were brothers," Ibrahim said.
Video footage broadcast by Arab television stations late yesterday showed a truck carrying the bodies of Iraqis who reportedly were killed in the attack -- including women and small children.
Additional footage shot by the Associated Press Television Network shows some 40 people in the village digging and gathered around fresh graves. It is not immediately possible to confirm claims by those villagers that the bodies and graves were those of victims of the air strikes several hours earlier.
Witnesses and Iraqi officials in the area said they thought the air strikes were conducted by helicopters. One witness who said he was from the village, but who refused to give his name, told the Al-Arabiyah satellite television network that he heard more than 100 explosions that he thought were caused by U.S. bombs.
"We went to the area where there are [several] houses and a wedding [party] was being held in one of the houses. Nobody was shooting. No bullets. And then at three o'clock in the morning, they started dropping more than 100 bombs," he said.
U.S. air strikes have accidentally targeted wedding parties on several occasions during the past two years in Afghanistan. In each of those cases, civilian witnesses also initially thought they were being targeted by helicopters because they could hear a propeller-driven aircraft.
But in most cases, the U.S. military disclosed later that close air support had been provided by a AC-130 Spectre gunship. That is a propeller-driven airplane that circles a combat area at a low altitude and can fire hundreds of rounds of artillery shells from an onboard cannon.