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DISPUTE OVER BOMBING

Iraqi survivors recount US tent shelling after wedding party

RAMADI, Iraq -- As survivors tell it, the wedding party was in full swing. The band was playing tribal music, and the guests had just finished eating dinner when, at about 9 p.m., they heard the roar of US warplanes. Fearing trouble, the revelers ended the festivities and went to bed.

About six hours later, the first bomb struck the tent.

"Mothers died with their children in their arms," said Madhi Nawaf, who survived the attack Wednesday in Mogr el-Deeb on the Syrian border. Up to 45 people died, mostly women and children from the Bou Fahad tribe.

"One of them was my daughter," Nawaf said. "I found her a few steps from the house, her 2-year-old son Raad in her arms. Her 1-year-old son, Raed, was lying nearby, missing his head."

In Baghdad, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, said yesterday the US military would investigate after Iraqi officials reported the survivors' story. However, Kimmitt said the military maintains the target was a safehouse for infiltrators slipping across the border to fight coalition soldiers in Iraq. Kimmitt said shotguns, handguns, Kalashnikov rifles, and machine guns were found at the site. And he said soldiers also found jewelry and vehicles that indicated the people were not wandering Bedouin but "town dwellers."

"Ten miles from the Syrian border and 80 miles from the nearest city and a wedding party? Don't be naive," Marine Major General James N. Mattis said in Fallujah. "Plus, they had 30 males of military age with them. How many people go to the middle of the desert to have a wedding party?"

But members of the Bou Fahad tribe say they consider the border area part of their territory and follow their goats, sheep, and cattle there to graze. They leave spacious homes in Ramadi and roam the desert, as far as 250 miles to the west, in the springtime.

Smuggling livestock into Syria is also part of a herdsman's life -- although no one in the tribe admitted to that. Weddings are often marked in Iraq with celebratory gunfire. However, survivors insisted no weapons were fired Wednesday, despite speculation by Iraqi officials that this drew a mistaken American attack.

The survivors insist the Americans were wrong to target them.

"They're lying," Nawaf said. "They have to show us evidence that we fired a shot or were hiding foreign fighters. Where are the foreign fighters then? Why kill and dismember innocent children?"

Nawaf and more than a dozen men from the Bou Fahad tribe transported the dead to Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province, which includes Morg el-Deeb. Twenty-eight graves were dug in the tribe's cemetery outside Ramadi, each containing one to three bodies. A wake was held yesterday at a home in Ramadi.

Nawaf's brother, Taleb, lost his wife, Amal, and two daughters, 2-year-old Anoud and 1-year-old Kholood. His wife's body was found clutching the two children, survivors said.

All the men interviewed insisted there were no foreign fighters in Morg el-Deeb, a desolate area popular with smugglers. The US military suspects militants cross the area from Syria to fight the Americans, and it is under constant surveillance by American forces. "We would know if any outsider comes to our area," said Hamed Abdul-Razaq, a survivor.

Sheik Dahan Haraj, the tribe's chief who was also at the wedding, said that if the Americans suspected terrorists, "why not seal off the area and make sure they were indeed foreign fighters?"

Survivors said they became fearful when they heard aircraft overhead about 9 p.m. Tuesday. Then came military vehicles, which stopped about 2 miles away from the village and switched off their headlights. The planes were still overhead at 11 p.m.

"We began to expect some kind of catastrophe," Nawaf said.

They decided to end the celebration, and the bride and groom, Azhar Rikad and Rutba Sabah, went into their tent.

About 25 male guests who came from Ramadi for the wedding and five band members from Baghdad stayed in the main tent. All the women went to bed in an adjacent one-story stone house. Many men, including Nawaf, drifted away to their nearby homes.

The first bomb struck the main tent at about 2:45 a.m., the survivors said. Among those who died was Hussein al-Ali, a prominent wedding singer from Baghdad. The second bomb struck the stone house, killing everyone inside.

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