BAGHDAD, Iraq—Coalition forces fired on suspected foreign fighters in a house in the remote Iraqi desert near Syria before dawn Wednesday, but U.S. officials denied news reports that claimed the attack killed 40 people who were celebrating a wedding.
The attack came on a day when the U.S. commander in charge of Iraq told Congress that rising violence may require more American troops in Iraq, and as the first trial of a soldier in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal ended with a guilty plea and a sentence of a year in prison, a demotion in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge.
Reports on Arab television of civilian casualties in the border attack and the soldier's sentence fueled rising anger in Iraq over the U.S. failure so far to bring peace and security. Iraqis dismissed the sentence of U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits as being too light.
"One year is nothing," said Imad Hadi, 33, a moneychanger in Baghdad. "They take away the dignity of all Iraq and they give it one year?"
News photos of the attack on the Syrian border showed bodies wrapped in blankets and placed side by side. News reports said the attack killed more than 40 people celebrating a wedding, many of them women and children.
U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad refused to say whether civilians were killed, but a senior military official declared, "This was not a wedding party."
Coalition forces conducted a military operation at 3 a.m. local time against a "suspected foreign fighter safe house," came under hostile fire and called in air support, a brief statement said. Ground forces recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian dinar, foreign passports and a satellite radio.
Coalition troops patrol the border region looking for fighters and smugglers.
In July 2002, a U.S. airstrike reportedly killed 48 civilians at a wedding party in Afghanistan. A U.S. military investigation determined that the strike was justified because American aircraft had come under fire.
President Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that he expects decisions will be made "in the next couple of weeks" on who'll be chosen to head the new Iraqi interim government. He said officials reviewed plans for winning a new U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing these plans. "We've got a lot of work to do," Bush said.
Asked if he thought the June 30 handover of sovereignty could be achieved, Gen. John Abizaid, who as the commander of U.S. Central Command oversees the war in Iraq, replied: "Yes, but it needs to emerge soon as to who is going to be in charge ... and what they're going to do."
The situation in Iraq might "become even more violent" after the handover of sovereignty and leading up to Iraqi elections at the end of the year, and it's possible that "we might need more forces," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
In Baghdad, Sivits choked back tears as he told a military court how last November he pushed a hooded Iraqi prisoner onto a pile of naked detainees, then snapped a souvenir photo of the human pyramid for a friend.
After the testimony, presiding judge Col. James Pohl convicted Sivits and gave him the maximum sentence he could receive as part of a plea bargain that called for his future testimony against six other soldiers.
Sivits, 24, described by his defense attorney as a small-town Pennsylvania reservist who was "out of his element" at the prison, apologized in court.
"I let everybody down. That's not me," Sivits said in a trembling voice. "I should've protected those detainees that night. I shouldn't have taken that photo."
Three of the other soldiers charged—Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick II and Sgt. Javal Davis—are expected to enter pleas June 21.
Western media and U.S. military attorneys filled most courtroom seats. The interior minister, two Governing Council members and a human rights official were among only a handful of Iraqis. The proceedings weren't televised.
Sivits quickly pleaded guilty to all three charges against him: one count of conspiracy to maltreat detainees, one count of dereliction of duty and two counts of maltreatment of detainees.
He then described the abuse he witnessed as a mechanic attached to the 372nd Military Police unit. By the end of his four-hour trial, he had testified against his co-defendants and confirmed reports that superiors encouraged tactics to "soften up" inmates before interrogation.
In Washington, Abizaid told a Senate committee investigating the prisoner abuses that the problems at Abu Ghraib had been corrected.
"I am more concerned about our staying the course in Iraq," Abizaid said. "I am worried we will walk away from this. We are winning the battle against extremism. We must be patient and courageous."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that in a closed session after the hearing, the generals "were very frank about the downside of what would happen if we're not successful. And it was pretty grim."
With Republicans in Congress at odds over how to deal with Iraq and pay for the U.S. mission, Bush on Thursday will try to calm nervous Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate.
Roberts said the top officers were questioned about a recent New Yorker article that said Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had secretly authorized more aggressive interrogation techniques that led to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
"I see no evidence of that," Roberts said, but added: "All hell broke loose in Iraq, and they (Pentagon officials) wanted to get the best kind of interrogation procedures going as they possibly could."
Abizaid was flanked at the Senate hearing by the American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and Sanchez's deputy for detainee operations, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller.
Abizaid said he believed there were systemic problems at Abu Ghraib Prison that contributed to the abuse, but that the problem wasn't widespread.
He said that when Sanchez learned of the abuse in early January he immediately ordered a full criminal investigation and "suspended the entire chain of command" in the 800th Military Police Brigade.
Abizaid said Sanchez immediately telephoned him to report on the situation, and he, in turn, called the Pentagon to report it to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Abizaid and Sanchez acknowledged that there'd been confusion in who was supposed to deal with reports of abuse from the International Committee of the Red Cross. They said one Red Cross report was sent to the brigade commander at Abu Ghraib and didn't come to Sanchez's notice until two months later.
Sanchez said he's ordered that all Red Cross reports be sent to his legal officer and that they be properly distributed.
In other developments:
_Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told committee members that the Department of Defense had found additional photos of prisoner abuses.
_The House of Representatives was headed toward passage of legislation authorizing $25 billion for U.S. forces in Iraq as part of a $422 billion measure for assorted defense purposes.
_Coalition officials reported that two 1st Infantry Division soldiers died Tuesday. One soldier was killed by small-arms fire. Another soldier died after an electrical accident.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Joseph L. Galloway, Ron Hutcheson, Jonathan S. Landay and James Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ABUSE