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U.S. to investigate allegations of attack on wedding party

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An Iraqi who claimed he witnessed Wednesday's predawn airstrike by U.S. forces on a house in western Iraq said U.S. forces attacked a wedding party and killed more than 40 people.

U.S. officials continued to maintain on Thursday that the strike was on a safehouse used by foreign fighters, but said they'd investigate the incident.

Videotape reportedly of the victims' bodies has aired on Arab television and is fueling further outrage against the United States for what many Iraqis see as a pattern of abuse and disregard for Iraqis by American soldiers.

Basim Shehab, an organ player for a local band, said Thursday that he went to a border town near Syria on Sunday to play at a wedding party. His descriptions of the party and the military operation couldn't be independently verified, but other Iraqis offered similar eyewitness accounts.

On Thursday, Shehab was home in Baghdad to bury his band mates, including a popular singer. He said his four fellow musicians and the singer—all relatives—were among those who were killed 15 miles from the Syrian border early Wednesday.

Shehab, 26, who claimed he was present and sleeping in a tent when the airstrike occurred, said the attack "was like Hell. Everything was on fire."

He spoke at the funeral of two of his band mates, who were his cousins, in the al Hurriya neighborhood of Baghdad. Dozens of mourners attended. The two cheap wooden coffins used to return their bodies were leaning against the wall of a building.

In Ramadi, an Iraqi police official and a doctor confirmed that the bodies of five band members from Baghdad were delivered to the hospital morgue there late Wednesday afternoon, and that family members from Baghdad recovered the bodies Thursday morning.

On Thursday evening, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the senior military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the incident would be investigated. But he continued to express skepticism that there was a wedding party in the remote area where the airstrike occurred.

"Because of the interest shown by the media, we're going to have an investigation. Some of the allegations that have been made would cause us to go back and look at this," Kimmitt said. "But it's important to understand that this operation was not something that just fell out of the sky."

Kimmitt said the operation was based on intelligence gathered by the military about the location, which he said was believed to be a way station on a "rat line," a route known to be traveled by smugglers and foreign fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.

He said coalition forces encountered a group of 34 or 35 men and "a number of women, less than a handful" at the location.

Kimmitt disputed a videotape that shows dead children allegedly killed in the attack.

He said forces on the ground after the incident "did not find any dead children among the casualties."

U.S. military officials haven't disputed that more than 40 people may have been killed.

Kimmitt said troops at the scene found a variety of weapons, including shotguns, handguns, rifles and machine guns. They also found foreign passports, four-by-four vehicles, jewelry, a satellite telephone and the equivalent of $1,000 in Iraqi dinars. He didn't mention Syrian currency, which military officials initially reported was among the items.

Officials said coalition forces ordered the airstrike after encountering hostile fire from the location. "We believe we operated within the rules of engagement," Kimmitt said.

"We're satisfied at this point that the intelligence that led us there was validated by what we found on the ground, and it was not that there was a wedding party going on," Kimmitt said.

Shehab said there was a party, but it ended early Tuesday night because a U.S. plane was circling in the sky nearby and the partygoers got nervous.

Sometime around 3 a.m., as he and his band and the family throwing the party slept in a tent and a house, they were awakened by explosions.

"Fire was coming from the sky," he said.

He said he ran from the tent into the desert and hid in some bushes several hundred yards away.

Shehab said he didn't see anyone firing at the U.S. forces and didn't see any weapons at the party, which lasted several days.

He claimed that two hours later he saw two massive Chinook helicopters arrive and unload several tanks.

He also claimed that he saw U.S. troops shoot the wounded as they lay on the ground and then plant explosives in the house to destroy what remained.

On Wednesday, he said, he drove toward home in a small caravan of vehicles that included a truck to carry the dead. The bodies of two wedding photographers were dropped off and buried in their hometown of Ramadi. The bodies of his band mates were left at the hospital around 5:30 p.m. to be picked up the next morning.

The two that were buried Thursday, Hussein Ali Ahmed, 35, the singer, and Muhammed Ali Ahmed, 26, another organ player, were brothers.

Also among the dead were the bride and groom, Shehab and others said.

Shehab said the band, called Al Ateaf, played with a violin, flute, guitar, organ and drums. He joined the band three years ago.

He said the band had played two years ago for the family that threw the wedding party and they were hired again

They were to be paid 600,000 Iraqi dinars this time, and including tips from partygoers, the band expected to take home 4 million dinars—about $2,700, Shehab said.

He said U.S. troops took the money.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BOMBING

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