US says bombs Qaeda house, Iraqis say 40 dead

Mon Oct 31, 3:49 AM ET

RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. aircraft bombed a house near the Syrian border before dawn on Monday in what the military said was a precision strike on an al Qaeda leader.

A local hospital doctor in the Iraqi town of Qaim said 40 people were killed and 20 wounded, many of them women and children, and a tribal leader said there were no guerrillas in the area.

A U.S. military spokesman said the precision bombing in Karabila, close to Qaim, was meant to avoid civilian casualties.

U.S. and Iraqi officials describe Qaim and the Euphrates Valley running southeast from the Syrian border as a prime channel for foreign Islamist fighters heading for Baghdad.

"The Americans started to bomb around Betha from after midnight (2100 GMT) until dawn," said a police officer, reached by telephone, who asked not to be named for his own security.

He did not know the number of casualties who were taken from the village of Betha, outside Karabila, to Qaim hospital.

At the hospital, doctor Ammar al-Marsoumi said he believed 40 civilians were killed and 20 wounded; rescuers were still trying to remove bodies from the rubble, he added.

Mohammad al-Karbouli, a local tribal leader said: "There are no insurgents in this area, they are all harmless families."

Colonel David Lapan, in a reply to an e-mail about the bombing, said: "The only air strike in that area (west of Qaim) of which I am aware is an attack on a terrorist safe house in Karabila that occurred before dawn this morning.

"A senior al Qaeda cell leader was the target of the strike. The timing of the attack and use of precision-guided munitions is intended to avoid civilian casualties."

U.S. marines have mounted several offensives against their strongholds in the area over the past few months as part of efforts to stem the insurgency among Iraq's once dominant Sunni Arab minority against the U.S.-backed, Shi'ite-led government.

Local Iraqi and U.S. military officials have frequently contradicted each other on the nature and number of casualties. U.S. officers accuse local doctors of inflating casualty figures and describing dead guerrilla fighters as civilians.

Independent verification of the casualties was not possible; the conflict has made it all but impossible for journalists to operate in the area most of the time.