Sun 20 June, 2004 12:43
By Fadel Badran
FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister has defended a U.S. air strike that killed 22 people in Falluja, but Iraqi officers in the town say the dead included women and children rather than foreign Muslim militants.
"We know that a house which had been used by terrorists had been hit. We welcome this hit on terrorists anywhere in Iraq," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told a news conference on Sunday.
He said the U.S. military had informed the government before carrying out Saturday's air strike on what it said was a safe house used by militants led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian described by the Americans as al Qaeda's leader in Iraq.
However, Falluja's police chief and a senior officer in the Falluja Brigade in charge of security in the fiercely anti-U.S. town denied that foreign fighters had operated from the house.
"We inspected the damage, we looked through the bodies of the women and children and elderly. This was a family," Brigadier Nouri Aboud of the Falluja Brigade told Reuters.
"There is no sign of foreigners having lived in the house. Zarqawi and his men have no presence in Falluja."
The U.S. military allowed the Falluja Brigade, led by former Iraqi army officers, to take over security in the town under a truce last month that ended battles between U.S. Marines and insurgents in which hundreds of people were killed.
The raid shattered a lull in Falluja and fuelled tensions before the formal end of Iraq's U.S.-led occupation on June 30.
Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad the house was being used by fighters loyal to Zarqawi, accused by Washington of leading a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and of decapitating a U.S. hostage last month.
The Iraqi government says foreign militants are involved in sabotage that last week brought vital oil exports to a halt.
Iraqi technicians repaired a sabotaged southern pipeline in the searing heat of the Faw peninsula. Oil officials said they hoped exports would resume by Sunday night.
Insurgents, believed to include loyalists of Saddam Hussein, Sunni nationalists and foreign militants, have sown havoc ahead of the June 30 handover to a new interim Iraqi government.
INTERIOR MINISTER'S HOUSE ATTACKED
The home of Interior Minister Faleh al-Naqib came under rocket fire in the town of Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, on Saturday night, police said. Naqib was not there at the time, but four of his bodyguards were killed.
In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, further north, unidentified gunmen killed a local council member, Izzeddin Ibrahim Abdullah, and a bodyguard on Saturday night, police said.
A bomb blast near the Central Bank in the middle of Baghdad killed a guard and wounded several bank employees on Sunday morning, a bank official said.
A wave of kidnapping has accompanied attacks on U.S.-led forces, foreign contractors and Iraqi officials.
Most abducted foreigners have been released and a Lebanese official said on Saturday that George Frando, the last of several Lebanese men seized last weeken d, had been freed.
But at least three foreign hostages have been killed -- an Italian security guard, a Lebanese civilian and American Nick Berg, whose videotaped beheading was claimed by Zarqawi's group.
U.S. military officers said there was no sign Zarqawi himself -- who has a $10 million (5.4 million pounds) price on his head -- was in the house in Falluja when it was destroyed.
Last month, Marines killed around 40 Iraqis in an attack on a house in the western desert near the Syrian border. The U.S. military said the house was a staging point for foreign fighters but survivors said a wedding party had been massacred.
The Americans portray Zarqawi as a key figure linked to al Qaeda. In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, security forces killed local al Qaeda leader Abdulaziz al-Muqrin just hours after his group beheaded U.S. hostage Paul Johnson in Riyadh on Friday.
Zarqawi's group has also claimed responsibility for the May 17 assassination of the head of Iraq's now-dissolved Governing Council, as well as last Monday's suicide car bombing in Baghdad that killed 13 people, including five foreign contractors.