Sat Jan 8, 2005 09:56 PM GMT
By Namir Noureldine
AAYTHA, Iraq (Reuters) - A U.S. warplane has mistakenly bombed a house in northern Iraq, killing several people in an attack likely to inflame anti-American anger ahead of controversial elections due at the end of the month.
Furious residents of the village of Aaytha, south of the city of Mosul, said the air strike on Saturday flattened a villa and killed 14 civilians. Reuters television pictures showed 14 freshly dug graves after the bombing in the early hours of Saturday.
The U.S. military said at least five people died after an F-16 warplane dropped a 500-pound bomb on the wrong target.
"The house was not the intended target for the air strike. The intended target was another location nearby," the U.S. army said. It added that it "deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives" and that an investigation was under way.
Iraqi anger over civilian casualties in Iraq has dented U.S. efforts to get the country behind the elections. Many Sunni Arab leaders say violence in Sunni areas will make fair elections impossible, and plan to boycott the polls. Large numbers of Sunni Arab Iraqis say they are simply too scared to vote.
Insurgent groups -- mainly comprising Sunni former members of Saddam Hussein's regime, nationalist Iraqis wanting foreign troops to leave, and foreign Arab fighters with links to al Qaeda -- are waging a deadly campaign to derail the polls.
A suicide bomb killed four people near a checkpoint south of Baghdad on Saturday, while militants abducted three senior Iraqi officials in the same area, police said. A female French journalist has also been missing since Wednesday and is feared to be the latest foreign victim of a kidnapping spree.
Residents of Aaytha said U.S. army vehicles surrounded part of the village before the strike in the early hours of Saturday. The U.S. military said the stray bomb was dropped during an operation to capture an insurgent cell leader.
Last May, there was widespread anger among Iraqis after U.S. Marines attacked an isolated villa in the desert in western Iraq, killing around 40 people, including six women.
Survivors said the house was attacked just after a wedding party and that all the victims were innocent civilians. The American military said that while a party may have been taking place, the house was a base for insurgents.
U.S. air strikes on targets in the city of Falluja also caused controversy last year -- the American military insisted the attacks targeted insurgents but local doctors and residents said many civilians were also killed.
Persistent violence, particularly in Sunni areas of Iraq, threatens to undermine the country's elections. U.S. President George W. Bush has pledged that American-led troops would do everything possible to safeguard Iraq's first national ballot since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But with three weeks left, Bush acknowledged that four of 18 provinces were still not secure enough for Iraqis to vote.
In the past week alone, Sunni insurgents have killed nearly 100 people in bombings, ambushes and assassinations mostly targeting fledgling security services they regard as collaborators with foreign occupiers.
Under pressure to quell the violence, the U.S. military said it had captured a key leader of a northern cell of an Islamist group headed by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, responsible for most of the bloodiest attacks.
It said the arrest marked "significant progress in the inevitable destruction of the ... Zarqawi terrorist network" in the volatile northern city of Mosul.
South of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb tore through a petrol station in the village of Mahaweel, killing four people and wounding 19 who had been queuing at the fuel pump, police said.
The blast, near a lawless area known as the "Triangle of Death", struck near a roadblock manned by police and soldiers.
Three Sunni officials from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit were abducted on a road south of Baghdad while returning from the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where they held talks with Shi'ite leaders to bridge sectarian divisions over the elections.
The delegation included the head of the northern Salaheddin provincial council, the deputy to the provincial governor and the dean of Tikrit law school, police and tribal sources said.
Many leaders of Saddam's once-privileged Sunni minority have called for a delay in the vote, saying persistent attacks in Sunni areas would scare away many voters and skew the results in favour of the long-marginalised Shi'ite majority.
But interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, has rejected any postponement of the vote, which is expected to cement the Shi'ites' newfound political dominance.