BAGHDAD (AFP) US troops were accused Wednesday of killing 40 people at a wedding party in an Iraqi desert town, hours before a court-martialed US soldier was sentenced to a year in jail for abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Pan-Arab satellite television Al-Arabiya and a farmer who said he witnessed the attack said US helicopters targeted the wedding celebration in the village of Makreddin in the Qaim region near the Syrian border.
Al-Arabiya, which aired images of blanket-shrouded bodies loaded on trucks, said the dead included women and children and quoted witnesses as saying the aircraft also destroyed other houses in the village.
The US command in Iraq said coalition forces had targeted a building suspected of harboring foreign fighters.
"During the operation, the coalition forces came under hostile fire, and returned fire," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in a statement issued in Baghdad.
"Coalition forces on the ground recovered a large amount of Iraqi and Syrian currency, foreign passports and sophisticated communications equipment."
Kimmitt said the attack took place at 3:00 am (1100 GMT Tuesday) 85 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Husaybah, and 25 kilometres from the Syrian border.
Local farmer Mortada Hamid, 35, told AFP by telephone from Makreddin that he was in his house, 600 meters (yards) from the strike, when two US helicopters opened fire as wedding revellers were firing their guns in the air in a traditional celebratory manner.
"More than 40 people were killed. Bodies were everywhere, most of them women and children," said Hamid.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel said the strike was carried out by US helicopters and targeted a huge tent pitched in the village for the celebration.
The raid came hours before the first Baghdad court martial in the US prison abuse scandal, at which US Specialist Jeremy Sivits, 24, was sentenced to a maximum 12-month jail term.
In a bleak courtroom in the Iraqi capital, Sivits pleaded guilty to charges of dereliction of duty and conspiring to maltreat Iraqi inmates in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
He said he took at least one of the pictures of naked prisoners enduring humiliation by US troops, whose publication outraged the world and undermined US efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.
Three other soldiers allegedly involved in the abuse appeared for pretrial hearings and were scheduled for more hearings June 21.
In Washington, General John Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US land forces in Iraq, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee to answer questions about the abuse.
"We have suffered a setback," Abizaid told the panel. "I accept responsibility for that setback."
Sanchez made similiar comments.
"From evidence already gathered, we believe that systemic problems existed at the prison that may have contributed to events there," Abizaid said.
"Other investigations are currently underway. We will follow the trail of evidence wherever it leads. We will continue to correct systemic problems. We will hold people accountable."
Abizaid also told the committee the US-led occupation in Iraq was at a vulnerable juncture, with adversaries "pulling out everything they can to make it fail."
Winning the battle against extremism in Iraq will be a long, hard struggle, he said, against "a patient and despicable enemy.
"The people that are trying to tear it apart are ruthless. They are doing it precisely now ... because this is the vulnerable time."
Nonetheless, said Abizaid, the June 30 transfer of power remains achievable.
"But it needs to emerge soon as to who is going to be in charge and what their names are and where they're going to be and what they're going to do," he added.
Meanwhile, the military wing of the group, Unity and Holy War (Tawhid wa al-Jihad), of al-Qaeda-linked Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for Monday's assassination of Iraqi Governing Council leader Ezzedine Salim.
In a statement carried by the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat, Zarqawi's movement named the suicide bomber who detonated his explosives-packed vehicle in Baghdad as Salim's convoy passed, calling him "a lion".
Responsibility for Salim's death had previously been claimed by a hitherto unknown group calling itself the "Arab Resistance Movement/Rasheed Brigades", which said two bombers were involved.
Salim was buried in Najaf, and the White House said US President George W. Bush telephoned his successor, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, to express US dedication to the June 30 handover.
The two had "a good and friendly conversation" in which Bush "assured him that the United States remains firmly committed to the planned transfer of sovereignty and completing the mission for a free and peaceful Iraq," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
He said Sheikh Ghazi "expressed his appreciation for the help the United States and coalition partners are providing to the Iraqi people, and he noted that Iraq wants to build a long-term strategic friendship with the United States."
Bush meanwhile was meeting at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a key coalition ally, to discuss details of the handover.
The deployment of Italian troops has been widely criticized in Italy, even within Berlusconi's governing coalition.