American Fighter jets Kill 20 Iraqi Civilians; 15 injured

American fighter jets and attack helicopters killed about 20 Iraqi civilians and injured 15 people, including women and children, during an anti-insurgent operation in the western city of Ramadi, local police and a doctor who treated the wounded said Monday.

The city, 60 miles west of Baghdad, has been the site of a major U.S. offensive, and fighting escalated four days ago, residents said. On Saturday, five U.S. soldiers died in Ramadi when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle. U.S. forces said they launched three airstrikes in the area Sunday, killing 70 suspected insurgents. Ramadi Police Capt. Ali Salem, however, said a number of those slain were civilians.

"An American aircraft yesterday bombed a crowd of people that were gathering around a U.S. military vehicle that was destroyed by gunmen earlier in the clashes," he said. "We transported at least 17 dead people and many more injured ones to Ramadi General Hospital."

Army Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said American authorities had "no confirmation or information that there were any civilians involved. We were going after insurgents using precision-guided munitions. We take great care at all times to ensure that we target only valid, legitimate targets."

Since fall 2004, U.S. forces have battled insurgents in Ramadi and other cities in Al Anbar province, a sparsely populated region inhabited largely by Sunni Arabs that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As the rest of Iraq voted relatively peacefully Saturday for a new constitution, U.S. and Iraqi sources reported intense fighting in Ramadi.

Ramadi Police Capt. Mohammed Sarhan said insurgents used "heavy weapons like mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.... The U.S. used artillery, and airplanes bombed some of these places. This is the reason for the civilian casualties."

The American military said two of Sunday's airstrikes involved jet fighters, and one used helicopters.

An F-15 fighter launched the first strike at 1:25 p.m., after an aviator saw approximately 20 men park vehicles near the crater caused by the earlier roadside attack on U.S. troops. In a statement, the military said the men were planting another explosive device, prompting an aviator to release a laser-guided bomb, "resulting in the death of terrorists on the ground."

About six hours later, military officials said insurgents had fired on a Cobra helicopter, which responded with a volley of powerful machine-gun blasts, killing about 10 suspected insurgents.

The last airstrike took place at 8 p.m., the military said, after F/A-18 crew members dropped a bomb on a suspected insurgent safe house, killing approximately 40 people inside.

Dr. Ayad Duleimi, who treated the wounded at Ramadi General Hospital, said he saw at least 35 civilian casualties.

"The U.S. forces killed 20 civilians and injured another 15, including women and children, when they bombed the city of Ramadi," Duleimi said. "The injured are in critical condition, and some of them were transferred to other hospitals," reports Los Angeles Times. I.L.

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