Iraqi police said yesterday that they had found no trace of the Islamic militants US commanders say were targeted in an air strike on the town of Fallujah. Only ordinary civilians, 26 of whom were killed.
"We have not found any trace of an armed group there," Captain Mohammed Abdul Karim said after Saturday's strike on the Jbail neighborhood of this hotspot.
"The raid targeted a poor neighborhood in southern Fallujah and hit the house of a man named Jassem Mohammed Fayyad, killing several members of his family and his neighbors," Abdul Karim said.
"Among the dead were three children, between eight and 12 years old," he said, adding that the total death toll was 26, including eight people who had been buried almost immediately and 18 whose bodies had been brought to hospital.
The US military acknowledged on Saturday that it knew of 19 people killed in the raid.
But Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt insisted it was a "precision" strike on a "known" safehouse used by supporters of suspected al-Qaeda leader Abu Mussab Zarqawi.
"Coalition forces conducted a strike on a known Zarqawi network safehouse in southwest Fallujah," Kimmitt told a briefing.
"This operation employed precision weapons to target and destroy the safehouse," he said.
It was the first major US operation in Fallujah since commanders halted a month-long ground offensive in the insurgent bastion in April, amid some of the heaviest fighting since last year's US-led invasion of Iraq.
Under a truce brokered by local dignitaries, a new force of Iraqi army veterans took over security in the town, but coalition officials last week expressed dissatisfaction with the progress made by the Fallujah Brigade and refused to rule out a new incursion by US Marines.