The wedding feast was finished and the women had just led the young bride and groom away to their marriage tent for the night when Haleema Shihab heard the first sounds of the fighter jets screeching through the sky above.
It was 10.30pm in the remote village of Mukaradeeb by the Syrian border and the guests hurried back to their homes as the party ended. As sister-in-law of the groom, Mrs Shihab, 30, was to sleep with her husband and children in the house of the wedding party, the Rakat family villa. She was one of the few in the house who survived the night.
|"Bad things happen in wars. I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men"
General James Mattis
commander of the 1st Marine Division
Iraqi Mahdi Nawaf shows photographs of dead family members during a funeral ceremony in Ramadi, 68 miles, 110 kms west of Baghdad, Iraq , Thursday, May 20, 2004. Mahdi said they were were killed Wednesday, when a U.S. helicopter fired on a wedding party in the remote desert near the border with Syria killing more than 40 people. The photographs show: Iraqi father Mohammed Al-Rikad, right, his wife Morifa, left, and their children Saad, 10, Fasila, 7, Faisal, 5, Anoud, 6, Kholood, 4 and three year-old Inad. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
"The bombing started at 3am," she said yesterday from her bed in the emergency ward at Ramadi general hospital, 60 miles west of Baghdad. "We went out of the house and the American soldiers started to shoot us. They were shooting low on the ground and targeting us one by one," she said. She ran with her youngest child in her arms and her two young boys, Ali and Hamza, close behind. As she crossed the fields a shell exploded close to her, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground.
She lay there and a second round hit her on the right arm. By then her two boys lay dead. "I left them because they were dead," she said. One, she saw, had been decapitated by a shell.
"I fell into the mud and an American soldier came and kicked me. I pretended to be dead so he wouldn't kill me. My youngest child was alive next to me."
Mrs Shibab's description, backed by other witnesses, of an attack on a sleeping village is at odds with the American claim that they came under fire while targeting a suspected foreign fighter safe house.
She described how in the hours before dawn she watched as American troops destroyed the Rakat villa and the house next door, reducing the buildings to rubble.
Another relative carried Mrs Shihab and her surviving child to hospital. There she was told her husband Mohammed, the eldest of the Rakat sons, had also died.
As Mrs Shihab spoke she gestured with hands still daubed red-brown with the henna the women had used to decorate themselves for the wedding. Alongside her in the ward yesterday were three badly injured girls from the Rakat family: Khalood Mohammed, aged just a year and struggling for breath, Moaza Rakat, 12, and Iqbal Rakat, 15, whose right foot doctors had already amputated.
By the time the sun rose on Wednesday over the Rakat family house, the raid had claimed 42 lives, according to Hamdi Noor al-Alusi, manager of the al-Qaim general hospital, the nearest to the village.
Among the dead were 27 members of the extended Rakat family, their wedding guests and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony, among them Hussein al-Ali from Ramadi, one of the most popular singers in western Iraq.
Dr Alusi said 11 of the dead were women and 14 were children. "I want to know why the Americans targeted this small village," he said by telephone. "These people are my patients. I know each one of them. What has caused this disaster?"
A video image shows a wounded child laying in a hospital in Ramadi, May 20, 2004, after having her leg amputated. The girl claimed she was the sister of the bridegroom at a wedding in Western Iraq which witnesses claimed was attacked by U.S. forces. Grieving Iraqis said U.S. forces killed dozens of guests at the desert wedding but an American general insisted Thursday that the air strike had killed foreign guerrilla fighters and said 'bad things happen in wars.' (Reuters TV )
Despite the compelling testimony of Mrs Shihab, Dr Alusi and other wedding guests, the US military, faced with appar ent evidence of yet another scandal in Iraq, offered an inexplicably different account of the operation.
The military admitted there had been a raid on the village at 3am on Wednesday but said it had targeted a "suspected foreign fighter safe house".
"During the operation, coalition forces came under hostile fire and close air support was provided," it said in a statement. Soldiers at the scene then recovered weapons, Iraqi dinar and Syrian pounds (worth approximately £800), foreign passports and a "Satcom radio", presumably a satellite telephone.
"We took ground fire and we returned fire," said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the US military in Iraq. "We estimate that around 40 were killed. But we operated within our rules of engagement."
Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, was scathing of those who suggested a wedding party had been hit. "How many people go to the middle of the desert ... to hold a wedding 80 miles (130km) from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive."
When reporters asked him about footage on Arabic television of a child's body being lowered into a grave, he replied: "I have not seen the pictures but bad things happen in wars. I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men."
The celebration at Mukaradeeb was to be one of the biggest events of the year for a small village of just 25 houses. Haji Rakat, the father, had finally arranged a long-negotiated tribal union that would bring together two halves of one large extended family, the Rakats and the Sabahs.
Haji Rakat's second son, Ashad, would marry Rutba, a cousin from the Sabahs. In a second ceremony one of Ashad's female cousins, Sharifa, would marry a young Sabah boy, Munawar.
A large canvas awning had been set up in the garden of the Rakat villa to host the party. A band of musicians was called in, led by Hamid Abdullah, who runs the Music of Arts recording studio in Ramadi, the nearest major town.
He brought his friend Hussein al-Ali, a popular Iraqi singer who performs on Ramadi's own television channel. A handful of other musicians including the singer's brother Mohaned, played the drums and the keyboards.
The ceremonies began on Tuesday morning and stretched through until the late evening. "We were happy because of the wedding. People were dancing and making speeches," said Ma'athi Nawaf, 55, one of the neighbours.
Late in the evening the guests heard the sound of jets overhead. Then in the distance they saw the headlights of what appeared to be a military convoy heading their way across the desert.
The party ended at around 10.30pm and the neighbours left for their homes. At 3am the bombing began. "The first thing they bombed was the tent for the ceremony," said Mr Nawaf. "We saw the family running out of the house. The bombs were falling, destroying the whole area."
Armored military vehicles then drove into the village, firing machine guns and supported by attack helicopters. "They started to shoot at the house and the people outside the house," he said.
Before dawn two large Chinook helicopters descended and offloaded dozens of troops. They appeared to set explosives in the Rakat house and the building next door and minutes later, just after the Chinooks left again, they exploded into rubble.
"I saw something that nobody ever saw in this world," said Mr Nawaf. "There were children's bodies cut into pieces, women cut into pieces, men cut into pieces."
Among the dead was his daughter Fatima Ma'athi, 25, and her two young boys, Raad, four, and Raed, six. "I found Raad dead in her arms. The other boy was lying beside her. I found only his head," he said. His sister Simoya, the wife of Haji Rakat, was also killed with her two daughters. "The Americans call these people foreign fighters. It is a lie. I just want one piece of evidence of what they are saying."
Remarkably among the survivors were the two married couples, who had been staying in tents away from the main house, and Haji Rakat himself, an elderly man who had gone to bed early in a nearby house.
From the mosques of Ramadi volunteers had been called to dig at the graveyard of the tribe, on the southern outskirts of the city.
There lay 27 graves: mounds of dirt each marked with a single square of crudely cut marble, a name scribbled in black paint. Some gave more than one name, and one, belonging to a woman Hamda Suleman, the briefest of explanations: "The American bombing."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004