44 killed in US air strikes near Fallujah
At least 44 people were killed as US forces continued their relentless strikes against targets allegedly connected to Al-Qaeda-linked extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi near Fallujah, with medical sources saying that many of the victims were women and children.
Several air raids were carried out after midnight (2000 GMT Thursday), hitting the village of Zoba, some 16 miles (10 miles) south of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, and demolishing 13 houses, the sources said Friday.
The final death toll was 44 dead and 27 injured, the Iraqi health ministry told AFP.
Fallujah doctor Ahmed Halhlil told AFP 30 bodies were brought from Zoba to Fallujah general hospital as well as 40 wounded. He said many of the victims were women and children.
The doctor also said two women were killed and eight people wounded in another raid on Fallujah's Shuhada neighbourhood, which has been repeatedly targeted by the US-led coalition.
Witnesses said several people were still trapped in the ruins of the destroyed houses in Zoba.
"With the authorization of Prime Minister (Iyad) Allawi, Multi-National Forces-Iraq conducted a precision strike and destroyed a terrorist compound known to be used by the Abu Musab Al Zarqawi terrorists for the planning of activity subversive to the Iraqi government and its people," a US military statement said.
"The terrorists targeted in this strike were believed to be associated with recent bombing attacks and other terrorist activities throughout Iraq that have resulted in the deaths of numerous Iraqi citizens," it said.
The military later said it killed 60 foreign fighters in what it described as a strike that levelled a three-building compound on the outskirts of Fallujah.
The military claimed up to 90 foreign fighters had gathered inside the compound to plot attacks against US and Iraqi forces when the coalition forces attacked.
The claim could not be verified and it was not clear whether the death toll reported by the Fallujah hospital included any of the foreign fighters.
Three US marines died Thursday in Al-Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi, but the location was not specified. The killings were not linked to the late night strikes.
Fallujah general hospital, which has been flooded with casualties because of the repeated strikes in recent days, was filled with chaotic scenes early Friday as civilians brought their own wounded in and ambulances arrived.
On Monday, US strikes in the area killed 15 people and wounded scores.
When killed in combat, foreign fighters are not always brought to government hospitals and morgues and often remain unaccounted for.
The US military said the strikes were conducted at 9:45 pm (1745 GMT), adding that the foreign fighters were pushed towards a village, forcing the army to "discontinue the engagement of those terrorists in order to protect the civilian populace."
It did not say exactly where the raid was carried out and there were no immediate reports from the ground.
The US military also said earlier that marines and soldiers were sweeping the city of Ramadi for weapon caches and militants belonging to a network linked to Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq.