BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – U.S. helicopters and warplanes bombed two villages near the city of Ramadi, a hotbed of Sunni-Arab insurgents west of Baghdad, killing around 70 Iraqis, the military said Monday. The military said all the dead were militants, though witnesses said at least 39 were civilians.
The violence on Sunday occurred a day after Iraq voted on — and apparently passed — a landmark constitution that many Sunnis opposed. On referendum day, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers iin a vehicle in the Al-Bu Ubaid village on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi.
On Sunday, a group of around two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the U.S. vehicle and were hit by the airstrikes by U.S. warplanes, both the military and witnesses said.
The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing around 20 people, described by the statement as "terrorists."
But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the U.S. vehicle or pick pieces off of it — as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit.
The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 people, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their names fearing
The other deaths occured in the village of Al-Bu Faraj. The military said a group of gunmen opened fire on a Cobra attack helicopter that had spotted their position. The Cobra returned fire, killing around 10. The men ran into a nearby house, where gunmen were seen unloading weapons. An F/A-18 warplane struck the building with a bomb, killing 40 insurgents, the military said.
Witnesses said at least 14 of the dead were civilians. First, one man was wounded in an airstrike, and when he was brought into a nearby building, warplanes struck the building, said the witnesses, refusing to give their names for concern about their safety.
Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, is a stronghold for Sunni insurgents, and few people cast ballots there during Saturday”s referendum — either out of fear of militants” reprisals or out of rejection of the new constitution.
A U.S. Marine was also killed by a bomb Saturday in the town of Saqlawiyah, 45 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. The weekend”s U.S. military fatalities brought to at least 1,976 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.