Sat Jan 8, 2005 02:19 PM ET
By Namir Noureldine
AAYTHA, Iraq (Reuters) - Furious residents of a northern Iraqi village said on Saturday a U.S. air strike had flattened a villa and killed 14 civilians inside, in an attack likely to stir anti-U.S. anger ahead of a Jan. 30 election.
The American military, which has seen its effort to win Iraqi hearts and minds undermined by public anger over civilian casualties, said it was investigating the incident in Aaytha, southeast of the city of Mosul, but had no immediate confirmation on whether U.S. forces were behind the attack.
A suicide bomb killed four people near a checkpoint south of Baghdad, while militants abducted three senior Iraqi officials, the latest attacks in a guerrilla campaign to sow chaos ahead of the elections.
In Aaytha, residents picked through the rubble of the house they said had been destroyed by a U.S. air strike. Reuters pictures showed rows of freshly dug graves where locals said the dead had been buried on Saturday.
"We don't have any confirmation yet. We are getting a flurry of calls," a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said.
Residents said U.S. military vehicles had surrounded part of the village before the strike in the early hours of Saturday. A senior member of the Iraqi National Guard in the area also told Reuters the village had been surrounded and hit by an air strike in a U.S. operation targeting insurgents.
Last May, there was widespread anger among Iraqis after U.S. Marines attacked an isolated villa in the desert in western Iraq, killing around 40 people, including six women.
Survivors said the house was attacked just after a wedding party and that all the victims were innocent civilians. The American military said that while a party may have been taking place, the house was a base for insurgents.
U.S. air strikes on targets in the city of Falluja also caused controversy last year -- the American military insisted the attacks targeted insurgents but local doctors and residents said many civilians were also killed.
Persistent violence, particularly in Sunni areas of Iraq, threatens to derail the country's elections. President Bush has pledged that American-led troops would do everything possible to safeguard Iraq's first national ballot since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But with three weeks left, Bush acknowledged that four of 18 provinces were still not secure enough for Iraqis to vote.
In the past week alone, Sunni insurgents have killed nearly 100 people in bombings, ambushes and assassinations mostly targeting fledgling security services they regard as collaborators with foreign occupiers.
Under pressure to quell the violence, the U.S. military said it had captured a key leader of a northern cell of an Islamist group headed by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, responsible for most of the bloodiest attacks.
It said the arrest marked "significant progress in the inevitable destruction of the ... Zarqawi terrorist network" in the volatile northern city of Mosul.
South of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb tore through a petrol station in the village of Mahaweel, killing four people and wounding 19 who had been queuing up at the fuel pump, police said.
The blast, near a lawless area known as the "Triangle of Death," struck near a roadblock manned by police and soldiers.
Three Sunni officials from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit were abducted on a road south of Baghdad while returning from the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where they held talks with Shi'ite leaders to bridge sectarian divisions over the elections.
The delegation included the head of the northern Salaheddin provincial council, the deputy to the provincial governor and the dean of Tikrit law school, police and tribal sources said. Many leaders of Saddam's once-privileged Sunni minority have called for a delay in the vote, saying persistent attacks in Sunni areas would scare away many voters and skew the results in favor of the long-marginalized Shi'ite majority.
But interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, has rejected any postponement of the vote, which is expected to cement the Shi'ites' newfound political dominance.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Lin Noueihed in Baghdad, Sabah al-Bazee in Samarra and Maher al-Thanoon in Mosul)