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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Falluja raid 'hits wedding party'
An injured Iraqi man is comforted at the hospital in Falluja, west of Baghdad, Iraq, early morning on Friday
Doctors at the main hospital insisted a wedding party was hit
At least 12 people have been killed and 17 others wounded in a US air strike on the rebel-held city of Falluja in Iraq.

The US military said what it called a "precision strike" targeted a hideout used by associates of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But local hospital doctors reported that the raid had struck a house shortly after a wedding party.

The groom is said to have been killed, while his bride was injured. Women and children were also among the wounded.

US forces have stepped up operations in Falluja in recent weeks in a bid to regain control there ahead of planned national elections in Iraq in January.

Friday also saw US forces report that they had made one of the biggest seizures of illicit arms to date - of 1,500 artillery shells - when they stopped a truck in Baghdad.

Artillery shells are commonly used in roadside bombs.

Rubble

Friday morning's raid on the house in north-west Falluja happened shortly after 0100 local time (2200 GMT).

Reuters news agency reported rescuers clawing through the rubble with their bare hands, chanting "There is no God but God" as the body of a man was pulled out.

Doctors at the main city hospital said a father and his seven sons, as well as other wedding guests, were among the dead.

Thursday is traditionally the day for holding weddings in Iraq, says the BBC's Karen Allen in Baghdad.

However, in a statement the US military insisted: "Credible intelligence sources confirmed Zarqawi leaders were meeting at the safe-house at the time of the strike."

Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad ("Unity and Holy War") group has been blamed for multiple attacks and beheadings of hostages.

The US statement said several senior Zarqawi associates have been killed in more than a dozen strikes over the past month.

It said those killed include key lieutenants Abu Anas al-Shami (described as Zarqawi's number two and his spiritual adviser) and Mohammed al-Lubnani.

The BBC's Jennifer Glasse, with US marines outside Falluja, says Iraqi special forces are being trained to accompany the US in an anticipated ground offensive into the city.

Dozens of arrests

On Thursday, the US military announced that 59 arrests had been made so far in a three-day-old campaign by US and Iraqi forces south of Baghdad.

The joint campaign is tackling pockets of resistance within a dangerous zone of farming towns - Mahmudiya, Latifiya and Iskandiriya - known as the triangle of death.

At least 2,000 US and Iraqi forces are taking part in the campaign.

Also on Thursday, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he believed an agreement to secure a ceasefire in the troubled Sadr City district of Baghdad was close.

He said Mr Sadr's men must hand in their weapons and "surrender their criminals".

Later, a Sadr spokesman offered to hand over heavy weaponry, but only on condition imprisoned members of Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army are released and the government stops pursuing other members.

Mr Allawi has pledged that elections will go ahead in January, despite concerns about continuing widespread bombings and kidnappings by insurgents.



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