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Airstrike on al-Zarqawi safe house kills 18

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Coalition forces in Iraq launched a missile strike Saturday against what they said was a "safe house" in Fallujah linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgent wanted in connection with attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis.

Hospital and Iraqi official sources said at least 18 Iraqis were killed and nine others were wounded in the city, where witnesses described a U.S. airstrike. The coalition later acknowledged its operation and did not dispute that up to 19 people might have been killed.

The U.S.-led coalition said it used precision weapons to destroy the safe house after receiving intelligence from multiple sources.

The coalition said secondary explosions from illegal weapons and ammunition stockpiles lasted for 20 minutes.

On Wednesday, a senior Pentagon official said intelligence indicated insurgent leader al-Zarqawi and members of his organization might be hiding in Fallujah.

A senior coalition official said the structure was believed to house members of al-Zarqawi's network, but al-Zarqawi was not believed to be inside. Coalition officials believe members of his network were among those killed.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi has been blamed for several attacks in Iraq, including the car bombing Thursday outside an Iraqi army recruitment center in Baghdad that killed at least 35 people and wounded 145 others.

Some witnesses and survivors of Saturday's strike said they saw two U.S. jets launch an attack and subsequently saw two houses destroyed.

Wounded people in a Fallujah hospital earlier said their houses had been hit by a U.S. helicopter strike. The senior coalition military official would not confirm jets were used in the strike, but he said the operation did not involve helicopters.

Among the dead were two children and a woman, and the bodies were charred, hospital officials said. Two wounded women were taken to hospitals in Baghdad and Ramadi.

News footage from Fallujah showed people milling around and picking through the rubble.

The killing and mutilation of four U.S. security contractors March 31 in Fallujah sparked fierce fighting throughout April between Marines and insurgents, causing scores of deaths.

Fallujah leaders and coalition officials put a cease-fire into place, in part because an Iraqi police force began patrolling the town while Marines were repositioned.

Since early May, things have been relatively quiet in the city about 30 miles west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where opposition to the coalition has been strongest.

Insurgents kill 7 since Friday

Since Friday, Iraqi insurgents have killed seven people in cities across the country.

A soldier with the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division died Friday evening of wounds suffered in combat near Ba'qubah, north of Baghdad, according to the coalition.

Two other 1st Infantry Division soldiers were seriously wounded when their patrol was attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade early Saturday morning near Ba'qubah, a coalition military spokesman said.

Another soldier was killed and one civilian contractor was wounded when six mortars hit a coalition base Friday afternoon in Baghdad.

Also on Friday afternoon, in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kamalaya, three Iraqi citizens were killed and three U.S. soldiers were wounded when insurgents detonated a bomb.

The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq is now 839. Of those, 619 have died in combat.

Farther south in Basra on Saturday morning, a Portuguese national and an Iraqi police officer died when a roadside bomb exploded as their vehicle passed by, an Iraqi police official said.

Other developments

  • In a visit to Iraq on Saturday ahead of the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty set for June 30, three U.S. senators praised U.S. troops and Iraqi leaders, and expressed optimism about the country's future. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina met with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. All praised the mission to restore a democratic government in Iraq.
  • Iraqi authorities intend the handover ceremony to be low-key and discreet, a coalition official said Saturday. "This will not be like Hong Kong," the official said, referring to the elaborate handover ceremony of that onetime British colony to China. The event, which will be planned by Allawi's office, will feature the signing of documents that make the transfer of sovereignty official.
  • Iraq's interim prime minister said Saturday that his country has lost $1 billion to insurgent attacks on the oil infrastructure and the ripple effect across the economy. Allawi said the $1 billion was, in effect, "taken from the pockets of the average Iraqi and the average Iraqi family." (Full story)

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