The US military said the attack early on Friday targeted at a meeting of the al-Qaida-linked network of Jordanian-born fugitive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

 

The attack came despite signs of progress in negotiations to bring Iraqi government forces back into Falluja for the first time in months.

  

But Dr Ahmad Sayyid said his hospital received 13 dead, including a groom, and 17 wounded, including his bride. He said most of the injured were female relatives of the groom who were staying at the house after the wedding celebration.

  

Muhammad Jawad, who lives next door, said he had just moved into the central neighborhood to escape repeated shelling on Falluja's outskirts. His brother and six nephews were killed in the strike, which damaged their house.

 

Shrapnel wounds

 

"This attack shows that there is no safe place in Falluja, and the Americans are not differentiating between civilians and armed men," Jawad sobbed as he was treated for shrapnel wounds to his face and hand.

  

Falluja is hit under the guise of
targeting al-Zarqawi, says cleric

The US command, however, said "credible intelligence sources" reported that leaders of al-Zarqawi's group - al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad - were meeting in the targeted house.

  

The attack was among a dozen "precision strikes" launched since September against al-Zarqawi's network, which has claimed responsibility for seizing and killing several foreign captives.

 

According to the US statement, those strikes have dealt a "significant blow" to al-Zarqawi's movement, killing several key figures including his chief lieutenant Muhammad al-Lubnani and spiritual adviser Abu Anas al-Shami.

 

"This attack shows that there is no safe place in Falluja, and the Americans are not differentiating between civilians and armed men"

Muhammad Jawad,
survivor

For weeks, the Iraqi government has been in contact with community representatives in Falluja seeking to strike a deal to reassert control of the city.

  

Defence Minister Hazim Shaalan said the two sides were near to agreement on a plan providing for a three-day halt to attacks, followed by the return of Iraqi troops into the city.

 

Condemnation

 

Condemning the US strikes, Muslim clerics in Iraq said it was part of Washington’s "scorched earth" policy.

 

Many children have been injured
in US air strikes on Falluja

"Falluja is being hit every day under the guise of striking al-Zarqawi, and residents take out a two-year-old child from under the rubble. Is this al-Zarqawi?" asked Shaikh Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarrai in a fiery sermon at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque on Friday.

 

"The Americans are using [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's scorched earth and collective punishment policy."

 

Referring to the ongoing negotiations in Falluja, Shaikh Ahmad Hasan al-Samarrai at a sermon in Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque said: "Some members of the delegation say the talks are going well ... and then we have an operation that kills and wounds people."