ABOUT 70 people were killed when United States warplanes and helicopters bombed two villages near the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a hotbed of Sunni-Arab militant activity.
The US military said yesterday that all those killed were militants, but witnesses claimed at least 39 were civilians.
The attacks on Sunday occurred a day after Iraq voted on - and apparently passed - a landmark constitution that many Sunnis opposed.
The first air attack was on a group of about two-dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the US vehicle destroyed the day before by a roadside bomb in Al-Bu Ubaid village, which killed five US marines. The US military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast.
F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing about 20 people, described by the statement as terrorists. But several witnesses and a local leader said the people were civilians who were picking over the wreckage of the US vehicle.
The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 civilians, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses, who refused to give their names to protect their security.
The other deaths occurred in the nearby 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 ten. 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. One man was wounded in an airstrike and when he was taken into a nearby building, warplanes struck it, said the witnesses.
Television footage from the scene showed that the victims included at least two children and one woman.
Witnesses said seven other children were among the dead. All the bodies could not be seen in the footage as many were covered in blankets. Two children were among the wounded at Ramadi General Hospital, where the total number of those hurt was not clear.
Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, is a stronghold for Sunni insurgents, and few people there voted in Saturday's referendum - either out of fear of militants' reprisals or because they felt there was no point.
As officials continued yesterday to count the millions of paper ballots from the referendum, the constitution seemed assured of passage with initial results showing the minority Sunnis had fallen short in an effort to veto it at the polls.
The reported acceptance of the constitution was a major step in establishing a democratic government that might lead to the withdrawal of US troops.