BAGHDAD -- A US warplane mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb yesterday on a house in a village near the northern city of Mosul, killing several Iraqis, according to witnesses and the US military.
South of Baghdad, meanwhile, insurgents abducted and killed a Sunni Muslim official as he returned from a trip to persuade a Shi'ite Muslim leader to support delaying Iraq's Jan. 30 election.
The airstrike by an F-16 fighter plane on the village of Aaytha, 30 miles south of Mosul, was part of "a cordon and search operation to capture an anti-Iraqi force cell leader," the military said in a statement. The satellite-guided bomb struck a house that "was not the intended target. . . . The intended target was another location nearby."
The statement said that five people were killed and that the military "deeply regretted the loss of possibly innocent lives." The owner of the house told news services that the bomb killed 14 people, including seven children.
The conflicting death tolls could not be independently reconciled, and the military said an investigation of the bombing was underway.
Later yesterday, on the highway between Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf to the south, the body of Ali Ghalib, the head of the provincial council for Salahuddin Province, was found riddled with bullets. Ghalib was abducted on the road Friday afternoon while returning to Tikrit from Najaf, where he had sought to persuade Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to support a six-month delay in the nationwide ballot, according to Shuaib Dujaili, a Tikrit official who had been traveling on the same road.
The fate of three Iraqis accompanying Ghalib -- the deputy dean of Tikrit University's law school, another official, and their driver -- could not be determined.
"I was driving on the same road last night and I saw the gunmen stop them and put weapons in their faces," said Dujaili, an employee of the Tikrit health directorate. "I was about to go and tell the armed men that these are good people in order to save them, but my friend sitting next to me said: 'Don't be a fool. Do you want them to kill us?' "
The attack was a grim reminder of differences among the various Sunni groups that oppose holding the ballot on schedule.
Ghalib traveled to Najaf on behalf of Sunni political leaders who argue that violence in their areas -- much of it carried out by Sunni insurgents intent on thwarting an election that will probably hand power to the country's Shi'ite majority -- will prevent many Sunnis from voting. A US general acknowledged last week that four largely Sunni provinces lack the stability to carry out balloting.
The tally by Lieutenant General Thomas Metz did not include Babil Province, south of Baghdad. That province's northern reaches have been dubbed the "triangle of death" by Iraqi travelers because of the frequent attacks on the road through it. Insurgents active in the area include Sunni extremists who insist that democracy is an affront to God's preeminence.
Relatives of Ghalib said insurgent contacts relayed word to them that Ghalib was kidnapped by one such group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, headed by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The contacts said Ghalib was being interrogated and faced execution if he was found to be cooperating with Sistani toward making elections successful.
His body was found yesterday in Latifiyah.
Rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr joined Sunnis in calling for a delay in the vote, saying that elections cannot happen if Sunnis cannot fairly participate. In a statement read by his aides, Sadr also said that elections cannot happen until the foreign coalition troops leave because elections held under occupation are illegitimate.
The occupying forces are "trying to lead us to sectarian state and civil war, God forbid. Therefore, be cautious and be careful to reject all that could lead to that, including the election process," Sadr said in his statement. "Know that when our dear Sunnis do not participate, it will give no importance to the elections
Nearby, in the village of Mahaweel, a car bomb exploded near a roadblock manned by Iraqi police and soldiers. The Reuters news agency reported that four people were killed and 19 wounded.
In Baqubah, an insurgent hot spot 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, authorities found the headless body of a man who had worked as a translator for the US Army, according to Ahmed Foad, a physician at the local hospital.
The wave of attacks came as Iraq's interim government and the US forces that support it issued statements announcing the capture of men described as insurgent leaders. Most of the arrests occurred weeks or months ago.
The government said it captured a former commander in the Iraqi Republican Guard, Hamid Ismail Darwish, 51, in late October. An insurgent leader named Mohammed Fanjo was captured in December after trying to hijack a truck, according to a government statement that said "the one-armed man" had specialized in intimidation. Iaa Aldin Majid, a second cousin and former bodyguard to Saddam Hussein, was captured in Fallujah in early December. The government said he funded insurgents and directed attacks on oil pipelines and electric installations. The US military said it captured Abdul Aziz Sadun Ahmed Hamduni, described as a senior official in Zarqawi's group in Mosul, on Dec. 23.
Yet another alleged insurgent leader appeared on a videotape that Iraq's interim defense minister played at a news conference in Baghdad. On the tape, Mouayed Yaseen Aziz Abdul Razzaq Nasiri called himself the commander of a group known as Mohammed's Army and offered support for the defense minister's frequent claims that Iran is funding the insurgency. Nasiri said his group was "provided $1 million and two cars loaded with weapons" when its representatives traveled to Iran this spring.
No other evidence was offered. Mohammed's Army is widely understood to be headed by Abdullah Janabi, a Muslim cleric, and its guerrilla forces commanded by a former Republican Guard general known as Abu Jalal.
Some residents of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, have blamed Janabi for the destruction of their homes during the US offensive to retake the city in November, saying members of his group were among those holed up in the city. Witnesses said four refugees from the city fired on Janabi's car yesterday afternoon when it pulled up outside a grocery in Amiriyah. The car sped away, said Sabah Muneer, a pharmacist who said he witnessed the shooting.
Material from Knight Ridder was included in this report.