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US air strikes kill 56; envoy says charter changes possible

BAGHDAD, Wednesday (AFP) US air strikes on suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts in Iraq near the Syrian border killed at least 56 people, an Iraqi security source said, as Sunnis organized to defeat a draft constitution.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, meanwhile, said that changes to the draft constitution were still possible, raising the hopes of Iraq's disgruntled Sunni Arabs.

The move came as the Sunnis, whose community is believed to form the backbone of the raging insurgency, were seeking alliances to defeat the charter in an October 15 referendum. "At least 56 people were killed in the air strikes carried out by US forces near Qaim close to the Syrian border," a security source told AFP.

The US military said it had no exact number of casualties.

"There was a total of three strikes targeting terrorist safe houses ... Abu Islam and several associates are believed killed," a US military spokesman in Baghdad said, referring to a reported Al-Qaeda operative. Abu Islam was holed up around Karabila near Qaim, 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of Baghdad, he added.

The US military launched similar strikes Friday against another suspected Al-Qaeda hideout also in the restive Al-Anbar province of western Iraq.

Around 50 militants associated with Al-Qaeda frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were in a safe house in the border town of Husaybah at the time, the military said without providing details of casualties.

One US soldier was killed and another wounded when their helicopter was downed Monday by rebel gunfire near Tall Afar, outside the main northern city of Mosul, the US military said Tuesday. Elsewhere, rebels killed at least 13 people including seven Iraqi policemen in a string of attacks in Baghdad and to the north, security sources said.

Khalilzad hinted that the draft constitution presented to parliament on Sunday after weeks of tortuous negotiations, which failed to bring the Sunnis on board was still an incomplete document.

"If Iraqis amongst themselves, in the assembly and of course from outside, decide to make some adjustments to the draft that was presented two or three days ago, it is entirely up to them," he told reporters.

"I believe that a final ... draft has not yet been - or the edits have not been - presented yet, so that is something that Iraqis will have to talk to each other and decide for themselves."

President Jalal Talabani announced Sunday that the draft was ready to be put to the referendum in October for the Iraqi people to decide on its fate.

The Sunnis are now mobilizing to strike alliances across the sectarian divide with any ethnic or religious groups opposed to the charter in a bid to defeat it in the referendum.

Sunni leaders said they were opening talks with the movement of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "We would like to cooperate with Moqtada al-Sadr and very soon we will start negotiations with him," Saleh al-Motlag, a top Sunni negotiator, told     AFP.



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