BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ A U.S. military plane fired missiles Saturday into a residential neighborhood in Fallujah, killing at least 20 people and leveling houses in the restive Sunni Muslim city, police and residents said.
It was the first significant U.S. military action in the city since Marines ended a bloody three-week siege against insurgents. Since the U.S. forces left, residents have said that extremist influence in the city, west of Baghdad, has only grown.
U.S. Marines declined comment and referred queries to the U.S. command, which said it had no comment.
Elsewhere, U.S. troops battled insurgents for a fourth day near the city of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, in fighting that has killed at least six Iraqis and one American soldier, the U.S. military and witnesses said. In southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed at least two people, including a Portuguese security officer.
In the Fallujah strike, at least two houses were destroyed and six others were damaged in the poor neighborhood.
At least 20 bodies were counted, and they were taken for burial immediately at the city's ``martyrs' cemetery in accordance with Islamic custom of burying the dead quickly. At least three women and five children were among the dead.
Two other people died at the hospital, officials there said.
``At 9:30 a.m., a U.S. plane shot two missiles on this residential area,'' said the Fallujah police chief, Sabbar al-Janabi, as he surveyed the wreckage. ``Scores were killed and injured. This picture speaks for itself.''
It was not clear what the target was, but U.S. officials have said Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be hiding in the city.
Al-Zarqawi has been blamed for the string of car bombs across Iraq, including the Thursday that killed 35 people and wounded 145 at an Iraqi military recruiting center in Baghdad.
In Fallujah, rescue workers combed the scene, searching the rubble for other victims. Slabs of concrete and steel reinforcing bars were upended and twisted, Associated Press Television News footage showed.
Water pooled from a 20-foot-crater in front of one of the destroyed houses, apparently from where one of the missiles struck. One man displayed several Qurans burned in the strikes.
Outraged residents accused the Americans of trying to inflict maximum damaged by firing two strikes _ one first to attack and another to kill the rescuers.
``The number of casualties is so high because after the first missile we jumped to rescue the victims,'' said Wissam Ali Hamad. ``The second missile killed those trying to carry out the rescue.''
U.S. Marines besieged Fallujah in April after four American security contractors were killed in an ambush in the city and their bodies mutilated.
Ten Marines and hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians, died before the siege was lifted and security was handed over to an Iraqi volunteer force, the Fallujah Brigade.
The clashes northeast of the capital began Wednesday in Buhriz when insurgents fired on U.S. troops after they met with the mayor to discuss projects ``designed to improve the quality of life'' for local residents, 1st Infantry Division spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien said.
Buhriz is located on the outskirts of Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad,
Clashes have continued intermittently in the Baqouba area ever since. One American soldier died of wounds suffered Friday in Buhriz, O'Brien said.
The clashes spread Saturday to Tahrir, also near Baqouba, where insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. patrol, wounding two U.S. soldiers, O'Brien said. The soldiers were evacuated to the 31st Combat Support Hospital.
Dr. Nassir Jawad of the Baqouba General Hospital said at least six Iraqis were killed and 54 were wounded in the Buhriz fighting. Municipal officials had said 13 Iraqis died. U.S. officials put the Iraqi death toll at 10 in the Thursday fighting and five on Friday.
In southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed at least two people, including a Portuguese security official working for the state-run Oil Products Co. and an Iraqi policeman guarding him, police Capt. Diaa Hussein said.
The two were driving on a road from the southern city of Basra to nearby Zubayr when the blast destroyed their vehicle. One civilian driving behind them was also injured, Hussein said.
It was the second attack in four days against people involved in protecting Iraq's oil industry. On Wednesday, gunmen killed the security chief of the state-run Northern Oil Company, Ghazi Talabani, in Kirkuk.
Insurgents have also targeted Iraq's strategic pipeline system, cutting off all exports from the southern oilfields in bombings this week. Iraq hopes to resume partial exports this weekend.
Exports from Iraq's other field near Kirkuk were halted last month due to sabotage on the pipeline to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, Turkey.
Iraq had been exporting about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil a day through two southern pipelines, both of which were damaged. A coalition spokesman said Friday the smaller pipeline had nearly been repaired but full exports would probably not resume before Wednesday.
The pipeline attacks are part of a stepped up campaign of violence in the run-up to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government.
Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement it would be unlawful for the United States to hold detainees, including Saddam Hussein, after the June 30 power transfer without charging them with crimes.
The U.S. military has said it will continue to hold thousands of prisoners detained since it invaded Iraq last year and that it could do so legally until a ``cessation of hostilities.''
``The Bush Administration can't have its cake and it too. If the occupation is over, so is the U.S. authority to detain Iraqis without criminal charges,'' said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.