Washington — Three U.S. Green Berets were killed and 20 were wounded in the battle to seize the southern Afghan city of Kandahar early Wednesday when an American bomber dropped a massive, 2,000-pound "smart" bomb about 100 yards away, in the first deadly "friendly fire" incident to befall U.S. troops in the war, Pentagon officials said.
The blast also killed five Afghans and injured 20 more as they fought alongside the U.S. soldiers, who were locked in a heated gun battle with Taliban forces a few miles north of Kandahar, the last major stronghold of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, defense officials said.
The opposition forces were led by Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal chief who was named prime minister of the provisional Afghan government Wednesday by a coalition of anti-Taliban Afghans meeting in Germany. Karzai might have been slightly injured in the blast but "has been visible and seems to be fine," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
The U.S. Central Command, which is directing the war, began an investigation into why the precision-guided "smart" bomb landed near enough to strike U.S. special forces who had called for air support.
The Pentagon identified the slain soldiers as Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of Frazier Park, Calif.; Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Watauga, Tenn.; and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory, 32, of Cheshire, Mass.
They were members of the Army's 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Top al-Qaida aide believed dead
Elsewhere on the battleground, as opposition soldiers entered caves in northeastern Afghanistan in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, reports persisted that Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician widely regarded as bin Laden's top aide, died in bombing attacks there. The front-line commander for anti-Taliban soldiers in the city of Jalalabad, Aleem Shah, said he received word of the death Wednesday morning by walkie-talkie.
But officials at the Pentagon, CIA and State Department were unable Wednesday to verify the persistent reports of death, which would be nearly as serious a blow to al-Qaida terrorist network as elimination of bin Laden himself. A U.S. intelligence source said reports that members of Zawahiri's family were killed in Tora Bora "appear to have a greater degree of credibility."
Muslim activists in Egypt said Zawahri's wife and three daughters were killed by U.S. bombing in or around Kandahar, along with some relatives of other Arabs in al-Qaida.
Responding to the Kandahar accident, Pentagon officials cautioned that they didn't yet know enough to evaluate it and declined to speculate on potential causes. But neither the high-flying B-52 plane nor the bomb used in the attack are among the weapons most closely tailored to ground support missions.
The B-52 might have been the closest warplane in the region, said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Other military officials speculated that the U.S. forces calling in the strikes might have requested massive bombing to take out large numbers of Taliban ground troops.
Other warplanes in the region might have offered more surgical air cover. When Marine Super Stallion transport helicopters pulled the wounded from the scene about two hours after the 9:45 a.m. PST incident, they were accompanied by low-flying Cobra attack helicopters designed to support ground troops with heavy fire. Calling in airstrikes on enemy forces nearby is "one of the potentially most hazardous type of missions" a soldier encounters, Stufflebeem said.
The bomb that killed the servicemen, a Joint Direct Attack Munition, is the same type that injured five U.S. servicemen and a number of opposition fighters who were trying to quell a prison uprising in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif last month. That incident is also under investigation.
'There will be fatalities'
The battle deaths underscored the heightened peril U.S. forces face in battling the most intransigent elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida as they make a final stand in Kandahar, their spiritual capital.
A combination of U.S. air power, special operations troops and opposition armies has drawn an anti-Taliban curtain across Afghanistan. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials have taken pains in recent days to warn Americans that the most dangerous part of the war lies ahead in the hunt for holdouts.
President Bush, who warned earlier this week that "there will be fatalities," offered his condolences to the families of the slain soldiers Wednesday.
"I, along with all the rest of America, grieve for the loss of life in Afghanistan," the president said. "Our prayers and sympathies go to the families. And I want the families to know that they died for a noble and just cause, that the fight against terror is noble and it's just, and they defend freedom. And for that, we're grateful."
Ultimately, Pentagon strategists said, the blame lies with the Taliban.
"We did not ask for this war. We did not start this war," Pentagon spokeswoman Clarke said. "And every casualty rests at the feet of the al-Qaida and the Taliban."