Iraqis search the rubble of a building that was destroyed in an air raid in a village near Thar Thar Lake in Salahuddin province northwest of Baghdad on Friday. ((Hameed Rasheed/Associated Press))

A U.S. raid and air strike killed 20 people Friday in a predominantly Sunni village northwest of Baghdad, with the U.S. military and local officials giving disparate accounts of whether those killed were insurgents or civilians.

The U.S. military saidsoldiers were conducting a search of a cluster of buildings in the Thar Thar area when they were fired upon. Twoinsurgents were killed by gunfire and 18 others, including two women, were killed whentheground troops called in anair strike.

But local officials said those killed were civilians — including eight children.

Associated Press Television News gathered horrific video of the scene, which showed more than a dozen charred and bloody bodies, some of which appeared almost mummified. In the video, villagers pulled back colourful wool blankets to reveal several bodies. In some cases, it seemed impossible to guess the sex or age of the dead.

An Associated Press photo showed an Iraqi man in blue garb gently holding the dusty head of a boy of about 10 killed in the attack up from a floral print quilt. The boy's hand pokes out from under a blanket, his fingers curled.

This spring, a U.S. military investigation cleared American soldiers of misconduct in a March 15 raid in the village in which air force planes destroyed a building where al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents were thought to be hiding.

Elsewhere in southern Iraq on Friday, British and Danish forces hunted rogue Shia militiamen blamed for recent attacks, conducting a pre-dawn raid that was described by the British military as the largest raid of its kind in southern Iraq.

Change in course

The raids came as U.S. President George W. Bush sought ideas from lawmakers on Friday and lined up three days of urgent talks with military brass, diplomats and outside experts on how to stop Iraq's slide toward anarchy.

Bush is expected to settle on a new course and present it to the nation in a speech before Christmas, the debate and his new efforts framed by the Iraq Study Group's stinging rebuke this week of U.S. policy.

In the meantime, Americans' dissatisfaction with his handling of Iraq has climbed to an all-time high of 71 per cent in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

Incoming Senate Democratic leaders said Bush did not offer them hints of his plan when they met with him to talk about Iraq. They also talked about ending the bitter bipartisan divide that has characterized relations between the White House and Congress.

With files from the Associated Press