WASHINGTON -- The United States, marshaling its public relations apparatus to blunt a propaganda victory by Saddam Hussein, expressed deep regret over civilian deaths in Baghdad yesterday while advancing suspicions that the Iraqi government had deliberately put innocents in harm's way.
"The loss of civilian lives in time of war is a truly tragic consequence," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in an unusual televised statement at 11:45 a.m. after Cable News Network broadcast film of bodies being recovered from the rubble in Baghdad.
"Civilian hostages were moved in November and December to military sites for use as human shields," he said.
"POWs reportedly have been placed at military sites. Roving bands of execution squads search out deserters among his own ranks of servicemen. Command and control centers in Iraq have been placed on top of schools and public buildings."
Saying that the Iraqi leader "kills civilians intentionally and with purpose," Mr. Fitzwater added, "Saddam Hussein created this war. He created the military bunkers, and he can bring the war to an end."
Similar statements were delivered later by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler.
The human drama wrought by the bombing exploded against a backdrop of mounting frustration, expressed by President Bush only the day before, over how Iraq had successfully focused world attention on civilian casualties from the allied bombardment.
Yesterday's coordinated statements followed a weekly breakfast by three of the president's top advisers: Mr. Cheney, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who also discussed the bombing with Mr. Bush.
Chief spokesmen for the White House and State and Defense departments later conferred by phone.
"The feeling was sort of universal about how this bombing would be used by Saddam," an administration official said.
A senior official said the administration felt the need to put into perspective the "heart-rending" visuals being aired from Baghdad that were "horrible to watch."
Mr. Fitzwater said that the fact that civilians were in the bunker at 4:30 a.m. "tends to lend itself to our suspicions that they were there on purpose and they were made vulnerable on purpose."
While offering no proof, he said later, "I'm saying that he's putting his own people at risk for military purposes, and it's an outrage regardless of for whatever purpose that is."
In the Arab world, yesterday's Baghdad casualties were expected to intensify opposition to the U.S.-led military coalition among certain Arabs and other Muslims, particularly in North Africa and Jordan, and also sway some opinion in Egypt, one diplomat said.
"Of course it will be an added shot in [Mr. Hussein's] arm," the diplomat said. He is winning the propaganda war in countries "already susceptible to his propaganda," including those "on the outer fringes of the Muslim and Arab world."
When Iraq disclosed that it was using Western hostages, and later prisoners of war, as human shields at strategic targets, the Bush administration said that would not affect its military strategy.
Mr. Fitzwater said yesterday that, where Iraqi civilians were concerned, "we'll apply the principle that we do not attack civilian targets, but we have to make judgments on every one."
The bombing occurred just before the first formal United Nations Security Council meeting on the Persian Gulf crisis since the war broke out. The session will be held today.
The United States and its allies worked to prevent an open session for fear of giving the impression of disunity within the Security Council.