Human, political outcries follow blasts

Civilian deaths and injuries in Baghdad neighborhood are blamed on U.S. bombs

War In Iraq

March 27, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - At least one thing was clear yesterday after two large explosions detonated simultaneously in a working-class district of Baghdad, even if much else was not: A week of war between the United States and Iraq had finally produced an incident with enough civilian victims, of a sufficiently gruesome nature, and in a thickly populated district of the Iraqi capital, to create a shock wave of indignation against the "villains and criminals" in Washington that Iraq has blamed for the war.

But was an American plane or missile responsible for the incident, which killed at least 14 civilians and wounded 45 others? Iraqi defense officials said so, and so did the lurid coverage of the carnage on Iraq's evening television news.

Many news reports elsewhere in the world said so, too - U.S. air attacks, dedicated to toppling Saddam Hussein, had brought sudden, eviscerating deaths to innocent Iraqis whose only purpose, yesterday morning, was to pursue their everyday lives as auto mechanics, plumbers, shopkeepers, fathers, mothers and children.

At the Pentagon, officials said they could not rule out an errant American bomb or missile, but they also said the explosion might have been caused by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire falling back to earth or a faulty Iraqi missile.

If anybody doubted American culpability at the site of the bombing in a district known as Al Sha'ab, or Place of the People, there was no whisper of it amid the cries of anguish for the victims and the chorus of angry indignation that green-uniformed officials of the ruling Baath party, waving pistols and Kalashnikov rifles, led among bystanders.

As they have in every place in Baghdad where American air attacks are said to have gone astray, in the daytime or late at night, the local party bosses made a political rally of the misery, leading a rhythmic refrain of loyalty to Hussein - "Our blood, our soul, we pledge to you, Saddam" - and counterpart verses of "Down, down Bush."

The chants also included the Islamic invocations Hussein, in his two television speeches since the start of the war, has made his central theme, along with his calls for Iraqis to kill as many American soldiers as they can.

"God is great!" cried the men and teen-age boys who made a stage out of one of the wrecked cars, carbonized by fire, that had been parked feet away from one of the blasts. And then, continuing the opening phrases of the Muslim prayer in a cold, drizzling rain that fell through a sandstorm and turned every falling drop to spattering mud, "There is no God but God."

Asked whether American bombs or missiles could have caused the explosions, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, at a Central Command briefing at the U.S. war headquarters in Qatar, said: "We don't know that they were ours. We can't say that we had anything to do with that."

He acknowledged that "mistakes can occur" but said it was too early to say whether an American strike had hit the wrong target. "Right now, we simply don't know," he said.

There was not much that Western reporters who were bused to the scene of the explosions could contribute, at least in terms of fixing responsibility.

Notification of the incident, by officials of the Information Ministry, came two hours after it occurred about 11:30 a.m., and by the time journalists arrived at the site, whatever truth had been available in the immediate aftermath of the blasts had begun to evanesce.

All the bodies were gone, even those burned to death in their cars; witnesses who remembered anything very clearly about the moment of detonation were few, and hard to find.

The facts that were beyond contest were these: Two craters, one larger than the other, and neither more than a fraction as deep as the 50-foot quarries dug by the largest American bombs to have fallen here in the past week, lay to either side of a busy suburban road leading out of Baghdad toward the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

Near one crater, a row of auto workshops had been blasted to a rubble of concrete and twisted steel, of scattered tools and crumpled stacking shelves and blackened, punctured cans of oil. Cars awaiting service had been burned in the inferno, and one of the victims, so a witness said, had been a mechanic working underneath a car when his life suddenly ended.

About 50 yards away on the other side of the road were a smaller crater and a similar tangle of ruined workshops, including a modest business selling and repairing household water heaters where two men, named by survivors as Taher, 26, and Sermat, 22, had died.

Someone had made a display item of a severed hand, placing it at the end of a steel shutter, torn from one of the workshops, that served as a makeshift table. Officials pointed out fragments of human remains, including brain tissue, that lay in one of the workshops. In the rain and mud, television crews and photographers competed for the best angles in capturing these and other grisly totems.

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