Explosion kills 27, injures over 100 at Italian police base in Nasiriyah

Hussein loyalists blamed

coalition jets hit Baghdad

November 13, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NASIRIYAH, Iraq - A truck bomb exploded on the forecourt of an Italian paramilitary police headquarters in this southern Iraqi city yesterday, killing at least 18 Italians and at least nine Iraqis and wounding more than 105 others. It was the most lethal single attack made on forces of the U.S.-led coalition since Saddam Hussein was swept from power in April.

The bomb exploded at 10:40 a.m. local time, ripping apart the three-story building and an annex that stand beside a broad stretch of the Euphrates River in the center of Nasiriyah, 180 miles south of Baghdad.

The lightly protected buildings, formerly the city's Chamber of Commerce, served as offices and accommodation for 200 members of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police force, and most were in the buildings at the time of the attack.

"A truck crashed into the entrance of the military police unit, closely followed by a car which detonated," a spokeswoman for the British-led multinational force in southern Iraq said shortly after the blast.

An Iraqi eyewitness said he saw a blue-and-white Russian-built truck approach the building quickly along a boulevard leading to the river, with a bearded man in the front passenger seat firing at Italian guards before the vehicle swung past them and a line of barriers and exploded.

No claims of responsibility were made for the attack, the latest in a series that have targeted not only Americans but other foreigners and the Iraqis that support them.

Earlier targets have included the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Jordanian Embassy.

Hours after the blast, U.S. forces launched a pair of strikes against suspected loyalists of Hussein's regime in Baghdad, signaling a new and more aggressive strategy.

In Nasiriyah, the force of the bombing of the Italian compound left a crater 50 yards from the main building that was more than 50 feet across and 10 feet deep.

The front and side of the building were sheared off, with iron beds, desks, and other equipment and personal belongings strewn in the wreckage.

Ammunition stored in the building exploded, and vehicles in an adjacent parking lot caught fire, sending a huge plume of flame and smoke curling for hours into the clear autumn air. Italian and Romanian troops, who are also stationed in the city, immediately sealed off a wide area around the site.

Many of the Italian soldiers killed and wounded in the attack had been schedled to head back to Italy at midweek at the end of a four-month stint.

In addition to the dead, 20 Italians were among the wounded.

At the Nasiriyah hospital, doctors said 85 Iraqis had been wounded, 30 seriously. They said the dead included three schoolgirls of about 10 who died in a passing minibus as well as a 10-day-old infant, whose mother survived. At least 10 of the injured Iraqis were women and children.

In Rome, Italy's defense minister, Antonio Martino, blamed the attack on loyalists of Hussein, the ousted Iraqi dictator, but presented no evidence to support this claim. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said Italy would not be shaken from its commitment to Iraq and the United States.

An Italian official representing the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led governing body in Iraq, told reporters 12 hours after the blast that its force left little that was immediately identifiable from any vehicle involved in the explosion or of the suicide attackers. Whether the attack was carried out by a car and a truck or only one vehicle was in doubt, the official, Andrea Angeli, said.

Attacks have killed more than 40 American soldiers since the beginning of this month, and a total of 154 Americans since President Bush declared major combat operations over May 1, contributing to a sense of crisis in Washington as administration officials seek ways to stabilize the situation.

The immediate question raised by yesterday's bombing was how it would affect the United States' faltering attempts to draw other nations into committing troops and police to the coalition forces.

U.S. officials say 33 nations are represented in the coalition effort, but a U.S. diplomatic drive to draw contingents from Muslim nations such as Turkey and Pakistan has failed, and several nations in Europe, including France and Germany, have also refused. Italy's role, involving 2,300 troops and police, has been prized by Washington in face of the broader European resistance.

Among international agencies seeking to bring relief to Iraq's 22 million people, morale has been battered by the bombings of the U.N. headquarters in August, which killed 22 people, and the blast that struck the Baghdad compound of the International Red Cross late last month, killing at least 15. Both organizations have ordered all non-Iraqi personnel to leave Baghdad.

The attack yesterday was followed by assurances for Washington from nations that have said they will send troops.

In Portugal, which had pledged to replace some of the Italian paramilitary troops who were the target of the bombing, officials said plans to send 128 police officers to Iraq were unaltered.

But opposition parties demanded that Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso's conservative government review the plan, which has drawn limited support in Portuguese opinion polls.

Poland, which has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq, mostly in the British-led southern sector, said its troops would stay.

The Polish units suffered the country's first combat death since World War II when a soldier died in an ambush last week.

Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, reasserted his intention to send troops from self-defense forces to Iraq, a plan that has been deeply unpopular in Japan, but Koizumi did not say when.

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