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Civilian Deaths From Airstrikes on Baghdad Fuel Rising Anger

March 25, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Saman Atef was finishing a late breakfast Monday when he heard a long, whining whoosh. Before he had time to ponder the noise, three of his neighbors' houses exploded in a rain of bricks, glass and dust.

In the instant the bomb or missile hit, four people were killed and 23 were injured, Atef said, and the people of his working-class neighborhood of northern Baghdad counted one more reason to feel angry with the United States.

Just before the midday attack, a robust-looking President Saddam Hussein had appeared on state television in military uniform and exhorted Iraqis to attack the U.S. and British enemy.

"Cut their throats and even their fingers," Hussein urged. "Strike them and strike evil so that evil will be defeated."

The U.S. war strategy has counted in part on separating the people of Iraq from the government of Hussein.

But the deaths and injuries from misdirected or errant bombs, or from shrapnel and fragments that spray into nearby homes even when the munitions find their intended target, are making more and more people believe that the United States is heedless of the Iraqi public.

The danger to coalition forces is that when the decisive battle comes, many will rally to Hussein and take up arms against the U.S. and British troops.

Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf said Monday that 62 civilians had been "martyred" in the last 24 hours across Iraq and that hundreds had been injured.

Although his figures could not be independently verified, the perception among Iraqis is that civilian as well as government and military sites are being deliberately targeted by the Americans.

Atef's Radiha Khatoun neighborhood, for instance, is a dense warren of ordinary houses. Residents all denied that there are any government or military sites around, and none were visible.

From the start of the war, Iraqi state television has played up civilian casualties, with pictures of the dead and wounded stock fare on newscasts.

The issue is fanning passions just when Hussein most needs the loyalty of the population for the upcoming battle for Baghdad.In a sign that the battle is drawing near, huge explosions erupted in the eastern and southern suburbs around midnight Monday, evidently caused by B-52 bombers dropping their payloads on the camps of Hussein's Republican Guard.

A sandstorm howled and black clouds from oil fires swirled over the city, giving it an ominous, apocalyptic air. Gigantic flashes of orange could be seen on the horizon -- followed by deep thuds of the massive blasts.

U.S.-led forces have already encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance from irregular fighters and volunteers who have taken to sniping at the rear lines of their advance.

So far, the invading forces have been met more with clenched fists than open arms. This has been true even in cities and towns with large Shiite populations that rose up against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The question is whether the same will happen in Baghdad.

In Radiha Khatoun, residents suggested it would. They discounted U.S. claims that it seeks to avoid civilian targets and that the bombing must have been in error.

"This is not the first time that they have targeted civilian buildings," Atef insisted. "They would like to destroy the civilian population."

In response to the destruction, he said, "we will sacrifice ourselves. We are not frightened by the bombing -- we are motivated to be stronger."

He spoke as scores of people from the neighborhood gathered to watch grimly as an earthmover cleared bricks from the destroyed homes that were blocking the narrow lane in front.

Blue-suited firefighters with red-and-white helmets used hoes and their bare hands to sift through the debris, looking for the corpse of a 70-year-old woman presumed to have been crushed in her home. On the ground, a plastic slipper lay in a puddle of water and a black shawl spilled out from the bulldozer's scoop.

Standing in front of his destroyed home, Thamur Sheikel, a 53-year-old Oil Ministry employee, said he had returned from work to find his house no longer standing and his older sister and two young nephews killed.

"Bush is cursed," he said, biting off the words. "They want to destroy the people. Maybe God will destroy them. Revenge on Bush for this aggression. We are peaceful people; we do no harm to anybody."

The mood was similarly dark at nearby Al Nouman Hospital, where doctors treated survivors. Aqeel Khalil, 27, the husband of one of the dead, sat on the floor outside the locked door of the morgue, sobbing and asking why his wife and his mother had to die.

"There is no military site in my house, and there is no gun in my house," he managed to say through his tears.

"We do the best to save the lives of our people," Dr. Labib Salman said. "This does not make us hesitate to defend our country."

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