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Some Iraqis Quick to Blame U.S. for Deadly Blast

May 02, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — No one was sure what set off the enormous fireball that consumed a crowded neighborhood gas station and the big fuel-storage tanks behind it. It could have been a stray spark, a downed power line, thieves' bungled siphoning or a burst of gunfire by Iraqis celebrating the return of electricity to their neighborhood.

But the leaping flames had not yet begun to die down Thursday afternoon when rumors ran through the restive crowd that had gathered to watch ambulances ferry away the dead and injured: The Americans somehow must be to blame.

The conflagration in a crowded, rundown neighborhood near Baghdad's Iraq Museum killed at least three men and left two dozen people with grievous burns, doctors said.

It also underscored a mood of gathering resentment in this sprawling capital, whose residents are fast developing a tendency to blame any and all troubles on the U.S. troops who lounge atop tanks parked at city intersections and roar through rush-hour traffic in Humvees coated with desert dust.

"I know this for certain -- they prevented anyone from putting out the fire," said a woman in an all-enveloping black abaya, or cloak. "Yes, yes, I saw them doing so," her companion chimed in, pointing at a U.S. soldier who was directing a chaotic rush of cars away from the blast site.

"It was they who allowed our hospitals to be looted -- that's why people are dying," said Mohammed Abu Razel, whose aunt's home was damaged in the explosion. "Bush says the war is over. How can it be over for us when we have no peace, no security?"

Of course, not everyone believes the Americans are oppressors rather than liberators. But the increasingly volatile atmosphere leaves little room for the sorts of accidents that inevitably will plague this disordered metropolis in the months to come.

Power is being restored, but rolling blackouts still hit many neighborhoods. Garbage pickup has begun, but reeking piles of trash clog many streets. Local telephone service is still almost nonexistent.

Meanwhile, many people, including well-educated professionals, seem to harbor expectations of a nearly instant turnaround in a standard of living that has greatly eroded over the last decade.

Popular anger against the Americans was fueled this week when at least 16 Iraqis were killed in two separate incidents of gunfire involving U.S. troops in the town of Fallouja, 30 miles west of Baghdad.

On Thursday, assailants lobbed two grenades over the wall of a Fallouja compound the troops had taken over as a base. Seven Americans were wounded, although none of the injuries were life-threatening.

In Baghdad, even those who were glad to see the end of Saddam Hussein's rule are blaming the Americans for a whole range of problems that existed long before the U.S.-led air and ground assault -- the capital's general air of decrepitude, economic hardship and shortages of consumer goods.

Hours after the gas-station blast, at 4:30 p.m. in the western Alawi district, an enormous cloud of black smoke still stained the horizon. Passersby coughed and choked as they hurried through narrow alleyways.

"The explosion was so huge -- we thought it was a bomb," said neighbor Bassem Kharki, adding darkly: "Maybe something that the Americans set off."

U.S. military officials at the scene said they had no information on what had caused the explosion. Witnesses said they heard prolonged bursts of gunfire -- still common in the capital -- shortly beforehand.

The nearest hospital, Karameh, was quickly overwhelmed. It has only a 10-bed burn unit, which already was filled with patients injured during the U.S. bombardment.

Doctors there said three men died shortly after arrival and two dozen badly injured people were sent elsewhere.

"The burns were so very serious. We only gave them first aid -- fluids, controlling shock -- that was all we could do," said Dr. Daoud Suleiman.

Then he too sounded the common theme. "The Americans could have brought a mobile hospital to help us, so why didn't they?" he burst out furiously. "Look at what is here instead -- tanks."

At a large hospital complex known until a few days ago as Saddam Medical City -- now called Medical City -- women sobbed in the dimly lighted anteroom, waiting for news of loved ones.

Wian Abdul Satter's cousin was buying gasoline when the blast hit.

"Someone saw him here and said his burns were very bad," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Now we can't find him; we are afraid he's in the morgue."

In the emergency room, men with blackened, blistered faces, their clothes cut away, writhed in pain on rickety metal gurneys.

"I treated 22 patients as best I could, and I believe all but two or three will die from infections, septicemia," said a young doctor, Ahmed Saleh. "It's so dirty here and their burns are so bad. We simply cannot handle this."

He hesitated, then added:

"Maybe by the time something like this happens again, the Americans will have given us better equipment for all the hospitals. Do you think that will happen?"

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