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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: THE ELUSIVE TRUTH AND HAIR-TRIGGER
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No bombing of Ramadi soccer field, U.S. says

The dismissal of reports of 18 boys slain in the city, where GIs had set off a controlled blast, points up difficulty in arriving at the truth.

March 01, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The story was horrific, even when compared with the daily dose of brutality that Iraqis endure: 18 boys killed by a massive bomb while kicking a ball around a soccer field in Ramadi, their young lives ending in a senseless attack in one of Iraq's most volatile cities.

State-run Al Iraqiya TV first reported the incident shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, scrolling the words across the bottom of the screen. Other television stations quickly followed with their own reports. Before the night was out, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had condemned the act, as had the United Nations Children's Fund.

On Wednesday, though, the U.S. military said the report was false and suggested that someone had lied to stir up trouble in Ramadi, a center of Sunni Arab insurgent activity in the western province of Al Anbar. In reality, it said, a controlled detonation of a weapons cache by U.S. troops had gone awry, injuring 31 people, none seriously.

"There was no [bomb] blast and there were no 18 children killed," Navy Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, said at a news briefing.

Iraqi television dropped the report Wednesday night, and some officials in Ramadi backed off their earlier statements, saying people may have mixed up the purported incident with another bombing.

The one clear thing to emerge from all the confusion was just how difficult it is to get to the truth and how easy it is to inflame the already seething Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq, at a time when Maliki's Shiite Muslim-led government is struggling to contain sectarian bloodshed.

Maliki's hasty response blamed "criminal gangs," a clear euphemism for Sunni Arab insurgents who in recent days have attacked a college campus, restaurants and marketplaces.

"This horrendous act affirms that these gangs are not related to Islam and Muhammad's teachings, and reveal the ugly face of the princes of slaughter," he said.

Because the initial reports came out at night, close to curfew and in a city far too dangerous for most to venture out after dark, the TV coverage did not include footage from the scene.

Given the extent of violence in Iraq, the reported attack, although startling for the apparent targeting of children at play, was entirely plausible. Children and youths frequently are caught in the middle of Iraq's sectarian war and have been targeted in the past.

In July 2005, a suicide bomber struck on a Baghdad street where U.S. troops were handing out candy, and at least 18 children were among the dead. In recent weeks, college campuses have twice been hit by deadly suicide blasts.

In addition, Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province has been struck by a series of bombings as Al Qaeda-related extremists vie for dominance over the region. Earlier in the week, a Sunni mosque in the province was bombed after the imam preached against the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The report of the soccer field bombing was bolstered by comments from Ramadi police and hospital officials, as well as purported witnesses.

Many gave conflicting accounts, but that is not unusual in Iraq, where initial reports of bombings often prove to be very different from fact.

Some accounts said all the victims were young boys. Others said the victims included women. Maliki's statement said both women and children had been killed.

According to some, the attack occurred at 3 p.m. Others said it was after 5 p.m.

One police supervisor said the bomb was so powerful that it vaporized many of the victims, his explanation for the absence of bodies.

Many people said they saw victims being carried away by U.S. troops.

"The explosion was very huge, and the people started evacuating the victims," said Abdallah Salim, a Ramadi resident. "Then U.S. forces came and surrounded the area, and they helped in evacuating some people to the U.S. base to be treated at the U.S. hospital there."

U.S. military officials said accounts such as Salim's could be explained by the presence of U.S. forces who were in the area near the soccer field, having just set off the controlled detonation, and who helped treat those injured by shrapnel. Some of the wounded were taken to a hospital at a nearby U.S. base, said Fox, the U.S. military spokesman, who described all of the injuries as relatively minor.

Fox said the troops had moved the cache, seized Tuesday in a residential area, to an abandoned building to destroy it in a controlled blast, but misjudged the amount of munitions.

"It was a much greater explosion than was anticipated," Fox said. "There were some superficial injuries."

He said the blast occurred in the same neighborhood as the soccer field and sent debris flying into it, but he denied anyone was killed.

"The allegation was false. Obviously someone was stirring," he said, before pausing for a few seconds. "I can only speculate as to what was going on."

Claire Hajaj, a UNICEF spokeswoman, said the organization, which on Tuesday night had issued a statement condemning the attack, was no longer convinced that it had occurred. Hajaj said UNICEF did not have independent confirmation of the incident and had based its response on the same reports that apparently prompted Maliki's statement.

Even in a situation as confusing as Iraq's, she said, the incident had proved more confusing than most.

*

susman@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.

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