Tragedy in Baghdad : 500 Killed in Shelter, Iraq Says; U.S. Calls Target Military : Highest Toll of Civilians in Gulf War
Pinpoint missiles slammed into a concrete bomb shelter in Baghdad early today, and Iraq said 500 civilians were killed. The United States said the site it bombed was a bunker used as a military command center.
The tragedy, together with other reports of continuing civilian deaths, is sure to inflame the debate over the war’s costs and tactics.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said allied forces hit the bunker in Baghdad with two bombs. It had been recently painted in camouflage and was “plugged into” Saddam Hussein’s military communications system, Cheney said.
“We don’t feel we attacked the wrong bunker or we made a mistake,” Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal told reporters in Riyadh. “I can’t explain if there were civilians in there why they were in there.”
The 500 deaths, if confirmed, would by far be the single biggest loss of civilian life reported in the war.
“The loss of civilian lives in time of war is a truly tragic consequence,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
But he added: “Saddam Hussein created this war, he created the military bunkers and he can bring this war to an end.”
Despite the four weeks of bombings, U.S. military officials said Iraq has managed to rig makeshift military communications and supply links. They said Iraq was drawing on battlefield experience from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
The reinforced structure hit in Baghdad today also was a legacy of that war: It was one of five big air raid shelters built in the capital during that conflict. Neal said it had been upgraded to a hardened command and control bunker used for communications.
“If we thought that in fact there were civilians . . . absolutely no, we would not have attacked that bunker,” Neal said.
“From a personal point of view, I’m outraged that civilians might have been placed in harm’s way and I blame the Iraqi government and the Iraqi leadership for that,” he said.
Iraqi witnesses said the shelter in the middle-class residential district took direct hits from at least two missiles fired by allied warplanes, piercing nine feet of concrete.
Rescuers clawing through the debris found eight survivors immediately after the bombing. A supervisor of the facility said 235 bodies were retrieved, and at least 300 were believed in the wreckage.
Residents crowded around the wreckage, looking for relatives and friends. Men pounded their chests and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) and women cried hysterically.
At a Baghdad hospital where the injured were taken, 17-year-old Omar Adnan, badly burned, said he was the only survivor of his family of six.
“I was sleeping and suddenly I felt heat and the blanket was burning,” Adnan said. “I turned to try and touch my mother who was next to me but grabbed nothing but a piece of flesh.”
The deaths occurred during a 12-hour bombardment of Baghdad.