Advertisement
Share

Raid Kills Hundreds, Iraq Says : Claims Civilian Shelter Hit; U.S. Calls It Military Site : Gulf War: Hussein regime puts the death toll in attack on Baghdad at 500. Americans say it was precision bombing of a command-and-control bunker.

<i> From Times Staff Writers</i>

Hundreds of Iraqi civilians, many of them women and children, were reported killed Wednesday when two American bombs scored precision nighttime hits on what Baghdad called a residential bomb shelter and the United States called an Iraqi command-and-control bunker.

The bombs pierced the structure’s hardened concrete shell and exploded inside. The Baghdad government said 500 people were killed. Videotape taken by Western journalists showed bodies, almost all of them charred or mutilated, being carried out of what had become a huge concrete grave.

Scores of corpses lined the pavement when the journalists arrived, under escort by officials from Iraq’s Information Ministry. The facility was burning. Iraqi men beat their chests, sobbing uncontrollably and wailing, “Allahu akbar! "--God is great--as they searched desperately through the smoke and rubble for more victims.

The videotape showed that the facility was marked as a “Shelter” in English and Arabic, and Iraqi officials called the attack a crime. But at allied command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said American intelligence had identified the structure as a command-and-communications bunker. He said U.S. warplanes would not have attacked had the Americans known that the facility contained civilians.

Advertisement

In addition to these apparently contradictory explanations for the deaths, experts at Jane’s military publications, considered to be an authoritative source of information, said the facility may have been a two-tiered structure--"a dual-purpose location,” according to Paul Beaver, publisher of Jane’s Defense Weekly.

“Civil on top, military underneath. . . ,” he said.

In Washington, Marlin Fitzwater, President Bush’s spokesman, suggested to reporters at the White House that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had deliberately placed civilians at the site to prevent attacks or to reap propaganda points if allied bombing produced civilian casualties.

“We don’t know why civilians were at this location,” Fitzwater said, “but we do know that Saddam Hussein does not share our value in the sanctity of life. Indeed, he time and again has shown a willingness to sacrifice civilian lives.”

Hussein has “demonstrated repeatedly,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said, “a willingness to use his population and cultural artifacts in an effort to shield and protect his military equipment.”

Nonetheless, Fitzwater said, “the loss of civilian lives in time of war is a truly tragic consequence.”

“It saddens everyone to know that innocent people may have died.”

In Baghdad

Advertisement

The demolished facility in Baghdad was the only structure hit in its vicinity, a middle-class suburb called Amariya.

Abdul-Salam Said, the Iraqi health minister, called the attack “a well-planned crime,” adding that the 40-foot-deep structure was among five such shelters built throughout the city during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War to house as many 2,000 civilians each.

Stricken relatives and Iraqi civil defense workers at the site said the Amariya structure had always been clearly designated as a civilian-only facility. They added that between 700 and 1,000 women and children routinely took refuge there at night to evade the relentless allied air strikes that have pounded them nightly for the past four weeks.

The facility, said Maamoun Yousef, a Reuters news service correspondent in Baghdad, was part of a complex that also contained a school, a mosque and a supermarket.

Advertisement

There were only eight survivors of the bombing, Iraqi civil defense officials said. Among them were witnesses who said the destruction was caused by missiles--not bombs. They said the first slammed into the entrance of the building about 4 a.m., when most of its occupants were asleep. The explosion blocked the only escape route.

The survivors said a second missile then pierced the 10-foot-thick, hardened-concrete shell above the entrance and exploded inside.

“There are no survivors (in) there anymore,” one civil defense official told Salah Nasrawi, an Associated Press correspondent in Baghdad, just after noon Wednesday. “The fire is melting the metal. There’s no way any human being could have survived until now.”

One of those who had escaped earlier, 17-year-old Omar Adnan, told Nasrawi from a hospital bed that he was the only one of his family--three sisters, mother and father--to get out alive.

Advertisement

“I was sleeping, and suddenly I felt heat, and the blanket was burning,” Adnan said. “Moments later, I felt I was suffocating. I turned to try and touch my mother, who was beside me, but grabbed nothing but a piece of flesh.”

Two AP reporters who visited the scene said they saw no evidence that the military had used the structure.

Already by midmorning, officials on the scene said they had recovered 200 bodies from the underground inferno, and they displayed a list with the names of more than 500 people they said had been inside the building when the missiles hit. “I think there is no question that hundreds of civilians have died in this,” declared Alan Little, a British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent who was among the Western journalists who went to the site.

Little and other eyewitnesses said they later saw at least 40 more bodies at Baghdad’s Yarmuk Hospital, which is among the few medical centers in the city still equipped with enough power, water and medicine to treat bomb casualties. But the journalists added that they saw many bodies still emerging from the underground chamber as they left.

Advertisement

Most of the witnesses concluded that the disaster was likely to have a devastating impact on Baghdad’s entire population of nearly 4 million, most of whom have prided themselves on their steadfastness and their ability to have endured year after year of war with Iran.

“I think the fact that so many have died in a bomb shelter will have a very profound impact here,” Little declared in a report he said was not subject to Iraq’s usual government censorship. “People will say that if you can’t be safe in a bomb shelter, which was built in the Iran-Iraq War and which everyone believed would be capable of withstanding a nuclear blast nearby, then where can you be safe?”

Little and other Western reporters in Baghdad, normally under close watch by Iraqi officials, were permitted to wander freely through the rubble of the Amariya facility. They could interview anyone they chose, without Information Ministry chaperones at the interviews.

They were told to write anything they pleased to describe the scene. Their stories were sent out of the country without being reviewed by Iraqi censors.

Advertisement

Soviet envoy Yevgeny M. Primakov, who returned to Moscow from Iraq on Wednesday, had inspected bomb damage in Baghdad the day before the Amariya structure was hit. He said he had no doubt that non-military areas were being hit and that civilian casualties in Baghdad were mounting.

“Two rockets fell a hundred meters from my hotel where foreign journalists are also staying,” Primakov said. “They hit a convention center, and that is absolutely not a military target. . . .

“My impression is that this bombing is some sort of punishment, and the civilian population is affected by that.”

In Riyadh

Advertisement

At allied command headquarters in Riyadh, American military officers acknowledged that the Amariya facility was located in a residential neighborhood.

But Gen. Neal, the Central Command’s deputy operations director, blamed Iraq and Iraq alone for the deaths.

“From a military point of view, nothing went wrong. The target was struck as designated,” Neal said. “From a personal point of view, I’m outraged that civilians might have been placed in harm’s say, and I blame the Iraqi government.”

U.S. military officials said the ordnance used against the facility was bombs. One official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the bombs were laser guided and were dropped by an F-117 Stealth fighter-bomber.

Advertisement

Neal said U.S. intelligence positively identified the Amariya facility as a command-and-communications bunker before the bombs were dropped. He said the structure had been alive with military activity before it was attacked.

The United States had absolutely no evidence that civilians were using the facility, Neal said. He was asked whether the United States would have attacked if it had known the structure contained civilians.

“Absolutely no,” he replied.

“We have no explanation at this time why civilians were in the bunker,” Neal said. “Basically, he (Saddam Hussein) has never allowed civilians around his military facilities.”

Advertisement

Neal and officers representing the British and Saudi Arabian forces did not directly charge that civilians were deliberately placed in the building as a macabre propaganda ploy by the Iraqi president. But they entertained all such speculation on the part of reporters.

“Very plausible,” Neal said. “We don’t understand why civilians were in their command-and-control bunker at 0400 in the morning.”

Said Saudi Col. Ahmed Robayan, spokesman for joint Arab forces in the alliance: “If the government of Iraq put civilians in it for propaganda purposes, he (Hussein) will be the one who killed his people.”

Said British Group Capt. Niall Irving: “The responsibility lies with Baghdad if, in fact, there were civilians in that bunker.”

Advertisement

Nevertheless, the coalition spokesmen all expressed regret at the deaths.

“You damn right,” Neal said. “If 400 civilians, as reported (in an early estimate), were killed, logic would tell you that, of course, the American public, the coalition forces, are saddened by that fact.

“I would add very quickly this was a legitimate military target attacked by professional officers, struck as planned and as it was targeted.”

Neal and other coalition officers said electronic intelligence indicated that the facility was being used as one of an unspecified number of command centers in Baghdad where military leaders were communicating with front-line units “on a continuous basis.”

Advertisement

He said intelligence photographs showed the recent addition of camouflage paint to hide the top of the facility. Further, he said, military personnel and vehicles had been seen going to and from the building, but not civilians. Finally, Neal said, the United States knew the facility was originally constructed in 1985 as a civilian bomb shelter but had been upgraded and hardened since. He said military officials had spoken with contractors who did the work.

None of the military spokesman would answer directly how coalition air forces would react if Iraq was found to be placing civilians as shields around other important military targets. To date, the coalition has said it would not bomb military emplacements that were moved into residential areas, such as command centers that had been moved into schools or antiaircraft artillery batteries placed on private homes.

Coalition commanders several times cited news accounts from Baghdad that air raid sirens were silent before the attack on the building in Amariya.

In Washington

Advertisement

Senior Pentagon officials said they had no doubt that the facility was a military command center and not a civilian bomb shelter.

Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the building did not look like a bomb shelter and was targeted “in good faith.” He said it was a “shame” that civilians were inside when it was destroyed.

He said it was hit by two 2,000-pound bombs.

“I’m not comfortable that civilians got hurt, believe me, I’m not,” Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing. “But I’m comfortable that that was a military command-and-control facility, and I haven’t talked to anybody that isn’t.”

Advertisement

Nevertheless, he said, military planners will reassess their policy of attacking military targets interwoven with Iraq’s civil society.

“The fact is that it looks like civilians were hurt here,” Kelly said. “We’re going to examine our consciences very closely to determine if we can’t do something in the future to preclude that. Now what we can’t preclude is a coldblooded decision on the part of Saddam Hussein to put civilians without our knowledge into a facility and then have them bombed.”

Kelly said it remains U.S. policy to avoid hitting military installations in civilian structures or neighborhoods. But he said that in the case of command centers in civilian neighborhoods that can be hit with minimal damage to surrounding structures, decisions will be made on a “case-by-case basis.”

Defense Secretary Cheney said that “there’s no question in my mind or in the mind of our key people” that the building was a military command-and-control center and therefore a legitimate target. He said the United States will continue to target command-and-control centers and other militarily significant targets, even if they are located in population centers.

Advertisement

In contrast to Gen. Neal in Riyadh, who said the Amariya facility had been built in 1985, officials in Washington said it was originally constructed in the early 1980s. They agreed that it had been a civilian bomb shelter at the time. Its roof, they said, was constructed of 10-foot-thick reinforced concrete.

But, they said, it was converted to a command-and-communications facility about 1985 with the addition of steel plates on the roof, as protection against nuclear blasts, and the installation of military communications gear.

The roof was painted in camouflage and was surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, according to Capt. David Herrington, an intelligence officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Recent surveillance indicated the presence of military vehicles at the site, he said. He added that no pictures indicated that the building was used by civilians.

Advertisement

He said it had been used in recent days as a command center, but declined to say why U.S. officials were so certain. But other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said electronic eavesdropping by satellites and RC-135 surveillance planes picked up military communications coming from the facility.

The building was not targeted early in the air war against Iraq because it was not a primary communications center, but a backup facility that the Iraqis turned to only after the early bombing destroyed the main command network located in central Baghdad, Herrington said.

Intelligence photographs displayed at the Pentagon briefing showed that the facility was directly next door to the school and 100 yards from the mosque. “Because it was located in the middle of a lot of civilian kinds of facilities, we chose at 4:30 in the morning to strike these targets,” Herrington said. “At that time, two bombs--laser guided--went right down to the center of that facility.”

Officials said the bombs hit within 20 feet of their actual “aim points” and did no damage to the nearby structures.

Advertisement

Kelly said it was “bizarre” that Iraqi civilians would be placed at a military site. He repeatedly insisted, “We’re sure that it was a military command-and-control facility.” He rejected any suggestion that the deaths represented an intelligence failure in that U.S. officials were unaware that the facility contained civilians.

“We can’t detect everything,” he said. “They could have gone in after dark last night when we weren’t up there looking. We had the airplane (already) scheduled to come in to bomb it. But I think the overriding fact is . . . that it was a military facility and that’s why it was bombed.”

The safest place for the people of Iraq, Kelly said, “is home in their beds, because we’re not bombing neighborhoods--we’re bombing buildings that are military command-and-control facilities.”

Iraq has moved antiaircraft guns onto apartment buildings and placed military transmitters in schools and other civilian structures, military officials have said. In addition, they said Wednesday, an estimated 50 Iraqi military aircraft have been moved to civilian areas and to archeologically significant sites.

Advertisement

Allied intelligence recently discovered that two MIG-21 fighters had been parked next to famed temple ruins in the ancient city of Ur on the Euphrates River about 100 miles north of Basra, Cheney said. The city, which dates to the 27th Century BC, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth and is believed to be the birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham.

Cheney said all those targets remain off limits to U.S. warplanes.

At the Pentagon briefing, Kelly was asked why, if the stated goal of the war was to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the United States was still bombing Baghdad instead of concentrating on troops in the field.

“That’s the head, that’s the brain, that’s where the missions come from,” Kelly responded.

Advertisement

Elsewhere

In other developments, reports from allied forces said eight or nine Iraqi soldiers gave themselves up between Tuesday night and Wednesday night, putting the total number of enemy prisoners of war at well over 1,000.

A military officer in Riyadh, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some prisoners have confirmed that Iraqi ground divisions are stockpiling artillery shells with poison-gas warheads.

U.S. forces said they destroyed four Iraqi transport planes and a missile-capable helicopter. The Saudis reported losing an F-5 jet fighter to unknown causes. Its pilot was listed as missing.

Advertisement

British forces said they damaged an Iraqi rocket-propellant plant, where fuel for Scud ballistic missiles was believed to have been manufactured.

The British also said they destroyed five of Iraq’s 17 most sophisticated long-range, multi-barrel rocket launchers.

This story was reported by Times staff writers Mark Fineman in Amman, Jordan; John Balzar in Riyadh; Michael Parks in Moscow, and John M. Broder, Robin Wright, James Gerstenzang and Paul Houston in Washington.

WAS IT A MILITARY TARGET?

Advertisement

Iraq said 500 civilians were killed in an allied attack outside Baghdad on what it called a civilian bomb shelter. The United States said the facility was a military communications center. What was the evidence that it was a military target?

* INTERCEPTS. Without acknowledging the source of “intercepts,” Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal told reporters that allies had confirmed the site as a military command and control facility that was sending messages to front-line Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

* THE MISSION. Neal said pilots had pictures, maps and enough information about the site to drop precision-guided bombs directly inside the structure. The sheer amount of data, he suggested, should indicate that U.S. officials knew it was a military target.

* CAMOUFLAGE. Neal said the roof of the bunker had been recently painted in camouflage patterns, substantiating belief that the building was for military use.

Advertisement

* CONSTRUCTION. Construction workers told the allies that the structure, built in 1985 during the Iran-Iraq was as an air raid shelter, had been hardened for military use, said Neal.

* MILITARY PEOPLE. Unspecified intelligence showed that “there were military folk in and around the facility on a routine and continuous basis” in recent weeks, Neal said.

* CIVILIANS. “I have no idea why there were civilians in the bunker at 0400 in the morning . . . it belies logic,” Neal said.


Advertisement