BAGHDAD, Iraq—The report sounded horrific. A suicide truck bomb set off in Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, targeted children on a soccer field, killing at least 15. The story was repeated by wire services, newspapers and television newscasts. Political figures and humanitarian groups alike condemned the attack.
The only problem: it didn't happen, a senior military spokesman said Wednesday.
"There were no children killed," said Rear Adm. Mark Fox, spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq. "The allegation was false."
The reports highlight how difficult it can be for media to get fast, accurate information in a country where rumors quickly take on the appearance of truth and where deadly violence often occurs in areas where Western journalists would themselves be targeted by killers or kidnappers if they tried to report from the scene.
The story apparently first appeared Tuesday evening on the state television channel Iraqiya, according to a Reuters wire-service report. Reuters quoted Iraqiya as saying 18 children died.
The Washington Post reported in its Wednesday editions that 16 children and two women died in the explosion, citing Col. Tariq al-Alwani, the security supervisor in Anbar province. The Post said the bomb was hidden in a Kia pickup truck and exploded Monday.
The Baghdad edition of the international Arabic daily Asharq al Awsat (the Middle East) had the story on its front page, citing an anonymous source in Ramadi. It said 18 children from age 10 to 15 were killed and another 20 injured. The newspaper didn't specify the date of the explosion.
The Los Angeles Times, which also said 18 were killed but from age 6 to 12, and The New York Times, which quoted a Ramadi doctor as saying 15 children were killed, both treated the story with skepticism. The two newspapers, which both said the explosion occurred Tuesday, cited a military spokeswoman who disputed the accounts.
The offices of the Iraqi prime minister and president were among those denouncing the purported attack.
But Rear Admiral Fox, speaking to reporters in Baghdad's secure Green Zone Wednesday, said the story somehow evolved out of a real explosion that occurred in Ramadi Tuesday—one that was planned by coalition forces, but got out of hand.
"There was an operation that was going on in Ramadi in which coalition forces discovered some explosive material—a large amount of it, as a matter of fact," Fox said.
According to a military statement issued Tuesday, 15 bags of "an unknown explosive" were carried to the courtyard of an abandoned building for a controlled detonation.
"It was a much greater explosion than was anticipated," Fox said. The blast blew out glass and debris from the building, injuring 30 civilians and one Iraqi soldier.
Fox said he thought some of the injuries were among children on a soccer field across the street. The injuries were superficial and not life-threatening, Fox said. The victims were treated at a coalition first-aid station, though some had serious enough injuries to be airlifted to a nearby military hospital, the statement said.
"And then yesterday at the same time there began this swirl about a bomb blast at a Ramadi field and 18 children," Fox said. "We ran this down: There was no second blast and there were no 18 children killed."
Ramadi, in Anbar province, has been the scene of real violence as Sunni tribes battle with al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents battle U.S. troops. On Saturday, suspected al-Qaida forces attacked a mosque where the imam had preached against them.
Meanwhile, violence continued in Baghdad. At least two car bombs exploded, killing 12 people, according to the Interior Ministry. The first blast occurred around 10:15 a.m. on a main street in Al-Baiyaa section of southwest Baghdad, killing 10 people and wounding 21.
In the afternoon, a suicide bomber blew up his car in central Baghdad and the entrance to the Bab Al-Sekh police station. Two policemen were killed and four injured.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.