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Iraqi munitions explode in Baghdad; at least 6 civilians killed

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Explosions rocked a U.S. Army encampment filled with captured Iraqi Army munitions Saturday, unleashing fireballs into the skies over eastern Baghdad and spewing rockets and missiles into surrounding civilian areas—killing and wounding at least 10 Iraqi citizens.

It was the worst single episode of civilian casualties since U.S. troops invaded the capital three weeks ago. Afterward, seething Iraqis poured into the streets of Zafaraniyeh, a predominantly Shiite Muslim district of Iraq's capital, at times swarming around U.S. forces in anger over the incident.

"George W. Bush and Saddam are both criminals," said Hasna Aboud, an elderly woman who said she had relatives among the dead.

While President Bush is reported to be preparing to declare victory over Iraq next week, the peace appeared uneasy Saturday as Kurds skirmished with Arabs around the northern city of Mosul, more violence was reported in Al Kut and, according to U.S. military briefers, Iranian special forces conducted cross-border raids into Kurdish Iraq southeast of Sulimaniyah. They were said to be pursuing Iranian rebels backed by Iraq.

Army Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer blamed the Zafaraniyeh blasts on unidentified attackers who he said fired four flares shortly before 8 a.m. into a compound used by U.S. forces to collect unexploded Iraq munitions. The site was packed, he said, with "everything from small arms munitions and howitzer rounds up to Frog-7 missiles," all slated for safe disposal.

Heat from the incendiary rounds set off an uncontrolled fusillade of missiles, rockets and munitions that rained down on nearby homes.

A U.S. military spokesman at Central Command headquarters at Camp Doha, Kuwait, put the toll at six Iraqis killed and four wounded. The local hospital reported 10 Iraqis dead and 51 wounded.

Thamer Khuzen, 29, said several members of his family had disappeared. He said the only trace of his wife was a bloody hand smear in the kitchen.

Khuzen's wife, Suad Abdullah, 25, turned up at the Zafaraniyeh Hospital with a huge gauze bandage on her head and blood smeared around her nose and eyes. She didn't know whether her husband was alive. Her 18-month-old daughter Zaynab lay beside her in a hospital bed, ribs broken, lacerations everywhere, blood caked in her ears.

"I was doing breakfast for the kids," said Abdullah. "Suddenly, I heard an explosion. I don't know what happened to my husband and two of my kids."

Zafaraniyeh residents said the first sign of trouble came when American soldiers—some of them barefoot—burst from their two-week-old base and scattered into neighboring streets soon after the initial explosion.

"I don't know what happened. All I know is they said, `Get your asses out if here,' and we ran," shouted an agitated soldier from Charlie Company, 11th Engineering Battalion, turning away traffic about a mile from the still-crackling explosions.

Neighbors were so mad that they forced U.S. troops who arrived to help to withdraw instead, said Lt. Col. Kammerer.

He and other U.S. military officers blamed unknown Iraqis for the attack and Saddam Hussein for storing munitions in residential areas.

"My effort now will be to convince these people that we were not responsible. We were attacked," Kammerer said.

Iraqis seemed not to be buying it, however.

New anti-American signs hung at Zafaraniyeh Hospital. One said: "Americans are not better than Saddam." Another said "Saddam=Bush do not care about civilian lives."

"You come here to protect us? Where is the stability?" said a shaken Adnan Abbas, 56, a pensioner, standing outside his house, every window shattered from the blasts. "They shouldn't have placed unexploded munitions among civilians. We are peaceful people," he said.

Zafaraniyeh Hospital medical staffers said they had protested the U.S. decision to use the nearby compound to explode Iraqi munitions, which Kammerer later confirmed. The complex is about 60 yards from a main road, with homes scattered around it.

"It's a massacre, a disaster, worse than the war," said Zafaraniyeh Hospital director Dr. Ghazi Fahed, who thought he saw an Al Samoud missile streak overhead while driving to work.

"Yes, Saddam put missiles among homes—a bad action—but you, the American Army, should take them to the desert, not among houses, too," he said sadly.

Then he added, with a sad sigh: "You know, we were happy the regime went away."

In the hospital courtyard, volunteers wrapped some victims' crushed bodies into plastic bags and packed them into plain wooden coffins. Crowds gathered in the streets for a funeral-like procession.

Some Shiite clerics sought to channel the people's anger with chants of "Allahu Akbar," God is Great, the Muslim rallying cry. Before hundreds of Iraqis set off in a convoy of horn-honking trucks and buses, they used a mosque minaret to advise the crowd: "Please don't carry your guns. We'll go peacefully."

As they marched, the men chanted "No Americans or Saddam; Yes, Yes to Islam." Among the slogans were two in English: "Stop Explosions Near Civilians" and "The Terror After War."

In other developments, the Army's command headquarters in Baghdad reported that several armed Iranians had been captured southeast of Sulaimaniyah amid border clashes between Iranian rebels backed by Iraq and Iraqi rebels backed by Iran. Iran's special forces were said to be leading operations inside Iraqi territory.

In Tikrit, another threat of unrest brewed: Saddam's supporters there plan a demonstration on Monday, his birthday.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ