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2003-04-26 - 8:44 p.m.

Fury as explosion at weapons dump kills 40

As many as 40 Iraqi civilians were killed and many were injured in a series of blasts at an arms dump on Baghdad's outskirts yesterday, an Iraqi medic told Reuters near the scene.

US troops blamed unidentified attackers who fired flares into the munitions store. But local people turned their anger on the Americans, shooting and forcing them back, soldiers said.

Some soldiers were wounded, an Army sergeant-major told Reuters at Zaafaraniya, a mixed residential and industrial suburb on the southern edge of the capital.

Earlier, Reuters photographer Yannis Behrakis had seen furious local people throw stones at American troops.

A series of loud explosions, lasting about an hour, were heard in the city centre from about 8am (1400 AEST). US troops said they were caused by controlled detonations to destroy Iraqi munitions as part of a continuing program.

But later at the scene, an officer told Reuters that assailants had sparked the chain reaction by firing flares into the dump.

A local medic travelling in an Iraqi civilian ambulance ferrying casualties between the blast scene and a hospital said there had been many victims.

Asked how many were killed, he replied: "Forty."

Local people said several people were believed to be still trapped in the rubble of a wrecked building, apparently hit by an errant surface-to-surface missile from the arms storage dump.

A man who was hurt told Reuters that five people, four women and a child, were killed in the house next door to him in the Zaafaraniya suburb, on the southern edge of the capital.

"I woke up and went to have breakfast," said the injured man, who gave his name only as Mohammed.

"There was a huge explosion next to our house. Fires started all around. Explosions ripped through the neighbourhood. In the next house, four women and a child were burned to death.

"It is a big mess."

An enraged man at the scene vented his fury at the US forces who took the capital two weeks ago: "Why, why? ... The war is finished. A baby, a woman, 14 under this building," he screamed in English.

"May God exact his revenge," added a woman, whose head was bandaged. She was seated next to a young girl whose dress was soaked in blood from a head injury. The girl's leg was being bandaged by a soldier.

Whatever the precise cause, the incident seemed likely to hamper US efforts to win Iraqis' support for their presence, however pleased most people are to be rid of Saddam Hussein.

US Army Captain Patrick Sullivan, from an engineering unit, said the chain of blasts was sparked by unknown attackers.

"Hostile forces fired four flares into an ammunition storage area. One of the flares ignited an explosion and that set off a chain of explosions," Sullivan told Reuters at the scene.

Later, US Army Sergeant-Major Gary Coker told Reuters at a point some three kilometres from the scene that his unit had been forced to pull back because they had been fired on.

"We tried to go and help them. The people came out and shot at my men," he said, adding that the soldiers did not return fire and that some of them had been hurt.

Desperate neighbours shaken from their beds or interrupted having breakfast dug frantically in the rubble of homes, looking for survivors amid the mud and shattered concrete.

Reuters photographer Behrakis saw a number of people bleeding heavily and one man, blackened and burned, being treated by US Army medics. He added that witnesses said some of the victims had their limbs severed or had been badly burned.

"The Americans sent troops to help the wounded but they were met by angry crowds throwing stones," Behrakis said.

Sullivan said one US soldier was also slightly hurt in the blasts. US troops blocked the road leading to the dump.

US forces have destroyed large quantities of Iraqi munitions since taking the capital city on April 9.


Anti U.S. protests after arms dump carnage

By Nadim Ladki

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Many Iraqi civilians are feared killed after an arms dump exploded on the edge of Baghdad, sending rockets scything into nearby housing. Residents blame U.S. troops for the tragedy.

The American military said on Saturday unidentified attackers had fired an incendiary device into the munitions store, at Zaafaraniya on the capital's southern outskirts, setting off a string of explosions.

But local people turned their anger on the Americans, shooting at soldiers who tried to join relief efforts. They said the U.S. army should not have collected confiscated Iraqi weapons in a residential area.

Some soldiers were wounded, an army sergeant-major told Reuters. Anti-American protests broke out later in the capital.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left for the Gulf on Saturday to thank regional leaders for support in the war that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and to discuss future U.S. military deployment in the oil-rich area.

U.S. officials did not say whether he would visit Iraq.

It was unclear how many people were killed in the blasts in Zaafaraniya, a mixed residential-industrial suburb.

An Iraqi medic travelling in a civilian ambulance ferrying casualties to hospital said the explosions had killed many people. Asked how many, he replied: "Forty".

One distraught man, Tamir Kalaal, said his wife, father, brother and 11 other relatives had been killed when a rocket shot out of the arms dump and destroyed their home.

A statement by U.S. Central Command in Qatar said at least six people had been killed.

"Ten civilian casualties from this incident have been found. Six of them are dead, while four are wounded," it said.


About 500 men, chanting anti-American, pro-Islamic slogans, drove out of Zaafaraniya in a convoy of trucks, buses and cars. One truck carried six coffins. Two banners in English read: "Stop Explosions Near Civilians" and "The Terror After War".

Later, scores of men gathered in a central Baghdad square to protest at the U.S. military presence in Iraq, waving their fists and chanting: "Yes, yes to Islam! Yes, yes to Iraq!"

A Muslim cleric with a megaphone egged on the crowd. One green banner read: "U.S. forces kill innocent with Saddam's weapons in Zaafaraniya".

The incident underlined how far Baghdad is from being pacified 17 days after U.S. troops took the city.

It came just hours after aides said President George W. Bush would declare an end to hostilities next week and hail the success of U.S.-led combat operations.

Saddam, his sons Uday and Qusay and many of his closest aides are still missing and no weapons of mass destruction -- one of the reasons the United States and Britain gave for launching the war on March 20 -- have been found.

American interrogators were quizzing captured former deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz and at least 11 other detainees from a U.S. list of 55 most wanted Iraqis. They hope the captives will help them find the fugitives and their alleged weapons caches.

In Madrid, meanwhile, more than 100 exiled Iraqis from opposition groups gathered for a weekend of talks on future democracy in Iraq.

Members of the pro-U.S. Iraqi National Congress, the Shi'ite Muslim party Al Dawa, the Iraqi Communist Party, Kurdish parties and other groups were taking part.

U.S. administrator in Iraq Jay Garner has said the process of forming an Iraqi-run government will begin by next weekend.


In Zaafaraniya, where residents spoke of rockets from the dump raining down on their homes, a group of women in black shawls stood amidst the rubble weeping uncontrollably.

Hussein Hafez, a 57-year-old neighbour said: "Saddam was a butcher, and now this. This is a residential area. Why are the Americans blowing up weapons near us?"

The explosions at Zaafaraniya, which began just after 8 a.m. (0400 GMT), were so loud they could be heard in central Baghdad.

U.S. troops in the city centre told reporters initially they were controlled detonations, but later the American military said they were the result of an attack.

"An unknown number of individuals attacked," the Central Command statement said.

"One soldier was wounded in the attack," it went on. "During the attack, the assailant fired an unknown incendiary device into the cache, causing it to catch fire and explode. The explosion caused the destruction of the cache as well as a nearby building."

Zaafaraniya residents said U.S. forces had been packing cars with Iraqi weapons over the last three days and detonating them.

Kalaal, the man who lost 14 relatives when his house was destroyed, had no doubt who was to blame for the tragedy. "Those Americans did this," he said, shaking his finger in rage.


In many parts of Iraq it was still far from clear on Saturday who was in control.

Shi'ite Muslim clerics are running the holy Iraqi city of Najaf without consulting U.S.-led forces camped outside, a spokesman for the leader of one Shi'ite group said on Friday.

But U.S. troops on the outskirts said they were consulting a retired Iraqi army colonel who had been appointed mayor and was presiding over a council of elders, including Shi'ite clerics.

The apparently contradictory statements highlighted confusion and disputes about who is in charge in many Iraqi cities -- including Baghdad.

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