By Joshua Partlow and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 13, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 12 -- A barrage of rockets targeting an American military base in southern Iraq on Wednesday morning killed three U.S. soldiers, bringing to 12 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in the past three days.
Just after 6 a.m., about four rockets crashed down on Combat Outpost Adder in an attack that also wounded two U.S. soldiers and one civilian, said Navy Lt. Patrick Evans, a U.S. military spokesman.
The military reported that another soldier died and two more were wounded Tuesday near the southern city of Diwaniyah when a roadside bomb exploded during a combat patrol. The dozen military deaths are an unusually high figure for recent months, when American fatalities in Iraq have been dropping.
The deaths came the day after an explosion killed 16 passengers on a bus traveling near Nasiriyah, about 45 miles from Basra. Conflicting accounts emerged Wednesday about the incident, with the bus driver and a passenger asserting that passing American soldiers opened fire on them, an allegation that U.S. military officials denied.
The bus was carrying about 60 people, all but five of them women and children, who were traveling home to Basra after attending a memorial service, as an American military supply convoy drove past them in the northbound lane, according to passengers. About 1:40 p.m., an explosion tore into the driver's side of the bus and blew out the other side, filling the vehicle with black smoke and the screams of the passengers, witnesses said.
The U.S. military said in a statement that a lethal roadside bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, slammed into the bus and also blasted the passing convoy, wounding a U.S. soldier and a civilian traveling in the convoy. The bomb, which shoots heated copper slugs, was similar to EFPs that American military officials say are manufactured in Iran.
But the driver, Zeki Abdul Qader, and a passenger, Qasim Salih Jubur, said they believed the U.S. soldiers opened fire on the bus after it had already safely passed what they were later told was a spot where a roadside bomb had exploded. They said their bus was struck with bullets seconds before they were hit with the explosion, which they believed was some sort of rocket or grenade fired from the U.S. convoy.
"The Americans shot us," Jubur said. "One hundred percent it was the Americans."
"We absolutely did not fire on the bus," said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "Absolutely not."
The passengers on the bus left Basra on Sunday to visit holy Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf, and to attend the commemoration for a woman from their tribe who had died 40 days earlier. The bus was passing through a desert area when the explosion occurred.
Qader, the driver, said he was reaching the tail end of a long military convoy when he heard gunfire and the sound of bullets striking his bus.
"They shot me with small arms from the beginning of the bus to the end, the whole side, then they shot this rocket," Qader, 58, said in a telephone interview. The explosion tore through three rows near the middle of the bus -- four passengers per row--killing 12 people almost instantly, he said. Four others on the bus were also killed, he said.
"The bus turned to all black smoke, you could see nothing, and all the windows blew out except one or two," he said. "The bus went off the road and I tried hard to keep it from flipping over."
After the bus stopped, U.S. soldiers cordoned off the surrounding area and Iraqi forces arrived at the scene. Qader and Jubur said they themselves did not see American soldiers firing but heard the gunfire and were told by the Iraqi soldiers that the American troops had fired.
Abbas al-Khafaji, director of the funeral home in Najaf where the bodies were taken for burial preparation, said one infant and at least four women had bullet holes in their bodies in addition to shrapnel wounds. Ali Hussein, 37, the uncle of the slain 6-month-old, Abbas Jihad, confirmed that the boy had two bullet wounds in the chest.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.