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Bombs Killed Victims as They Slept

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 1991; Page A01

Post time line
AMMAN, Jordan, Feb. 13—Relatives sobbed helplessly in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood today as rescue workers brought out bodies -- most of them mangled, many of them charred beyond recognition, some still smoldering -- from the bombed-out structure where Iraqi civilians had taken shelter from U.S. raids.

"I saw one man, incoherent with grief, fall to the ground and bury his face in the earth. Eleven members of his family had been in the shelter," Alan Little, of the British Broadcasting Corp., reported from the scene.

At Yarmuk Hospital, nearby, Omar Adnan, 17, covered with bruises and burns, was shown by television cameras as he explained in a faint voice that his three sisters, his mother and his father had been killed and he was the only one left in his family.

"I was sleeping and suddenly I felt heat and the blanket was burning," he said. "I turned to try to touch my mother who was next to me but grabbed nothing but a piece of flesh."

"If you want a visual image of the sadness of war, this is it," Jordan's Information Minister Ibrahim Ezzedine said here today.

"It has crystallized what we have been trying to do for days, weeks, and months to stop the gravity and cruelty of war." Jordan declared three days of national mourning for its neighbor.

From mid-morning, about five hours after the structure was hit by two powerful, laser-guided U.S. bombs, until nightfall, Iraqi authorities brought foreign reporters to view the damage and the rescue efforts and tour the site. Iraq said the building was an air-raid shelter for civilians, but the United States insisted it was a hardened bunker used as a military command center.

Some of the footage it received showing charred bodies was "too grim to show," the BBC told its viewers.

Foreign journalists were told, for the first time since the war began, that they could file their accounts without Iraqi censorship, the Associated Press reported.

And with controversy raging over whether or not the structure was a military target, Cable News Network's Peter Arnett said, "We have been advised that the press will be able to revisit the shelter in the morning," and "while we're there we'll certainly look again to see if there's any evidence -- any obvious evidence -- that it was used for any military purposes."

Late today, Iraqi authorities said that at least 400 people in the shelter had been killed. This would be by far the highest casualty toll announced for any single attack in the war. Foreign journalists reported seeing up to 40 bodies and there were conflicting accounts of the number of people who had been in the shelter. Some Iraqi officials said there were as many as 1,000 but Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz put the number at about 400. Aziz did not say how many had died.

As of late tonight, Baghdad radio had inexplicably carried no news of the bombing.

Foreign reporters who visited the site in the Amiriya section of southwest Baghdad today said that to all appearances, the structure was being used as a civilian shelter and that there was no indication it was a military facility.

The facility was built as a bomb shelter to protect Iraqis from attacks by Iran during their war, which ended in 1988. It had since been hardened, with a 10-foot-thick concrete and steel roof, to withstand indirect nuclear attack, and converted into a replacement military command and control center after bombing in central Baghdad forced a dispersal of such activities, U.S. military officials said.

An Iraqi living in England was quoted by Reuter as saying that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has a vast estate on the outskirts of Amiriya, on the road to the Baghdad airport. "It is a huge complex called Makasib village," the Iraqi said of the estate. "It contains many villas and is surrounded by a white wall. There is a big artificial lake and a man-made hill where Saddam was going to build a new palace."

Dozens of other Baghdad sites were hit overnight in 12 hours of some of the most intensive bombing the Iraqi capital has seen, AP reported. One of the targets hit was an internal security department office, but witnesses said 15 nearby homes also were destroyed.

Descriptions from reporters in Baghdad and U.S. military officials agreed that the bunker, where Iraq says more than 400 people were killed, is in a middle-class civilian neighborhood that also contains a supermarket, a school and a mosque.

Pentagon briefers said the site was surrounded by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, and covered with camouflage. They added that military personnel had been seen coming and going, and military vehicles had been parked outside "recently," but that no large numbers of civilians had been seen entering.

CNN's Arnett said that, while there were "a lot of military officials" at the site today, they seemed "simply there to supervise in the excavation and the rescue efforts." Little said reporters taken to the scene by Iraqi Information Ministry officials "were able to climb onto the roof of the shelter and we saw the cavities in the shelter roof where the bombs entered." He did not mention seeing camouflage, although television footage showed a high, wire fence protecting the building.

In Washington, White House and Pentagon officials insisted that U.S. authorities had been unaware that civilians were present at the time of the bombing. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: "We are chagrined if {civilian} people were hurt, but the only information we have about people being hurt is coming out of the controlled press in Baghdad. . . . What I saw on television was from a controlled press."

Baghdad's police chief, Brig. Gen. Kamel Zedan, asked by Arnett whether there were any military targets at the site, said, "Absolutely there is not any military target, just residential area." He added that "we do not see military men in the shelter because this shelter is allocated for average people, for citizens."

Iraqi Health Minister Abdel-Salam Mohammed Saeed called the bombing "a criminal and premeditated attack against civilians."

Asked why civilians had gone into the shelter if, as the U.S. military said, there had been no air raid sirens preceding the bombing, Arnett said:

"Call it force of habit. There is often no air raid siren but . . . the public expects bombing any night. They don't wait for the air raid alert because it gets dark here about six o'clock at night. They're not about to be stumbling to an air raid shelter at three in the morning. People just take their bedding every evening and they go to these shelters. That is the pattern in Baghdad."

Witnesses told reporters that the concussion of the first bomb that hit the shelter jammed the thick steel doors, barring escape for most of those inside. The second bomb penetrated the hardened roof and exploded inside the windowless structure.

The BBC's Little, who was taken to the site in mid-morning to see rescue workers removing mangled and charred bodies, and again in the evening, as more bodies were brought out, described it as a scene that "really is beyond all ability, I think, of the Iraqi Information Ministry to stage-manage, if you like."

"This was a shelter that local people believed should withstand a nuclear blast," he said, but nevertheless the bombs had broken through and "had exploded inside, the reinforced walls containing the full impact of the explosion."

"This morning we saw the charred and mutilated remains of those nearest the door," he said. "They were piled onto the back of a truck; many were barely recognizable as human. Men from the district pushed and jostled through the crowd to find news of their families, many distressed to the point of panic."

Later, Little said, the reporters were taken to Yarmuk Hospital "and shown between 30 and 40 bodies, mostly women and young children. Some lay curled up as though they had died instantly in their sleep." The hospital said it had received only eight injured survivors, most of them critically burned.

Showing reporters the bodies laid out in the courtyard of the hospital, Dr. Paul Boghassian said, "Our main problem now is the identification. How are we going to identify them, tell their families? There's a child over there a month old."

Brent Sadler of Britain's Independent Television Network (ITN) told how "another unrecognizable victim was pulled outside in a blanket -- I think it was a woman, and they hurried outside with her remains." He said civil defense teams were digging through the smoldering debris, "working in intense heat and a choking atmosphere, plastic gloves melting on their hands."

By late today, authorities said it was unlikely any more survivors would be found. "There are no survivors anymore," one civil defense official told AP. "The fire is melting the metal. There's no way any human being could have survived until now," the official said.

The only American reporters allowed into Baghdad at the moment are Bill Blakemore of ABC and Marie Colvin, who reports for the Sunday Times of London, although other U.S. news organizations are represented there by non-American journalists.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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