US-British coalition seen as "villains" after Iraqi civilians shot dead

April 1, 2003?

HILLA, Iraq (AFP) - Reports of coalition forces killing dozens of Iraqi civilians stoked growing international unease already high after seven women and children were shot dead in a truck at a US checkpoint in Central Iraq.

Thirty-three civilians, including children, were killed and 310 wounded in a US-British coalition bombing on the southern province of Babylon early Tuesday morning, a hospital director said.

A missile or bomb hit a residential area called Nader south of the city of Hilla, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Baghdad, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

Meanwhile 15 members of a family were killed late Monday when their pickup was blown up by a rocket from an Apache helicopter near Hilla south of Baghdad, the sole survivor of the attack told AFP Tuesday.

Several injured children were taken to hospital, some seen lying on the floor due to the lack of beds.

Earlier Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf 19 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded since late Monday.

The checkpoint shooting -- the worst of its kind during the 13-day war -- occurred at Najaf, 150 kilometers (95 miles) south of Baghdad on Monday afternoon, US Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Owens said at operational headquarters in Qatar.

Commentators and officials agreed that the incidents, together with continual bombing on Baghdad, were likely to fuel vocal international opposition to the war and deal a severe blow to the coalition bid to win the trust of the Iraqi people.

"If such scenes become routine... the political war for Iraq could be lost even before the military one is won," the New York Times warned in an editorial.

The British government admitted for the first time Iraqi civilians may see US-British forces as villains not liberators, only hours before reports early Tuesday that American troops had fired on a civilian vehicles killing seven women and children.

"We know that for the moment we will be seen as the villains. We knew that from the reaction before the conflict started," Home Secretary David Blunkett told BBC television.

Owens said the victims were in a civilian vehicle that failed to stop at the military post despite repeated warning shots fired by US troops. Four people in the vehicle escaped unharmed.

"As a last resort, they (US troops) fired into the passenger compartment of the vehicle," said Owens, adding that an investigation had been opened.

The Washington Post reported however that 10 civilians had been killed in the incident and quoted US Army 3rd Division Captain Ronny Johnson as shouting over the radio to his men after the shooting: "You just (expletive) killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough."

Baghdad also claimed that coalition warplanes had attacked a group of "human shields" including US nationals.

According to Iraqi officials, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the 13-day-old war.

With US troops on edge after a suicide car bomb attack Saturday near Najaf killed four soldiers, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva said it regretted the checkpoint incident and hoped US troops took "all the necessary measures" to warn the civilians before opening fire.

Meanwhile the air campaign to soften up the Iraqi forces increased.

The southern outskirts of Baghdad were pounded by an especially intense bombardment Tuesday that sent balls of fire and towers of black smoke into the sky, an AFP journalist in the Iraqi capital said.

Massive explosions rocked the area around 4:30 pm (1330 GMT) in what was at least the third wave of bombings since dawn.

AFP reporters said the raids on Baghdad were growing more intense and that a barrage late Monday seemed to be the heaviest yet to have hit the battered city's downtown area.

Saddam's main presidential palace complex in the Iraqi capital, a potent symbol of his iron 24-year rule, came under fresh daylight bombardment on Tuesday for the second consecutive day.

Iraq brought up reinforcements for Republican Guard units defending the approaches to Baghdad, US officers said, as US forces pressed their operations ahead of an expected major push on the capital.

Major John Altman, intelligence officer for the 3rd Infantry Division's First Brigade, said the Republican Guard's armored Medina Division had been heavily battered by days of air strikes, artillery attacks and assaults by the tank-busting Apaches.

US commanders have said their troops were within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the capital in their drive to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Some have signaled a major tank battle could be shaping up in the next week.

US officers said 200 Iraqis were killed, wounded or captured in the clashes which broke out overnight near Karbala, 80 kilometers from Baghdad.

In the north, coalition warplanes kept up heavy airstrikes on Iraqi army positions in and around the oil centre of Kirkuk, rebel Kurdish officials said.

Iraqi Information Minister al-Sahhaf said that Iraqi forces prevented British forces from landing near the strategic city of Mosul in northern Iraq, and killed many of the troops.

However, reports from the scene said the last Iraqi resistance had been wiped out in Abu al-Khasib and that the British troops were being welcomed by some residents.

In Kuwait, air raid sirens sounded for the first time since Saturday. A defence ministry spokesman later said an Iraqi missile had been shot down over southern Iraq.

In Basra, seen as key to controlling the southeast, British troops said they were waiting for reinforcements before making a final push to take the city.

An Iraqi military spokesman said at least 54 US and British soldiers had been killed in fighting since Sunday, most of them around Basra, with an unspecified number of others killed in other parts of Iraq.

Officials in London said a British soldier was killed on duty in southern Iraq, taking to 26 the British death toll since the start of the war. US authorities say at least 39 US soldiers have been killed.

In Qatar, Brooks said that US forces had captured an Iraqi general in fighting in the Karbala region.

On the diplomatic front US Secretary of State Colin Powellcould hold discussions on Iraq with European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday, official sources told AFP.

Powell was set to arrive in Turkey later on Tuesday for discussions on the US-led war on Iraq, and will travel on to Brussels from there.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday it -- and not the United States -- was responsible for checking that Iraq did not possess any atomic weapons, after a report that Washington wanted to set up unilateral weapons inspections.

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