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Blasts Kill 9 at Baghdad Ammunition Dump

April 26, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Attackers fired flares at an American ammunition dump on Baghdad’s outskirts Saturday, setting off powerful explosions that killed at least nine civilians, including three babies, U.S. soldiers said. Hospital officials said more than 20 people were injured.

Angry residents, believing the Americans were to blame for the blasts, fired on U.S. troops trying to treat the injured and recover bodies from the rubble, driving them from the area for a short time.

``We took out six bodies. We were about to dig out three babies when they opened fire on us,″ Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Coker told Associated Press Television News.

The incident was a reminder that dangers persist in Baghdad, even though fighting has all but ended and the United States has begun focusing on postwar challenges.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld embarked Saturday on a trip to the Persian Gulf region _ the exact itinerary was not disclosed for security reasons.

Rumsfeld has said he wants to talk to leaders of friendly countries in the area about possible reduction in the U.S. military presence now that Saddam Hussein’s regime no longer poses a threat.

The ordnance that exploded in Baghdad was stored in a large field surrounded by high walls in the Zafaraniyah neighborhood. It was part of huge hauls of munitions that U.S. forces have been gathering from around the capital.

Coker said the flares that hit the dump were fired by ``somebody who knew what a pistol flare _ if that’s what it was _ could do if it landed on a pile of ammunition. I mean, it was acres of stuff.″

``The flares landed on some ammo boxes and that’s what started it,″ said Sgt. 1st Class Roger King.

Five people were admitted to the Zafaraniyah General Hospital in serious condition, said Dr. Mohammed Abdel Rahman Mahmood. About 20 others were treated at the hospital for minor injuries and released. The hospital had no official figures on the number of deaths.

Three small wooden coffins sat outside the hospital, possibly intended for the three babies that were believed to have been killed. A hospital security officer, Samir Ghreni, said the bodies of dead were being taken to the Palestine Hotel, where some U.S. military officers are housed, ``to protest the Americans, to show them the innocent people who were killed.″

An open-bed truck loaded with six coffins, presumably carrying victims of the blasts, drove through the neighborhood. Men stood around the coffins and chanted, ``Down with America!″

Residents dug through the rubble, looking for bodies. Four houses were destroyed, with all the windows on the street shattered and many walls collapsed.

The smell of sewage permeated the air after sewer lines broke. A deep crater in the road filled up with the dirty water.

A bed covered in glass lay on the street, with an empty cradle on top of it. Residents said the baby had been taken to the hospital. An unexploded missile also lay amid the ruins, as did a statue of the Virgin Mary. Zafaraniyah is home to Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians.

Hundreds of people in private vehicles began evacuating the neighborhood at the behest of U.S. soldiers. Many chanted angrily and waved their fists at the troops.

``This is the responsibility of the U.S. Army because we told them this is a civilian area,″ one man said from a beat-up white car. In one truck, people chanted, ``America’s no better than Saddam.″

In recent days, there have been controlled explosions at the same ammunitions dump as U.S. force destroyed arms caches.

U.S. soldiers were keeping reporters away from the scene. But the military said civilians were being treated for injuries near the site of the blasts.

Col. John Peabody, commanding officer of U.S. Army’s 11th Engineering Brigade, said the Americans were not to blame. ``Our early indications are that it came from an outside source,″ he said.

Army Spc. Kevin Braam said the dump stored both Iraqi and U.S. ammunition.

``I don’t know if it was a civilian upset at us or if a militia may have caused it, but we’re not the ones,″ he said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a U.S. Marine officer said the peaceful departure of a Shiite Muslim cleric who had occupied the city hall in the city of Kut should reduce tension there.

The cleric, Said Abbas, left the city hall Friday evening after Marines delivered a letter demanding his departure. The Marines had threatened to arrest him on charges of theft and destruction of property if he failed to comply.

Backed by dozens of armed bodyguards, Abbas took over the city hall and claimed control of Kut more than a week ago. His followers had been protesting the presence of U.S. troops.

The people of Kut ``can feel a bit more secure knowing Abbas is not trying to take charge of the town, where he never had authority to do so,″ said Col. Ron Johnson.

Marines say Abbas is a member of the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution _ the largest Shiite Muslim opposition group. The council’s leaders have called for an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq and are lobbying for an Islamic government.

In another sign of returning normalcy in Kut, 100 schools reopened Saturday for the first time since the war, Johnson said. Marines had earlier cleared weapons from the schools, where they had been hidden by fighters loyal to Saddam.

In Baghdad, teachers reported to work in some schools but found no students to instruct as security concerns persisted and administrators awaited orders from a government that doesn’t yet exist.

``People won’t send their children to school without hearing some kind of instruction in the media,″ said Abdul Zahra Fadel, assistant headmaster at the Mohammed Dura Middle School.

With no television or newspapers, that is a tall task. Iraq also has no operating Education Ministry to order classes resumed.

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