THE killing of a hundred or more civilians in a concrete bunker in Baghdad was a tragedy. The pilots who launched ``smart'' bombs at the underground facility had no doubt they were attacking a military target - a camouflaged, reinforced structure that was yet another link in Saddam Hussein's command and control network. By Iraqi accounts, the bunker was a civilian bomb shelter. The Baghdad government, of course, says this was a case of purposeful targeting of noncombatants. That makes no sense. The coalition has every reason to stringently apply its policy of avoiding civilian casualties. And the charge rings hollow coming from a government that has been targeting civilians in Israel and Saudi Arabia for weeks.
The Bush administration suggests this latest tragedy is another example of Saddam intentionally putting noncombatants in harm's way. Many reports indicate the Iraqi leader has placed military equipment in or near civilian buildings.
Wednesday's incident illustrates war's unpredictability - though the likelihood of significant civilian casualties was always inherent in the air strategy. Until this week, the US and its allies had been remarkably successful in avoiding such loss of life.
The question, at this juncture, is whether the coalition's strategy of continued bombing in population centers in Iraq, a month into the war, is harming its cause more than helping it. Saddam reaps tremendous political gain from civilian casualties.
Also, the humanitarian and moral issues - which side is in the right - become blurred for many. What can justify the wasting of innocent lives?
Saddam has often demonstrated that the consolidation of power is his answer to that question. Is the ``softening'' of Iraq's ability to support its troops in Kuwait answer enough for the US?
That softening, particularly the bombarding of troop formations and military installations in Kuwait and southern Iraq, is a military necessity prior to a ground war. Air raids are focusing more and more on that arena.
So how critical is continued bombing of Iraq's cities, where many more civilians inadvertently - or by Saddam's design - could fall victim to air attacks?