Anger over deadly Baghdad arms cache explosions

Munzen Sabr Hassoun had thought the war was over. But as he sat in a blood spattered robe at a window in Zafaraniyah hospital Saturday morning, heaving with sobs while medical workers laid his wife's body in a plywood coffin outside, peace was more painful.

Mr. Hassoun's wife was among the at least six people killed and some 50 injured when a huge collection of captured Iraqi weapons and munitions exploded at a US base on the outskirts of Baghdad early on Saturday morning, provoking deep anger among local residents.

The blast, which caused the worst civilian injuries in the capital since US troops arrived here, hurled fireballs of shells and grenades high into the air, witnesses said, and launched at least one missile into a nearby residential district.

US officials said the explosion was caused by unknown men who fired incendiary flares into the munitions collection and disposal facility at about eight o'clock on Saturday morning. None of the men was caught, and the explanation could not be independently verified. One US soldier was reported wounded in a firefight with the attackers.

The mood in the poverty-stricken streets of Zafaraniyah was angry, as residents blamed the American military for the deadly barrage that rained on their village.

"This disaster is more than happened during the war," said Ghazi Fahed, director of the local hospital, where victims' bodies lay wrapped in blankets on gurneys in the courtyard. "During the war we did not see anything as horrible as this."

The weapons dump that went up in a series of massive explosions was one of three main facilities around Baghdad where US troops have been gathering Iraqi munitions and destroying them in controlled detonations. It contained small arms, munitions, howitzer rounds and other weaponry including Frog 7 missiles, according to Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, the local zone commander.

Parts of an unidentified missile lay by a water-filled crater left by the explosion that destroyed Hassoun's home on 64th St., a dirt road between rows of two story brick and concrete buildings.

Between 75 and 100 US soldiers operating the camp fled the explosions - some in their underpants and others barefoot according to eyewitnesses.

"All I know is they said get out of here and we ran," said one soldier, who asked not to be identified. "It went hundreds of feet in the air and there were fireballs," he added.

A few hundred yards away, Suhad Abdullah was preparing her children's breakfast. "My baby was playing beside me. Suddenly there was a huge explosion and I was wounded. I don't know what happened after that. The building fell down," she said from her hospital bed.

As a mechanical digger tore at the ruins of Mr. Hassoun's house, searching for three children believed to be under the rubble, neighbor Yassin Alwan said he had delivered a letter to the US base last week complaining that shrapnel from controlled explosions had fallen in his garden.

"I said why not take the munitions to the desert," he recalled bitterly. "Most of Iraq is desert either by nature or by Saddam."

"Saddam put weapons between houses, and that was a bad action", said Dr. Fahed. But you Americans, you should help us. We told them (US soldiers) many times that this place is not fit for such explosions."

Lt. Col. Kammerer encountered local people's rage when he sought to bring help to volunteers searching for survivors in the four houses in Zafaraniyah that were destroyed. Earlier, a Bradley fighting vehicle crew had turned back from the neighborhood after being stoned.

"We've had a lot of problems with angry mobs", Kammerer said, after radioing his HQ to call for a digger. "I was confronted by 250 people who pushed us away, chanting. I think they believe we caused the problem, when in fact we were attacked.

"My effort now will be to convince the people that we were not responsible," he added. "Obviously somebody feels it is necessary to attack us. Somebody appears to be trying to create a situation here."

A repentant member of the Fedayeen Saddam, a militia loyal to the former regime, told The Christian Science Monitor in a recent interview that his orders had been to wait until the end of the war, and then stage incidents that would cause Iraqi civilian casualties that could be blamed on the Americans.

Residents of Zafaraniyah were certainly blaming the Americans for Saturday's disaster. As surgeons operated on one casualty, hospital administrators were using their computers to run off impromptu posters reading, "Americans are not better than Saddam" and "No [to] carelessness about innocents lives".

Outside the hospital, a noisy funeral cortege of pickup trucks bearing coffins and buses set off for a procession around the neighborhood. From a mosque minaret, a loudspeaker broadcast a message of restraint.

"Please do not carry your guns," the voice pleaded with protesters. "We will go peacefully."

"We did not expect such things to happen from America. We are shocked," said Fahed. "The people are angry."

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