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Iraq: Eyewitness Says Saddam Manipulated Air-Shelter Deaths

  • Charles Recknagel

Ten years ago today, hundreds of Iraqis were killed when allied forces bombed an air-raid shelter being used by Baghdad as a command center during the Gulf War. Iraq has often called for the United States to be brought to trial for war crimes over the incident and repeated that demand today. But the United States says the regime of President Saddam Hussein cynically placed civilians in the shelter to either shield its command and control equipment or deliberately cause innocent deaths when the target was hit. That view is supported by an eyewitness account recently given to Radio Free Iraq by a resident of the bombed neighborhood who now lives outside the country. We present the man's account without the sound of his voice in order to protect his relatives still living inside Iraq from retribution.

Prague, 13 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's state-controlled press was full of references today to the allied air strike 10 years ago, which destroyed a bomb shelter in the western Baghdad suburb of Al-Amiriyah.

The strike, carried out by a U.S. warplane, dropped a "smart" bomb directly onto a reinforced concrete shelter that allied intelligence had pinpointed as an Iraqi military command-and-control center.

When the smoke cleared, Iraqi rescue personnel brought hundreds of dead civilians out of the bunker. Baghdad put the losses at a total of 407 people killed, including 269 women, as well as a number of Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians. And in the ensuing days the incident fueled fierce public debate over the use of air strikes upon Baghdad to weaken Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's military grip on Kuwait.

Today, the Iraqi press again called for Washington to be tried for war crimes over the air strike. And one paper, Al-Iraq, said the shelter would "remain a living monument to condemn the American killers and to deny their slogans."

But the United States has never accepted Iraq's depiction of the shelter as a civilian target. Instead, Washington accuses Baghdad of deliberately placing innocent civilians in harm's way either to cover the shelter's real use or to use their deaths to provoke criticism of the allied war effort.

The voices missing in the debate have usually been those of eyewitnesses of the tragedy, people who lived near the shelter and could see the comings and goings around it prior to the bombing. One of those witnesses, now outside the country, recently presented a detailed account of what he saw to Radio Free Iraq. His voice was not used in broadcasting this report in order to protect his identity.

The man, a long-term resident of Al-Amiriyah, said he became interested in the shelter the day after the air campaign against Baghdad opened, on January 17, 1991. Two of the women in his family went to the bunker to ask whether it was open for their use around-the-clock or only when the sirens sounded.

The man says the reaction of the guards around the bunker surprised his family. He says:

"Armed guards stopped the two women as they approached the building. They were surprised that even in Iraq one had to justify approaching an air-raid shelter, but they asked their questions anyway. The reply was a sarcastic smile and, in an admonishing tone: 'This is a special shelter. Ordinary civilians are not allowed in here.' They returned home and told the rest of us what had happened."

The man says that the family members continued to pass by the shelter in the following days as they ventured out of the house to look for bakeries or other stores that were open. The shelter was located across from a mosque and a cluster of small shops. Through the rest of January and early February the shelter remained under guard and the family never saw anybody entering or leaving it.

But one day in early February the man and his son were on their way to the shops when they noticed a work crew laying a cable in the direction of the shelter. They say the crew's explanation to passers-by surprised them. The men said they were laying new phone lines for the neighborhood to replace those knocked out during the air campaign. But the cable itself was too small to be anything but a fiber optic line, something Baghdad's civilian phone systems do not use.

Then, around February 10, the neighborhood residents received visits from teams of official representatives. The man describes the visitors this way:

"The local (ruling) Ba'ath Party organization began sending out its people to all the homes in the area. The teams of canvassers, usually a man and a woman, visited each and every house in the vicinity, exhorting the residents to seek the safety of the Al-Amiriyah shelter, pointing out that the attacking aircraft were becoming more desperate and hence dangerous. Not only was the shelter safe, it also had its own electric generator and we could all watch TV and women could even blow-dry their hair."

The shelter was struck around 4:30 in the morning on February 13 by an extremely powerful bomb known as a "bunker buster," which penetrated the reinforced concrete ceiling and exploded inside. The neighborhood residents did not hear a loud bang but they could feel the ground shake.

After daybreak, the news that the shelter had been hit began to circulate. The resident who spoke to Radio Free Iraq says he and his son went to the scene and saw rescuers coming out the front door bearing pieces of bodies from the ground level of the shelter.

Turning to go home, he and his son rounded the corner and passed the back of the building. There they saw the rear wall of the bunker had also been breached and bodies were being pulled out. But these bodies, he says, were in uniform. At the same time, hearses were arriving with empty aluminum boxes -- not coffins, but the kinds of containers usually used to pack sensitive equipment. He describes the scene this way:

"The rear wall had been breached and bodies were being pulled out, this time from the second underground level of the shelter. These were the bodies of military officers and I counted three colonels among them. They were all intact, showing only signs of burning. [The] hearses were not there to remove the victims. Instead they were loaded with aluminum cases, the kind usually associated with expensive, fragile, and sensitive equipment -- dozens of them. As each hearse was filled, it quietly backed out and drove away in the least used direction."

He says it was only after the bodies of the officers were removed that foreign media were brought to the scene and the debate began over whether the allies had hit a civilian refuge.

The neighborhood resident says he believes the bunker was not a civilian target because it never played a role as a shelter until the third or fourth week of the war. And he says that, while he does not know whether the bunker was in fact a command-and-control center, it does appear civilians were invited to go there for a cynical purpose. He said:

"Was the second underground level a command-and-control center, as the Allied command insisted? I am not in a position to give an expert opinion, but I would say that it suddenly became convenient to make one in a very safe location. Better yet, if its true function were to be discovered by the allies, making it a legitimate military target, it would be full of innocent civilians who would become the several hundred bodies Saddam so badly needed [to fuel calls for stopping the bombing]."

The man says that he was never a Ba'ath Party member and never privy to its thinking. But he says he has friends and relatives who were in the upper echelons of the regime and discussed the dilemma they saw facing Saddam from the day the air campaign opened.

That dilemma was how to stop air attacks by a vastly superior force when Iraq had no military power capable of doing so by itself. The man says that many concluded at the time that Saddam's only option was to show -- on global television -- that the campaign was causing unacceptable civilian casualties.

Or, as the man puts it: "Broken bodies were what Saddam needed and broken bodies he would have by the hundred, one way or another."