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Iraq: Baghdad Dispatch -- Chaos, Casualties Mounting In Zaafaraniya

  • Zamira Eshanova

The casualty count is mounting in the southern Baghdad suburb of Zaafaraniya, where in the early hours of the morning an ammunition dump guarded by U.S. troops was ignited, setting off a chain of explosions near a residential neighborhood. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova is at the blast site and describes a scene of chaos and anger.

Question: Where are you now?

Eshanova: "Right now I'm in exactly the area where the explosions took place, and this is called the Zaafaraniya area, where the Al-Rashid military camp of Saddam Hussein is located. It means most of [Iraq's] air defense system, most of the ammunition stockpiles, and most of the missiles are located [here.] The problem is that this Al-Rashid military camp is huge, several kilometers long, and next door there is a residential area. It's in a neighborhood called Teachers' Neighborhood, and people who live in this area are usually teachers and educated people."

Question: There seems to be some confusion about whether the explosions were part of a controlled U.S. detonation to destroy Iraqi ordnance or were set off by hostile forces. What can you tell us about what happened today?

Eshanova: "So what happened, American [troops] took control of [Al-Rashid] on April 8th. And what residents of this area are telling us is that since then, Americans started exploding what [ammunition] was left by Saddam Hussein in this Al-Rashid camp, which is next door to this area. And the [residents] were complaining that every day there were a lot of explosions in this camp, and they were very, very anxious about their safety and security. And now today, what happened in the early morning -- around 0600, somebody says; somebody else says around 0700 local time -- four missiles were launched from this Al-Rashid camp, which is controlled by Americans and where the Americans had just confirmed 80 missiles left by Saddam Hussein were located. So residents say four of these missiles were launched from this Al-Rashid camp and one of them hit this Teachers' Neighborhood, and three or four houses were completely destroyed and another three were partly destroyed."

Question: The U.S. Army says the ammunition dump was attacked by what it called "hostile forces," who fired four flares into the dump. You spoke to a U.S. Army official -- Colonel John Peabody, the commanding officer of the 11th Engineering Brigade. He repeated that the ammunition dump had been attacked. What other details did he provide?

Eshanova: "By whom, he couldn't say -- he just said 'by people who don't like us, who don't like their own people.' So he said that the stockpile was attacked. But residents say these explosions are usually made by Americans [purposely], so there is confusion about what happened exactly. What is the result is that several houses are completely destroyed, and locals say the number of casualties is more than 40. Americans say it's 20, and under the rubble there could be more, and so the number of casualties will grow, definitely."

Question: Of those numbers, how many are dead and how many injured?

Eshanova: "The numbers put by locals is 16 confirmed dead in the hospitals and dozens of injured people. The number put by the American officer is 20, but he didn't elaborate [how many dead and how many injured]. But he added that now American soldiers are working to clean the rubble and there are definitely more people [buried underneath] and definitely the number [of casualties] will grow. He said so."

Question: It has been reported that Iraqi residents in the area had already gone several times to the American forces at Al-Rashid and asked them to stop conducting controlled detonations because of its proximity to their neighborhood. What can you tell us about that?

Eshanova: "They were telling me and other journalists this also, that they went [to the U.S. troops] and said it's too dangerous to do this and to keep this ammunition next to a residential area and they asked them to remove all this ammunition from this area. But what an American officer said -- he also confirmed that there were all these concerns, but he said they had hired engineers to make assessments on how dangerous the area was and what to do with the ammunition, and he said they just finished their assessment today. But he said 'This is not our fault, that Saddam Hussein stationed all these dangerous weapons and missiles and ammunition next to a residential area, and we are not responsible for that. We were planning to move the ammunition stocks and missiles from here because of the assessment of these experts, but we couldn't finish and now we were fired on and we were attacked, so that's why it happened.' So [the U.S. officials] are putting all responsibility on the ex-regime that this ammunition and missiles are next to a residential area."

Question: Today's incident appears to be sparking enormous anger and resentment among the Zaafaraniya residents. There are reports that some threw stones and even shot at U.S. soldiers attempting to aid in recovery efforts, and that there have been numerous anti-American protests. What have you seen?

Eshanova: "Immediately when this news spread in Baghdad, [Iraqis] started demonstrating against Americans. And I saw, on the way to Zaafaraniya area, on the highway there were dozens of trucks full of young men, chanting slogans and demanding that Americans leave the country. So immediately [the incident] caused frustration and anger against Americans. Even if [the U.S.] proves the ammunition stockpile was attacked, people are angry with Americans anyway, because they say they believe that now [the U.S.] is responsible for the safety and security in the area, in the country."