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Iraq: Baghdad Claims Coalition Missiles Hit Residential Area

Prague, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At least 14 people were killed today in what Iraqi officials say was a U.S.-led air strike that hit a residential area of Baghdad.

Agencies say they saw charred corpses and smoldering cars at the scene after two explosions ripped through a residential building that also housed a car-repair shop.

The U.S. Central Command says it has no information yet as to whether the blasts were caused by a U.S. raid.

The blasts came amid coalition air raids in and around the city that earlier targeted Iraqi television and elite Republic Guard units guarding the city's surroundings.

U.S. and British officials have repeatedly stressed that they are doing all they can to ensure bombings and missile strikes are precisely aimed at military targets in an effort to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told parliament today that the risks of civilian casualties will increase with continued aerial bombardments. But he said it will not slow down the coalition's campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.

Today's renewed raids in and around Baghdad came after the easing of sandstorms that had slowed the coalition's operations. A large sandstorm was reported later in the day in Baghdad.

The Iraqi satellite channel went blank after the raids, but both it and the domestic channel are on air again. Amnesty International warned that the strike against the television station could be perceived as a violation of the Geneva conventions, as it is a civilian object.

British Defense Secretary Hoon said the focus in Iraq is now shifting toward close air support of coalition ground forces advancing on Baghdad. He said Saddam Hussein's regime has lost control of southern Iraq. "Although the regime has not yet collapsed, Saddam Hussein's thugs continue to resist in some areas; the regime has effectively lost control of southern Iraq," Hoon said, adding, "The regime must know that its days are now numbered."

But the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, denied that the southern port of Umm Qasr is controlled by coalition forces. "[The U.S.-led coalition tries] to mislead the audience, the public opinion, the [television] viewers about what is going on in Umm Qasr. They say they control Umm Qasr, [that] they control the bay, they control the docks, and so on. And they try to give the impression, deliberately, that they are in control of Umm Qasr, and that's not true," al-Sahhaf said.

There's been a similar war of words on the situation in Iraq's second city of Basra, which came under fire overnight from British troops that are surrounding the city. British forces reportedly destroyed the ruling Ba'ath Party's Basra offices in the attack.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today there was a "limited uprising" overnight in the city and that British troops are ready to support Iraqis who rise up against the regime.

But Iraq denied there was a revolt in Basra, and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, one of the few international networks with a correspondent there, said today the streets of the city are calm.

Also today, aid left Kuwait for Basra, where aid agencies have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe after water supplies were disrupted.

Officials have also been giving details today of the heaviest ground fighting yet in the seven-day-old war.

U.S. commanders say their troops killed hundreds of Iraqis near the central city of Najaf in the past day. The Pentagon said up to 300 Iraqis may have been killed when they attacked tanks of the U.S. 7th Cavalry. There were no reports of American casualties.

Later today, Blair is scheduled to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush near Washington. Some media have dubbed the meeting "a war council." But Blair is expected also to press the case for a strong United Nations role in Iraq if or when Hussein is toppled.