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Iraq: Bomb Kills 14 in Baghdad

Prague, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On the seventh day of the war in Iraq, 14 civilians were reported killed and 30 others injured in Baghdad in what Iraqi officials say was a U.S.-led air strike that hit a residential neighborhood.

Correspondents said 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 (CENTCOM) says it has no information yet as to whether the blasts were caused by a U.S. raid.

In London, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said he could not confirm the circumstances of the Baghdad explosions. But Hoon did say the risk of civilian casualties in Iraq will likely increase in the days ahead as the coalition's aerial bombardments continue.

In southern Iraq, the U.S. military said it had killed over 150 Iraqi soldiers in fierce fighting near Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad. There was no word on U.S. casualties.

Unconfirmed reports said a contingent of Iraq's elite Republican Guard was headed south today from the outskirts of Baghdad, toward the scene of the latest fighting.

Both sides in the war are accusing the other of committing war crimes. U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, speaking today at a U.S. CENTCOM press briefing in Qatar, said there was growing evidence of abuses by Iraqi paramilitary units, including the use of civilians as human shields, false surrenders, and the use of hospitals as military staging points.

"The practices that have been conducted by these [Iraqi] paramilitaries and by these others who are out there, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not in uniform, are more akin to the behaviors of global terrorists than they are to a nation," Brooks said.

The human rights watchdog Amnesty International also accused Iraqi forces of deliberately shelling civilians in the southern city of Basra and placing military objectives close to civilians.

But Amnesty International criticized coalition forces for this morning's targeting of the Iraqi television building in Baghdad. Claudio Cordone, one of the organization's senior legal experts, said that under international law, a civilian television station cannot be attacked "simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda."

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking today at U.S. CENTCOM headquarters in Florida, once again expressed confidence in the justness of the U.S. cause and in the certain victory of coalition forces. "We cannot know the duration of this war, but we are prepared for the battle ahead. We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you, and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq, there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime and that day is drawing near."

Meanwhile, the situation in the southern Iraqi city of Basra remains unclear. British forces that have surrounded the city reportedly destroyed the ruling Ba'ath Party's Basra offices in overnight shelling.

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 the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, one of the few international networks with a correspondent there, said today the streets of the city were calm.

Blair is now on his way to the United States, where he is scheduled to meet Bush for talks at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David, near Washington. Blair will continue on to New York for talks with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan tomorrow.

High on Blair's agenda, according to experts, will be an attempt to try and heal the rift between much of Europe and America over Iraq. Blair has been keen to portray himself to other Europeans and to his own Labor Party loyalists as a key mediator between the United States and Europe. Before leaving for the U.S. today, Blair said he believed any postconflict Iraqi administration should have the full endorsement of the UN.

John Kent, a foreign policy expert at the London School of Economics, told RFE/RL that convincing skeptics in the Bush administration of the importance of UN participation after the war in Iraq, will be a Blair priority. "My take on it is that Blair will try and persuade Bush to move away from those on the hard right who want to kick the UN completely [into the sidelines] and to ensure that the Americans have complete control over the reconstruction of Iraq and therefore, he will hope that he can persuade the Americans to go halfway with the Europeans and cooperate in reconstructing Iraq through the UN," Kent said.

But Kent said Blair faces an uphill battle. He noted that Britain's previous attempt to forge a UN compromise amenable to both the United States and European nations such as France over Iraq, ended in failure.

"It's the same problem, in terms of the conduct of the war. Blair went there, in the vain hope that he could actually persuade the Bush administration to tackle the United Nations seriously and cooperate with the Europeans in putting forward to the UN a realistic proposal to disarm Saddam Hussein. This is what he's failed to do because of course the Americans decided that they were going to do what they decided to do, irrespective of Britain or irrespective of the UN," Kent said.

Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Brussels Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, told RFE/RL that Blair will be seeking reconstruction contracts for Iraq from the United States. Blair, he says, needs to show the British public that Britain's participation in the war will entail tangible benefits. "Up to a point, there's pressure on Blair to make sure he's not simply short-changed by the U.S. procurement system," Emerson said.

Kent said Blair can be most hopeful of gaining concessions on this point. He may not convince Bush and his advisers of the necessity of courting the UN, but Washington can be expected to want to reward its faithful ally -- although here too, there are no guarantees.

"I think that is probably one of the most likely outcomes, because the Bush administration will be fully aware that Blair needs something out of this and therefore they'll be thinking: 'What is the least we can possibly give him? -- if we're going to give him anything. Of course, should we care about Blair?' That, of course, will be the thought of certain people in the U.S. administration, without any doubt. But probably the least thing they can give him is some kind of British and European involvement with specific contracts in the reconstruction of Iraq," Kent said.

For Blair, of course, accepting U.S. contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq at this stage in the war entails the risk of further alienating other European powers, who could accuse him of trying to bypass the UN.