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Iraq: U.S. Expresses Regret Over Civilian Deaths

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British officials have expressed regret over a fatal shooting incident that left at least seven Iraqi women and children dead.

They've described as an unfortunate tragedy the shooting yesterday at a checkpoint near Najaf, when U.S. troops fired on a car carrying 13 women and children.

Military officials said the soldiers involved in the incident had followed the rules of engagement when they fired on the car after it failed to heed warnings to stop.

They also say soldiers have the right to defend themselves -- and they ultimately lay the blame on Saddam Hussein's regime.

That's because they say armed Iraqis have posed as civilians to kill coalition troops -- in one such attack on 29 March, a driver approached a U.S. checkpoint and detonated his vehicle, killing four U.S. soldiers.

"The tragedy is that the van had women and children in it, which we do not know yet the firm reason of why they were doing this, but this is yet another incident in a trend of this regime using civilians -- in this case, innocent women and children -- in order to cause harm to coalition forces," U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Captain Frank Thorp said today.

The incident has dominated the war news today, on a day when coalition forces have otherwise kept up the aerial bombardment of Baghdad and continued to push towards the capital.

The European Union called the shooting "a horrible tragedy." European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen called on both sides to spare civilian lives.

"This was a horrible, tragic incident. I want to express on behalf of the commission and its president [Romano Prodi] our sympathy with the families of the victims and their loved ones. This was not an isolated event in the sense that too many civilians have already died in this war and naturally, we don't want to see any more incidents like this. It also shows that no matter how advanced the technology, no matter how precise the weapons in the hands of soldiers, there is no such thing as an intelligent war," Kemppinen said.

This morning there were reports of a fresh incident in which U.S. Marines near the southern town of Shatra shot dead an unarmed Iraqi driver at a checkpoint, believing him to be a suicide bomber.

If confirmed, both the Shatra and Najaf checkpoint incidents may harm U.S. and British efforts to portray the war as one of liberation rather than occupation. And it could also fuel an impression that U.S. and British forces are too trigger-happy.

A spokesman for the British military, Colonel Chris Vernon, today admitted the shooting damages coalition efforts to win over the local population.

Yesterday, British Home Secretary David Blunkett said he is confident coalition forces will win the conflict and free Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's regime. But he acknowledged that American and British troops are being seen as "the villains" just now.

"Villains" is a description Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf likes to use, too. He said today that "coalition villains" or "crooks" had killed 18 civilians in the latest air raids on the capital.

But he said Iraqi forces had repelled coalition troops around Nasiriyah and thwarted a landing by British troops near Mosul -- the first mention of any such landing in the north. "We are fighting against [coalition forces]. They are nailed in their places and we are using the war of attrition against them, against the columns here and there, against their gathering here and there, and we are inflicting damage on them and casualties," al-Sahhaf said.

British officials, meanwhile, said that life is returning to normal in the southern town of Zubayr, where their troops now have control. "Normality is coming back. Shops are opening, bakeries are opening, schools are opening. The electricity was turned on in Umm Qasr last night. Normality is approaching and the people now are beginning to realize that we're here to liberate them, not to occupy them," Group Captain Al Lockwood said today.

In other war-related news today, Baghdad and its outskirts came under further bombardment, while warplanes bombed in and around Kirkuk in the north.

U.S. forces say they captured an Iraqi general in fighting around Karbala and Hilla, south of Baghdad.

A Kuwaiti Patriot missile battery shot down an Iraqi missile before it reached Kuwait, while a U.S. Patriot brought down a missile fired from south of Baghdad in the direction of U.S. troops in Iraq.

And Iraqi television read a statement said to be from Saddam Hussein today. In it, Saddam denied that any of his close family have fled abroad.

This appears to be a response to comments from U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke yesterday. She said the U.S. has seen evidence that Saddam's family members are fleeing or are trying to flee the country.