Zaafaraniya, April 26 (Reuters): Many Iraqi civilians were believed killed today when an arms dump blew up on the outskirts of Baghdad, sending rockets flying into houses over a wide area and sparking a string of further explosions.
With shrapnel, live ammunition and unexploded rockets strewn far and wide, the precise extent of the damage and casualties was far from clear. One Iraqi medic put the death toll at 40, while US Central Command said at least six were killed.
There was also confusion over the cause of the blast, which the US military blamed on unidentified attackers who fired a flare or incendiary device into the store of Iraqi ammunition.
Local residents said American forces had been packing cars with Iraqi weapons over the last three days and detonating them at the site, but a US officer, Col John Peabody, denied that.
Some turned their anger on the Americans, shooting and forcing them back from the scene for a while until they joined forces to search for casualties, soldiers said.
Whatever the precise cause of the explosions, they are likely to complicate American efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The head doctor at Zaafaraniya hospital, Shaker Nasser, said his unit had received six dead and 13 wounded, adding that other hospitals in the capital were also taking casualties.
Some soldiers were also wounded, a US Army sergeant-major said at Zaafaraniya, a mixed residential and industrial suburb on the southern edge of Baghdad.
Local resident Tamir Kalaal said 14 of his relatives, including his father, brother and wife, were killed when a rocket destroyed his home.
“All I have left is her,” he said, sobbing and pointing to his one-month-old daughter. “Those Americans did this,” he said, shaking his finger in anger.
Near the scene, US Army Sergeant-Major Gary Coker said many people were trapped in buildings. The series of explosions began at about 8 am and seven hours later, sporadic blasts could still be heard.
US Central Command said in a statement issued in Qatar that an unknown number of individuals attacked American troops guarding the store and one soldier was wounded. “During the attack, the assailant(s) fired an unknown incendiary device into the cache, causing it to catch fire and explode. The explosion caused the destruction of the cache as well as a nearby building,” the statement said.
An enraged man at the scene vented his fury at the US forces who took the capital two weeks ago: “Why' Why'...The war is finished. A baby, a woman, 14 under this building,” he screamed in English.
“May God exact his revenge,” added a woman, whose head was bandaged. She was seated next to a young girl whose dress was soaked in blood from a head injury. The girl’s leg was being bandaged by a soldier.
About 500 Iraqi men, chanting anti-American, pro-Islam slogans, drove in a convoy of trucks, buses and cars out of the suburb — the first truck carrying six coffins, apparently containing bodies.