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Mishap label on Baghdad’s killer fireball

Baghdad, Dec. 17 (Reuters): A fuel tanker exploded in Baghdad today, killing 10 people and triggering official statements that it was a bomb until the US military said hours later experts had decided it was caused by an accident.

The blast — and Iraqi police statements that it was a bombing — sparked fresh anxiety in an Iraq gripped by violence and instability in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture.

The explosion in Baghdad’s Bayya’a district shortly after dawn sent a ball of flame tearing through a packed minibus and several civilian cars, police said.

They said the tanker was packed with explosives and that at least 17 people had been killed, most of them passengers on the minibus.

One officer said a nearby police station could have been the intended target before the tanker hit the minibus.

But hours later, the US military said the blast was caused by an accident and revised the death toll to 10.

“Our ordnance experts surveyed the site and found no evidence of explosives. It was not consistent with a car bomb. It was a fuel truck that simply had a traffic accident,” a US military spokesman, Captain Jason Beck, told Reuters.

Vehicle bombs have been used in a number of guerrilla attacks, including raids on UN headquarters in Baghdad and the International Committee of the Red Cross offices.

The US military said American forces killed three attackers and wounded another in the northern city of Mosul as they tried to mount a drive-by shooting.

The military said it had stepped up an offensive to stamp out attacks on US-led occupying forces and Iraqis cooperating with the US.

Washington blames the attacks, in which nearly 200 US soldiers have been killed since Bush declared major combat over on May 1, on Saddam supporters and foreign Islamic militants.

US forces said they had arrested eight more people in Samarra, some 100 km north of Baghdad, as part of operations in the area that netted 73 suspects on Tuesday. They said they had also detained three suspected insurgents today in Baquba, 65 km north of the capital.

One was suspected of organising attacks in the area.

The attempted Mosul attack, violent protests in parts of the so-called Sunni “triangle” where Saddam had his powerbase and an Iraqi official’s statement that the northern oil export pipeline was too vulnerable to sabotage to reopen dealt blows to hopes Saddam’s capture would lead to an easing of violence.

“What can we do' It’s our future. Our future is death,” said Musalam Abdurida, 18, a victim of today’s blast as he lay in hospital when officials were saying it was a bombing.

Personal agony

Treating the bloodied victims of Baghdad’s latest blast today, Dr Mohammed Majeed experienced the very personal agony of post-war Iraq.

“Today I saw a 14-year-old girl die as her brain tissue spilled out. I give up. I want to leave Iraq,” he said as mothers prayed over their sons in a grimy hospital ward. Some of the victims lay on bloody sheets at dimly lit Yarmuk hospital, reminding Majeed of his painful dilemma. “I am torn. I want to leave Iraq for the sake of my children but I also want to help Iraqis. But I feel so sad. I give up.”

In the days that followed the US-led invasion, Majeed had high hopes that the violence would eventually ease and he could help build a modern health system in oil-rich Iraq.

But little has changed in the eight months that have elapsed since Saddam was toppled.

“Saddam used to deprive hospitals of getting enough medicine so that the world would criticise the sanctions. I thought we would get plenty of medicine after the war,” he said.

“But nothing has changed. Now we still don’t have enough medicine because of export controls.” Majeed has treated hundreds of victims since the war ended in May, and the suffering around him is all too familiar.

One man lay on his side, groaning in pain. In the next bed a teenager with half of his lip blown off barely had the energy to look at distraught relatives.

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