| SANDSTORM, NOT SUNSET: US soldiers in chemical protection suit sit on top of a tank during a false alarm alert in a sandstorm near Karbala on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, March 26 (Reuters): Casualties mounted in the Iraq war and cries of “down with Bush” rent the air as at least 15 Iraqis were killed in a busy Baghdad street today in what infuriated residents said was a US missile strike.
But President George W. Bush praised the “lethal precision” of American pilots and warned Saddam Hussein that his day of reckoning was near.
After almost a week of unrelenting attacks on targets in and around the Iraqi capital, the missile strike in Shaab district appeared to be the first to hit a residential area causing substantial civilian casualties.
Enraged Iraqis carried bloody bodies away, yelling slogans backing Saddam and denouncing Bush. “We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Saddam,” they chanted.
Reuters correspondents counted 15 scorched corpses lying amid blackened, mangled cars and rubble from broken buildings. Flames poured from an oil truck. A pregnant woman was among the dead.
Residents said two missiles hit the busy street, which is lined by ground-floor shops and restaurants beneath residential apartment blocks, at 11.30 am (2 pm IST).
If it is confirmed that a missile strike caused the casualties, it will damage US and British efforts to mute public opposition to the conflict. Arab television channels broadcast graphic pictures of the dead and wounded.
US and British spokesmen said they had no immediate information on the blast. Britain’s defence minister, Geoff Hoon, told parliament he, too, had no information, but said the risk of civilian casualties was growing.
Iraqi civil defence official Haneed Dulaimi said there were no military facilities in the area. But some residents said there was a military compound nearby.
With a second day of severe sandstorms buffeting Iraq, US forces fought bloody skirmishes in their advance towards Baghdad from the south.
American troops fought a fierce battle with Iraqi forces for control of a bridge over the Euphrates river close to the Shi’ite shrine city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
A US military officer monitoring the clash said an unspecified number of American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles had been destroyed by Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles at Abu Sukhayr, 20 km southeast of Najaf.
He said he believed that the US crew had escaped from their vehicles but their fate was still unclear.
Overnight, a separate US force fought a ferocious battle with Iraqi infantry about 160 km south of Baghdad and an American official said up to 300 Iraqis had been killed. The engagement near Najaf was one of the fiercest of the war, now in its seventh day. The US official said there had been no American casualties.
The Pentagon said it was flying its high-tech 4th Infantry Division and other units totalling more than 30,000 troops to the Gulf to join the invasion of Iraq. Some commentators have said US ground troops were overstretched, especially since Iraqi resistance has been more troublesome than expected.
Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire, with US Marines pushing north from An Nasiriyah, saw about two dozen corpses among wrecked vehicles littering the road north of the town of Shatra, where the American convoy had come under small-arms fire.
A US military official said some of the 12 soldiers whose supply convoy was ambushed near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on Sunday may have been killed by their captors although they tried to surrender.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there had been some overnight unrest in Iraq’s second city of Basra in the south.
“Truthfully, reports are confused, but we believe there was some limited form of uprising,” he told parliament. A Shi’ite revolt in Basra had erupted after the 1991 Gulf War, but the Republican Guards smashed it as US forces stood aside. Arab television journalists in the southern city said there was no sign of an uprising.
The UN World Food Programme said Iraq would probably need the biggest humanitarian operation in history to feed its population after the US-led invasion.
With the humanitarian situation in Basra causing growing concern, British naval officers said they had finally secured Iraq’s only deepwater port of Umm Qasr on Tuesday.
A seven-truck convoy arrived there today with Kuwaiti aid for hungry and thirsty civilians in southern Iraq. Trucks of medical equipment headed for Baghdad from Jordan in what aid officials hope will be the start of a vital land link.