Civilian deaths likely to hurt efforts to win over Iraqis

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 27, 2003

AMMAN, Jordan (KRT) - The apparent bombing of a civilian shopping area in Baghdad on Wednesday marks the first major public relations disaster for a U.S. military effort that has made avoiding civilian casualties one of its highest priorities.

Reports from Baghdad say 14 civilians died when two cruise missiles slammed into a residential area early Wednesday.

Pentagon officials have not confirmed that their missiles struck the Al-Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad, but they did say that they targeted nine Iraqi missile launchers that had been placed within civilian areas, many of them less than 300 feet from residential areas.

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The incident nonetheless underscored the dangers that a protracted campaign will bring for military planners counting on the eventual support of Iraqi citizens for America's effort not only to depose Saddam Hussein but also to install a stable democratic government that will enjoy the support of all Iraqis.

The widely watched Arabic Al Jazeera television channel broadcast gruesome footage of charred bodies and bloodied debris accompanied by images of angry Iraqis chanting their rage with America. Reflecting the hardening attitudes of an Arab world already bitterly opposed to the war, the Lebanese TV network Al Manar headlined its nightly news by announcing that "a hideous massacre in Baghdad marks the seventh day of aggression and raids in the Iraqi capital."

The broadcast added: "The real face of the aggressor has been exposed."

The toll in this suspected accidental bombing pales in comparison with other infamous U.S. mistargetings, including the accidental bombing of an air raid shelter in the first Gulf War that killed 435 people, according to Iraqi officials; the mistaken attack on a refugee convoy in the Kosovo war, in which at least 64 refugees were killed, and most recently the bombing of a wedding party in Afghanistan last year in which 41 people died.

Human-rights groups say they have been impressed by the apparent efforts so far to minimize the suffering of civilians in Iraq. "It's clear that they have been taking their promise to avoid civilian casualties seriously," said Reuben Brigerty, who is monitoring the conduct of the war on behalf of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

But in these crucial early stages of the war, in which the United States is fighting also to convince Iraqis as well as many in the outside world that its intentions toward Iraq are honorable, images such as these could prove vital to the success or failure of the campaign.