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Weapons Explosion Sparks Anger in Iraq

Weapons Explosion Sparks Anger in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A U.S.-held weapons cache laden with 80 Iraqi missiles exploded Saturday on the teeming edge of Baghdad, killing six people and pummeling homes for miles around with a cascade of warheads, rockets and mortars.

The U.S. military blamed unknown attackers who they said fired four flares into the sprawling open missile dump. But hundreds of enraged, screaming Iraqis blamed Iraq's new American overseers.

"This is the safety that Bush promised us?" demanded Munthir Safir, the blood of his family dried on the cloth of his white caftan. Around him, wailing women collapsed over the coffins of two adults and four teenagers.

"No Saddam! No Bush! Yes to Islam!" fist-waving men shouted. The disaster touched off protests in the stricken Zafaraniyah neighborhood and in the city center.

Hours later, smoke still surged from the blackened crater left at the missile cache. Explosives boomed, a rocket whistled and rounds popped. One unexploded missile protruded from a lawn. U.S. forces promised to send removal experts.

One American soldier suffered a broken arm in the initial attack on the depot, said Col. John Peabody, commander of U.S. Army's 11th Engineering Brigade. He was not immediately identified.

Other developments Saturday in Iraq:

-- The U.S. military said unknown attackers fired flares into a U.S.-held Iraqi weapons dump in Baghdad, hitting homes for miles with warheads, rockets and mortars and killing six people. Hundreds of enraged Iraqis blamed the Americans for keeping the stash in the area.

-- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. troops will stay in Iraq and Afghanistan until stable democratic governments have taken control. Rumsfeld was traveling to the Persian Gulf to discuss strategic arrangements with Gulf countries.

-- The Pentagon is sending teams of Iraqi exiles with professional experience to Baghdad to revive government ministries and take part in the rebuilding. The teams have been assembled by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense.

-- Baghdad made progress in getting electricity back. Eleven of the city's 12 public hospitals had power and water Saturday.

-- Teachers returned to many Iraqi schools but found few or no students to instruct. Wary of unsafe streets and lawlessness, school administrators awaited orders from a government that doesn't yet exist.

-- The Iranian government said it is neither seeking "friction" with Washington over Iraq's future government nor pushing for a religious administration in Baghdad. But Tehran also reiterated it does not support the presence of U.S. and British troops in Iraq.

In Qatar, U.S. Central Command spokesman Lt. Mark Kitchens placed blame squarely on what he called "the despicable people" who allegedly fired the flares.

"This is not just an attempt to disrupt the process of peace. It's a crime against the Iraqi people," Kitchens said.

Elsewhere on Saturday, U.S. soldiers found 14 suspicious barrels, including one that preliminary tests found could contain a mixture of nerve and blistering agents, according to ABC News. The barrels were found about 25 miles north of Saddam Hussein's home region of Tikrit in a large weapons storage area that included missiles and missile parts. ABC was escorted to the site by the U.S. military.

Previous finds of chemicals suspected of being weapons of mass destruction have turned out to be false alarms. The Pentagon said it was aware of the report but could not confirm it.

The disaster in Baghdad struck at 7:50 a.m. as residents slept or assembled bread and tea for breakfast.

Out of sight of U.S. troops at the depot, someone fired four flares over a wall around an open field where ordnance had been stored, said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald King, a witness.

Americans said some of the tactical weapons had been stored there by Saddam's regime, which had stashed such items in schools, homes and other populated areas.

The U.S. military had put some of the ordnance there itself, however, collecting abandoned Iraqi caches from around the city for later disposal, King said.

The cache included Russian-made Frog-7s and Iraq's own Al Samoud 2 -- 80 missiles in all, said Col. John Peabody, commanding officer of the U.S. Army's 11th Engineering Brigade, which had been helping at the site.

The flares hit an ammunition pit, setting fire to wooden ammo crates, King said. In a flash, deadly remnants of Saddam's regime were pounding homes without warning. Booms rattled windows across the city.

About a mile away, a missile plowed into a dirt lane between two rows of crude two-story homes. Walls crumbled and roofs blew off, demolishing four houses. Inside one, the impact killed a 50-year-old worker, his four teenage children and his 23-year-old daughter-in-law, a new mother.

"Our house collapsed. That's all I remember," Mohammed Khazaal, 15, said from a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages and gashes across his body. A brother of the dead young woman, he had been sleeping when the missile hit.

Nearby, medical workers treated deep cuts in the legs of Zeineb Thamer, the year-old daughter of the woman who died. Blood matted Zeineb's light-brown hair. In English, the message on her T-shirt declared, "Welcome, Little Friend."

Peabody said 10 or more Iraqis were wounded. Two of them were said to be near death.

U.S. forces initially came under small-arms fire when they went to the scene, Peabody said. They returned fire. There was no word on further casualties.

Peabody wouldn't speculate on exactly who fired the flares. "Somebody who does not want us to be here," he said.

Ultimately, Peabody said, the fallen Iraqi regime was responsible. "We are very sorry that the practice of Saddam Hussein putting his missiles ... throughout Baghdad has resulted in this."

In Zafaraniyah, residents described days of what appeared to be U.S.-controlled blasts at the missile dump, apparently to destroy leftover Iraqi weaponry.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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