WASHINGTON -- Exploding the controversy over civilian casualties in Iraq, U.S. warplanes bombed an underground facility in suburban Baghdad early yesterday, killing hundreds of civilians, Iraqi authorities said.
At least 235 charred bodies, some of them women and children, were recovered by nightfall, the Associated Press reported from Baghdad. Local authorities said the death toll could exceed 500.
U.S. officials said that they had been unaware any civilians were in the shelter and that the heavily reinforced bunker was a military command center.
Military officials said allied pilots continued their intense bombing campaign against Iraqi forces in and around occupied Kuwait. More than 2,800 combat and support missions were flown, including more than 900 against Iraqi ground units, one of the heaviest days of the war.
There were fresh reports of sporadic ground fire across the Saudi-Kuwaiti border as the two sides continued to feel each other out in advance of an expected ground campaign. One Saudi jet was reported downed; no other coalition casualties were reported.
Meanwhile, refugees reaching Jordan said allied bombers struck two buses full of Sudanese and Jordanian civilians fleeing the war zone. The attacks, which reportedly killed about 60 people in all, took place Saturday and Monday, Reuters reported.
Regarding the Baghdad shelter, Bush administration officials suggested strongly that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in hopes of scoring a propaganda victory, had deliberately sacrificed citizens by putting them inside a military facility.
"We don't know why civilians were at this location, but we do know that Saddam Hussein does not share our value in the sanctity of life," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in a televised statement. "Indeed, he time and again has shown a willingness to sacrifice civilian lives and property that further his war aims."
The attack took place on a night of heavy bombing in the Baghdad area.
Scenes of the wreckage were flashed around the world by
Western television networks, along with graphic footage of mutilated bodies being pulled from the ruins and grief-stricken relatives waiting.
Reporters at the scene were told that 700 to 1,000 civilians had been using the shelter nightly since the war began.
One teen-ager, Omar Adnan, said he was the only one in his family to escape alive. He said his three younger sisters, mother and father all died, according to an AP dispatch.
"I was sleeping, and suddenly I felt heat and the blanket was burning," Mr. Adnan said. "Moments later, I felt I was suffocating. I turned to try and touch my mother, who was next to me, but grabbed nothing but a piece of flesh."
Iraqi officials said the facility was a civilian bomb shelter. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz demanded that the United Nations condemn the "crimes" committed by the U.S.-led coalition in what he said was a deliberate attack on civilians.
In the aftermath of yesterday's incident, Pentagon officials said allied planners would have to "think hard" about whether to attack other Iraqi command centers if it was determined that civilians were being sheltered inside.
"We're going to examine our consciences very closely to determine if we can't do something in the future to preclude [civilian casualties]," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Now what we can't preclude is a cold-blooded decision on the part of Saddam Hussein to put civilians without our knowledge into a facility and then have them bombed. And I don't know that that happened; all I address that is as a possibility."
To bolster their claims that Mr. Hussein is using civilian areas to shelter his military equipment, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney disclosed that Iraq has placed two MiG-21 fighter jets near an archaeological site in the city of Ur, on the Euphrates River.
He told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a luncheon speech that satellite photos of the area, whose settlement dates back to biblical times and which is said to be the birthplace of Abraham, showed that the jets were parked beside an ancient Sumerian pyramid.
Military officials, who have been criticized by many in the press for refusing to provide greater access to and information about allied operations, also went to unusual lengths to try to support their contention that they had struck a military target. Sketches of the bombed shelter and neighboring buildings, apparently drawn from satellite photos, were shown at a Pentagon briefing.
Officials refused, however, to reveal the specific evidence they said they had proving that the shelter was being used as a military command center, saying that making such information public might "help the enemy."
Officials said that, following the destruction of central military command facilities in downtown Baghdad early in the war, the Iraqis had shifted their communications centers to various underground sites in the suburbs, including the one attacked yesterday.
They said that it had become active within the last two weeks and that war planners had solid evidence that military personnel and "leadership" vehicles had been detected around the site.
A senior military officer said that military communications had been heard and could not have been the conversations of civilians.
TC The coalition planners who select targets for bomb strikes had no evidence that civilians were using the facility, the military said.
"Maybe they didn't go in and out till after dark last night and we didn't have a picture of it," General Kelly said. "We can't detect everything. . . . Obviously, we didn't know that the civilians were in there, or we would not have bombed the thing."
Officials said that the facility had deliberately been attacked at // 4:30 in the morning, local time, because it was located in the middle of civilian structures, including a recreation center, a mosque and a school.
Two laser-guided bombs were dropped through the building's 10-foot-thick, steel-reinforced roof.
The bombed-out facility was built during the early 1980s as a civilian bomb shelter and was converted to military use in about 1985, when it was "hardened" to protect against direct attack, said Capt. Dave Herrington, deputy intelligence director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said the building also had been given special electromagnetic protection to prevent sensitive communications gear from being disabled by the effects of a nuclear blast.
There was conflicting information, however, on whether the facility may have continued to be used as a civilian shelter too. A U.S. military spokesman in Saudi Arabia said he knew of no previous cases in which Iraqi civilians were permitted near military command centers.
Pentagon officials, though, ducked questions about whether the shelter may have been a dual-purpose facility. And private defense analysts suggested that the upper floors of the shelter may have been available to civilians, while military activities were carried out on lower levels.
U.S. officials strenuously denied that the incident reflected a breakdown in military intelligence.
"From a military point of view, nothing went wrong. The target was struck as designated," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal told reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "From a personal point of view, I'm outraged that civilians might have been placed in harm's way, and I blame the Iraqi government and the Iraqi leadership for that."
Initially, U.S. officials reacted cautiously to reports that civilians had been killed and continued to cast doubt on the veracity of news accounts from the scene.
General Kelly cautioned 18 hours after the attack, "We are chagrined if people were hurt. The only information we have on people hurt is coming out of a controlled press in Baghdad," a reference to Iraqi censorship of Western news reports. The Associated Press, in its dispatch from the scene, said that journalists were told for the first time in the war that they could file their reports without censorship.