U.S. claims heavy damage to Iraqi armor But civilian deaths in bombing attack provoke outrage WAR IN THE GULF


WASHINGTON -- Allied bombs wreaked more destruction on Iraq's desert army yesterday, while hundreds of miles away, more charred bodies were pulled from the rubble of a Baghdad bunker.

Amid renewed speculation that a ground assault into occupied Kuwait might be imminent, coalition officials reported a sharp increase in the amount of Iraqi armor that had been destroyed, and a top Pentagon general called Iraq's military position "precarious."

Between one-third and one-half of Iraq's tanks and other armored vehicles have now been knocked out or damaged, allied officials reported. Slashing Iraq's combat effectiveness by half has long been regarded by analysts as the point at which a land war might feasibly begin.

In Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said 288 corpses had been recovered so far from the bombed-out ruins of a shelter that U.S. officials insist was a military command facility. At least 91 of the dead were children, Reuters reported, quoting Dr. Faiq Bakr, director of the government mortuary.

Rescue workers, masks covering their mouths and noses, had to cut through steel doors jammed by the blasts to reach bodies trapped below ground in the facility, located in the western Baghdad suburb of al-Amerieh.

Of the adult victims who could be identified by sex, 48 were women and 55 were men, the mortuary official told reporters. Ninety-four bodies were so badly burned that they could not be identified, even by sex, Dr. Bakr said.

The funeral of the first 20 victims quickly turned into an anti-American rally as thousands of Iraqis marched behind the flag-draped coffins. Some fired automatic weapons into the air, while others demanded revenge for the killing of women and children.

"By God we swear, we will make them pay their blood for this crime!" shouted members of the procession. "The death of our women and children will not go unavenged!"

Despite Wednesday's devastating pre-dawn raid, which produced by far the highest civilian death toll of any incident in the month-old war, U.S. military officials said they are not changing their method of selecting targets for bombing runs.

They would not say, however, whether allied bombers would avoid attacking military installations if civilians were known to be present. And they acknowledged that they may warn Iraqi civilians in advance of future attacks, in hopes of preventing non-military casualties.

"It's one of many options that we're exploring and we continue to explore," said Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, deputy operations director of the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia.

"We're not fighting the Iraqi people, and any option that we can pursue that will hopefully lessen any civilian casualties or collateral damage, we're going to pursue that very aggressively."

No new details of the nighttime raid on the Baghdad shelter emerged yesterday, as U.S. officials continued to maintain that they were certain they were attacking a military target and did not know civilians were inside.

A senior military official hinted that U.S. airmen were attracted to the structure in part because it was of the type sometimes used by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president. There was no indication that Mr. Hussein had, in fact, used the facility that was bombed, and Pentagon officials publicly denied that he was a target.

The international controversy over civilian casualties caused by allied bombing raged on with a closed-door debate at the United Nations and in briefings for journalists in the Persian Gulf and in Washington.

The debate was the first on the war by the 15-member U.N. Security Council, which in November authorized the use of military force to drive Iraq from Kuwait. The council adjourned last night after 3 1/2 hours of debate and was to reconvene this morning.

At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly heatedly accused Western reporters of having been "duped by the Hussein regime" into believing that the bombed-out Baghdad shelter had not been a military facility.

"I mean, that really is the easiest thing that I can think of, to dupe reporters who are walking around," he said, when asked about reports that journalists at the scene could see no signs of military communications equipment in the wreckage.

"My personal view is that the reporters are reporting what they see and that the people who are in charge there are very careful to hide what they don't want seen," the general added.

He noted that Iraq had not allowed journalists to visit Kuwait, where Iraqi forces are reportedly increasing their executions of Kuwaiti citizens. An official of the exiled Kuwaiti government said yesterday in Saudi Arabia that 200 people had been executed in Kuwait since the war began.

Meantime, in the air over Kuwait and southern Iraq, allied pilots racked up one of their most intense bombing days of the war yesterday.

U.S. officials disclosed a marked increase in the amount of Iraqi armor knocked out by coalition air strikes over the past week. At least 1,300 of Iraq's 4,280 tanks, 800 of 2,870 armored personnel carriers and 1,100 of 3,110 artillery pieces are known to have been destroyed in the war, almost twice the damage disclosed five days earlier.

In addition to the destroyed equipment, an additional 10 percent to 15 percent or more may be "not operational," said General Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who termed Iraq's military position "precarious."

"We're having greater success in striking the armored vehicles," he said. "It certainly would be one of the factors that's included in a deliberation as to whether or not the ground campaign should start."

Those statements prompted fresh speculation that a ground assault might soon begin.

But Pentagon officials maintained that no order for a land war has been given, and spokesman Pete Williams hastened to add that there was no "numerical formula" that would govern the decision to move into the ground phase.

Relentless allied bombing of Iraqi troops dug into the desert of Kuwait and southern Iraq -- more than 1,000 bombing runs were flown yesterday alone -- has also produced "very high" numbers of killed or wounded soldiers, he added, while declining to provide a figure.

The total of confirmed U.S. combat deaths rose to 14 yesterday with the downing of an Air Force EF-111A Raven reconnaissance jet.

The downed plane, with its two-man crew, crashed into the Saudi desert near the Kuwaiti border after apparently being hit by Iraqi ground fire while supporting allied bombers on a bombing raid early Wednesday.

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