BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi officials said last night that at least 50 people, many of them women and small children, were killed when a missile or bomb struck a crowded marketplace in an impoverished district of Shiite Muslims in the northwest suburbs of Baghdad. Dozens of others were injured, many of them critically.
Survivors said that they had seen the vapor trail of a high-flying aircraft heading toward the south immediately before the blast about 5:30 p.m. Reporters taken to the scene, in the Shula district, 15 miles from central Baghdad, were told by others that seconds before the impact they heard the roar of an engine like that of cruise missiles that have struck Baghdad.
Amid scenes of carnage at the marketplace, and among grieving relatives clinging to open caskets at a nearby mosque, people were unanimous in blaming the attack on the United States or Britain, partners in the war against President Saddam Hussein.
As they washed the bodies of the dead at the mosque, or carried them away in shoulder-hoisted coffins for a night's mourning before dawn burials today, the victims' relatives appealed for America to end the war immediately.
But as with a similar incident Wednesday, when two explosions in another working-class Baghdad district killed at least 17 people and injured 45, it was impossible to tell whether the attack was the result of errant bombing by a coalition plane or missile, or another cause.
After the Wednesday incident, blamed by the Iraqis on an American air attack, U.S. military spokesmen said they had had no planes in the area at the time and suggested that the Iraqis could have caused the explosions themselves, with an errant surface-to-air missile or by planting bombs.
Either way, incidents like the one last night - the worst so far in a bombing campaign that has subjected key government targets in Baghdad to a relentless, round-the-clock pounding - threaten to become yet another major problem for the Bush administration in its prosecution of the war.
Hussein and his associates in the Baghdad leadership are certain to use any incident involving large numbers of civilian deaths to mobilize opinion against the war at home and abroad.
Ultimately, the Iraqi ruler appears to hope that growing opposition to the war abroad will force a radical turnaround in the allied war aims, saving him from being ousted.
This alone, Iraqi opposition leaders say, gives Hussein an incentive to organize incidents like the two bombing attacks that have caused high casualties among Iraqi civilians this week.
Iraqi officials react to these suggestions with fury, to the point that the dwindling group of Western reporters still working in Baghdad have been cautioned that any suggestion of Iraqi complicity in civilian deaths could be a cause for expulsion.
These officials say, too, that a bombing campaign that involves hitting Baghdad with dozens, and on some days, hundreds, of bombs and missiles is inherently "criminal," a word used in almost every Iraqi bulletin on the war, since even with America's high technology, the smallest of errors can have disastrous results.
The risks inherent in the U.S. air attacks have become even clearer in the past two days, as the Pentagon has turned to strikes on a new category of targets. For the second time in 24 hours, bombs that fell shortly after dawn yesterday hit two of Baghdad's principal telephone exchanges, after an initial strike on another exchange the previous night.
The attacks left much of the Iraqi capital without telephones and caused widespread unhappiness among ordinary Iraqis, who had hoped that, contrary to the experience in 1991, the bombing would leave utilities crucial to their everyday lives intact.
Last night, a huge bomb struck in the area beside the Tigris River where the Information Ministry is located, and initial reports indicated that the ministry had been substantially damaged or destroyed.
The attacks on the telephone exchanges followed a strike this week on Iraq's principal radio and television headquarters, beside the Information Ministry. The government quickly got two of the three state-owned channels back on the air, but the message seemed clear: that the Pentagon was moving away from an initial reluctance to hit public utilities.
After the marketplace explosion last night, there was no ambiguity in the response of Iraqis struggling to deal with the carnage. Dr. Hassan Razouki, the 50-year-old director of the Al Noor hospital in the Shula district, half a mile from the explosion, broke away from directing surgery to tell reporters that the incident was the result of an allied bombing attack, and to suggest that it had been part of a deliberate policy by the United States and Britain to target Iraq's population of 24 million people.
"At 5:30 p.m. this evening, an enemy plane deliberately hit the local market," he said.
"It was crowded with lots of people, including many children and many elderly, who went there to buy food. The number of martyrs from this criminal act is 35, most of them under 15 years of age, elderly or female, and we have treated 47 others who were injured. Additional victims were taken to other hospitals, and our count does not include those whose bodies were removed by their families before they could be listed."
He added: "The bodies were shattered by the missile, which was intended to kill as many people as possible. It was daylight; it was clear to anybody that the market was crowded, and there are no military or strategic facilities in this area."