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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 April, 2003, 18:31 GMT 19:31 UK
Analysis: Risk to civilians mounts

Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The approach of US forces to Baghdad brings closer the capture of the capital but also brings increased risks to Iraqi civilians.

It raises the prospect that victory might be a "dirty" one and achieved at such a high price that there will be serious diplomatic and political fallout.

Iraqi baby wrapped in a funeral shroud - Hilla
The body of an Iraqi baby killed in Hilla

We could hear more cries like that of a man whose family was wiped out in Hilla: "God take our revenge on America."

The need to minimise civilian casualties (avoiding them is obviously impossible) will have an impact on the military tactics as the commanders prepare for the potential street fighting ahead.

Serious incidents

A Basra-type operation might develop in which Baghdad is squeezed, not conquered, quickly. But that would prolong the conflict.

And the military imperative to make progress could push soldiers at the front to use whatever weapons they have.

In this next phase, the precision-guided weapons launched from the air could give way more and more to tank and artillery fire which is less accurate.

Razek al-Kazem al-Khafaji, who lost his whole family in Hilla
Razek al-Kazem al-Khafaji lost his whole family in Hilla

There have already been two major incidents in Baghdad. The Independent newspaper in London has reported being given a fragment of a projectile from the scene of one explosion. It has serial numbers apparently identifying the missile as an anti radar bomb made for the US military.

If intensive fighting for the city produces more such incidents, from whatever cause, then the war aim of the US and British governments to "liberate" the people will be compromised.

It is not known how many civilians have died so far. The Iraqi government says it runs into the hundreds.

There have certainly been some serious incidents.

Some might argue that, for a war, the civilian toll is relatively low.

General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded a British armoured brigade in the Gulf War in 1991, told the BBC that we must "harden our hearts" and accept that mistakes are made.

Policy tested

Already the deaths of civilians is a major issue in the Arab world whose media is full of pictures of the dead and wounded in a way which most Western outlets are not.

Civilian deaths are presented by the Arab media as the result of a barbarous invading army
Martin Morgan, BBC Monitoring service

The western media tend to avoid direct images showing close-ups of dead bodies and serious wounds in any conflict.

This policy is now being tested. Showing too much runs into the problem of dignity and taste. Showing too little looks like censorship.

Martin Morgan, a monitor of the Arab media for the BBC Monitoring service said: "Civilian deaths are presented by the Arab media as the result of a barbarous invading army.

"The only exception is the Kuwaiti media which say that deaths are regrettable and could be avoided if Saddam Hussein stepped down," he told News Online.

Casualties in Hilla

The latest incident is a case in point. It took place in the town of Hilla to the south of Baghdad on Tuesday morning.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, "dozens" of people were killed in American shelling.

A spokesman for the ICRC, Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, told France 2 television: "For the first time our colleagues, a doctor and a health technician, accompanied by Iraqi colleagues, have been able to go to a town south of Baghdad.

"On arriving in the town of al-Hilla, they discovered that the hospital was completely unable to cope with the arrival of hundreds of injured people.

"Most of them were in a serious condition and they also witnessed a scene which made us use the word horror. It's that of several dozens of bodies which were completely blown to pieces."

Reuters reported the deaths of nine children at least. An overall death figure of 33 is being used by the hospital.

Cluster bomb remains filmed

Reporters who went to the town on Wednesday filmed exploded canisters of cluster bombs in one residential district.

A 21-minute videotape of the carnage exists and has been seen by reporters in Baghdad.

In one sequence, according to The Independent newspaper, the pictures showed a father holding pieces of his baby and screaming "cowards, cowards" at the camera.

Another man lifted the body of an infant and asked: "What has he done wrong? What has he done wrong?"

An Edinburgh trained doctor Nazim al-Adali is quoted in the Guardian newspaper in London: "All of these are due to the American bombing to the civilian homes. Hundreds of civilians have been injured and many have been killed."

He appealed to other doctors in the UK to protest.

Another man lifted the body of an infant and asked: "What has he done wrong? What has he done wrong?"

One elderly man Razek al-Kazem al-Khafaji said he had lost his wife, six children, his father and mother and two brothers.

It was he whose cry called for vengeance on Americans.

War in Iraq: Your views
02 Apr 03  |  Have Your Say

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