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Last Updated: Monday, 28 April, 2003, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Iraqis reject US explanations

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online, Baghdad

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Kammerer is on a mission to "explain and offer help" to the people of Hai al-Muallimin, but it doesn't seem to be going very well.

Toddler Abbas with members of Abu Khazal family
Five generations were struck by the tragedy

A few young Iraqi men and boys are gathered around his Bradley armoured vehicle, where a US Army lieutenant who speaks a few words of poor Arabic is causing some wry amusement.

But most residents are still too emotionally bruised to do anything except stare resentfully from a distance. Not that Colonel Kammerer is discouraged.

"After Saturday's unfortunate event we were received here by an angry mob which chased us away... People seem less angry today," he tells me.

The reason for the anger is that, between about 0800 and 1100 on Saturday, Hai al-Muallimin was hit by an infernal rain of twisted, blackened metal during a series of massive explosions at the nearby weapons' dump under Colonel Kammerer's command.

"My soldiers were attacked by some Iraqi gentlemen who fired flares into the ammunition storage area causing a fire," the colonel says. "We tried to contain the situation but the blaze spread, detonating the munitions."

Rubbing salt into wounds

On the other side of Hai al-Muallimin - a long strip of houses skirting the arms dump in Baghdad's Zafaranya district - a red-eyed Sabi Hassoun is still too shocked to hold a conversation.

House hit by unexploded missile during Saturday's explosions
Not all the Frog-7 missiles exploded

The 70-year-old great-grandfather is grieving for six members of his family - one son, three grandsons and two of their wives - who died when a Soviet-made Frog-7 missile exploded on their doorstep, demolishing two houses and leaving a large crater in the street.

Amid the crowds and the rubble, little Abbas is crying inconsolably. He lost both his parents in the disaster.

"What are the Americans doing? It's two kilometres from Hai al-Muallimin to the nearest district, and they are exploding weapons between us. Is that normal?" the boy's uncle, Hisham, asks.

Just then a group US soldiers approaches up the street, causing a murmur of revulsion around me.

There are seven of them in full battle dress, helmets and flack jackets, five with weapons at the ready, two taking photos of the devastation.

It turns out that the two - one of them a great bear of a man with bristling moustache and wrap-around sunglasses - are engineers who have come to see "what they can do to help".

But they don't have a translator with them to explain this and their appearance just seems to rub salt into the wounds of the shocked and angry residents.

I hear a voice behind me muttering: "Don't they say that criminals always return to the scene of their crimes?"

Contradictory stories

No one in Hai al-Muallimin believes the US explanation that Iraqis caused the blasts.

Lt-Col Jack Kammerer talking to residents of Hai al-Muallimin
Colonel Kammerer insisted his priority was Iraqis' safety

They think it was probably an accident caused by the Americans, who they say have been carrying out at least three controlled explosions a day here - usually at 0800, 1400 and 1700 - for the past two weeks.

Three days earlier, they said, village representatives had demanded that the Americans should stop the blasts, which they feared were too close to their homes.

"They ignored us, saying they took orders only from their military superiors, not from Iraqis like us," Hisham says.

But when I spoke to Colonel Kammerer he denied that any explosions had been carried out next to Hai al-Muallimin since he had taken over command of the area from the US marines a week earlier.

"Because of concerns about the proximity of civilian populations, this facility has only been used as a consolidation area," he said.

"There have been explosions around this part of Baghdad, but it is a misperception that we're destroying things in this particular location."

'Price of occupation'

I go over to a group of Iraqis standing on the other side of the dirt road after my interview with the colonel.

Frog-7 missiles at US Army-run munitions dump
About 30 Frog-7 missiles were being kept in Zafaranya

"The officer tells me that, apart from Saturday, there haven't been any explosions here for more than a week," I tell them.

They look at me with incredulity for a moment, before insisting: "there were, there were".

So I ask the group whether they want to discuss this with Colonel Kammerer. Most are reluctant, but one man says he will, and the others follow him across the dirt road towards the Bradley.

"Colonel, these people say there have been lots of explosions here in the last week," I say.

A short debate ensues, with the increasingly agitated crowd pressing their point via the colonel's translator and an increasingly defensive colonel sticking to his story.

Finally, the colonel says he has to go. He leaves his audience unpersuaded.

"Let them pay the price for this crime, every single American soldier who has come to occupy Iraq," says one of the group as the Bradley and accompanying Humvee disappear in a cloud of dust.

Flare doubts

I later showed my photographs of Saturday's blasts to a Western security consultant with explosives expertise currently working in Baghdad.

Part of a Frog-7 launch trailer embedded into the earth
Deadly rain: Chunks of metal were propelled long distances

He found it hard to believe that simple flares could have caused the tragedy in Zafaranya, in which at least 12 people are thought to have been killed.

"The debris at the epicentre is consistent with a powerful high explosive blast whose shockwave triggered what we call sympathetic explosions in nearby munitions.

"If you'd asked me to cause that using flares, I'd have been stumped. High explosives are not that volatile to be detonated with flares. But you could do it with a hand grenade or a mine.

"The question is why were all those munitions stored together - and so close to civilian areas? It might have been necessary in the first phase after the capture of Baghdad, but that was two weeks ago."

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