Iraqi Civilians Killed Bush Promises Victory

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–At least 15 Iraqis were killed in a Baghdad street on Wednesday in what furious residents said was a US missile strike–as President George W. Bush praised the "lethal precision" of American pilots and warned Saddam Hussein that his day of reckoning was near.

After almost a week of unrelenting attacks on targets in and around the Iraqi capital–the missile strike in the Shaab district appeared to be the first to hit a residential area causing substantial civilian casualties.

Reuters correspondents counted 15 scorched corpses lying amid blackened–mangled cars and rubble from broken buildings. Flames poured from an oil truck. Yelling residents pulled a man with a bloody head from rubble and said a pregnant woman was among the dead.

Residents said two missiles hit the busy street–which is lined by shops and restauran’s on the ground floor of apartment blocks–at around 11:30 a.m. US and British spokesmen’said they had no immediate information on the blasts.

Elsewhere–with a second day of severe sandstorms buffeting Iraq–US forces fought bloody skirmishes in their advance towards the city from the south.

US troops fought a fierce battle with Iraqi forces for control of a bridge over the Euphrates river close to the Shi’ite Muslim shrin city of Najaf in southern Iraq.

A US military officer monitoring the clash said an unspecified number of US tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles had been destroyed by Iraqis armed with rocket propelled grenades and automatic rifles at Abu Sukhayr–13 miles southeast of Najaf. He said he believed that the US crews had escaped from their vehicles but their fate was still unclear.

Bush told hundreds of troops and their families in Florida that US fighting units were now facing desperate troops loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

"We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime–but I can assure you–and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq–there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime–and that day is drawing near," Bush said–speaking at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida–which houses US Central Command.

"Our pilots and cruise missiles have struck vital military targets with lethal precision," he said.

In contrast–he said Iraqi units used cowardly and evil means. "They wage attacks while posing as civilians. They use real civilians as human’shields. They pretend to surrender–then fire upon those who show them mercy," Bush said.

"Protecting innocent civilians is a central commitment of our war plan. Our enemy in this war is the Iraqi regime–not the people who have suffered under it," he declared.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said more than 500 people had been wounded and 200 homes destroyed as US forces stormed through Nassiriya city earlier.

A US military official said some of the 12 soldiers whose supply convoy was ambushed near Nassiriya in southern Iraq on Sunday may have been killed by their captors although they tried to surrender.

The Pentagon said it was flying its high-tech 4th Infantry Division and other units totaling more than 30,000 troops to the Gulf to join the invasion of Iraq.

Some commentators have said US ground troops were overstretched–especially since Iraqi resistance has been more troublesome than expected.

‘FEROCIOUS BATTLE’

Overnight–a separate US force fought a ferocious battle about 100 miles south of Baghdad and a US official said up to 300 Iraqis may have been killed. The engagement near Najaf was one of the fiercest of the war–now in its seventh day.

Bush launched the war with British support to depose Saddam and take control of his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Iraq denied having any such weapons and US forces have not yet found any.

If it is confirmed that a missile strike caused the casualties in Baghdad–it will damage US and British efforts to mute public opposition to the conflict. Arab television channels broadcast graphic pictures of the dead and wounded.

Britain’s defense minister Geoff Hoon told parliament the risk of civilian casualties was growing as the bombing intensified. He also accused Saddam loyalists of firing at their own civilians to prevent them from rising up against the government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there had been some overnight unrest in Iraq’s second city of Basra in the south. "Truthfully reports are confused–but we believe there was some limited form of uprising," he told parliament.

Arab television journalists in the southern city on Wednesday said there was no sign of an anti-Saddam revolt.

An Arab television channel broadcast video of two dead soldiers and two prisoners of war–all said to be British.

Bush and Blair–his main ally on Iraq–meet in Washington on Wednesday. The UN Security Council holds a public debate at the request of Arab nations.

The United Nations World Food Program said Iraq would probably need the biggest humanitarian operation in history to feed its entire population after the US-led invasion.

With the humanitarian situation in Basra causing growing concern–British naval officers said they had finally secured Iraq’s only deepwater port of Umm Qasr on Tuesday.

A seven-truck convoy arrived there on Wednesday with Kuwaiti aid for hungry and thirsty civilians in southern Iraq. Trucks of medical equipment headed for Baghdad from Jordan.

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