Iraqis Say 50 Die in Baghdad Market Air Raid

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–Iraqis said more than 50 people were killed on Friday in an air raid on a popular Baghdad market after the United States unleashed some of the heaviest air strikes of the war on the capital.

US ground troops advancing toward Baghdad appeared to pause to regroup and strengthen supply lines–while officials at home deflected criticism that the invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein was bogged down.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of providing military equipment to Iraq. He called the supply a hostile act that "vastly complicates our situation" but declined to say whether the United States would react with military force against Iraq’s neighbor.

In Baghdad–Dr. Osama Sakhari at Al Noor Hospital said he had counted 55 people killed and more than 47 wounded from the air raid at the market in the city’s Shula neighborhood.

Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh said he had personally counted five bodies in one of the hospital’s morgue units.

Arabic language television stations–which put the death toll at more than 50–said searchers were looking for more victims–and showed pictures of people carrying coffins out of the hospital–which was surrounded by large crowds.

Abu Dhabi television said US cruise missiles may have hit the market and showed a gaping hole on one street and damaged cars. US officials said they had no knowledge of such reports.

Earlier–US defense officials said a radar-avoiding B-2 stealth bomber had dropped two earth-shattering 4,600-pound bombs on a communications center in downtown Baghdad.

It was the first use of the so-called "bunker-busters" on Baghdad since the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began nine days ago.

Correspondent Nadim Ladki saw two damaged communications centers in the capital. One big building had been struck at its base. A tangled pile of smoldering rubble was all that was left of a smaller facility. Many telephone lines were knocked out.

Playing on US and British fears of being sucked into bloody street battles–especially in a capital heavily defended by elite Republican Guards–Iraq swore to fight on and promised "living hell" for the invaders.

FRIDAY PRAYERS

And Iraqis converged on mosques for Friday prayers–enraged rather than cowed by the US bombardment.

"You can see and hear the missiles and bombs raining down on us and yet Muslims are coming to the house of God to pray," said the preacher at the "Mother of All Battles" Mosque.

Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said overnight raids on the capital had killed seven civilians and wounded 92. Witnesses said eight more people were killed when a Baghdad office of the ruling Baath Party was demolished in a later raid. Both tolls were given before the deaths at the market.

Sahaf also said US forces had used cluster bombs against the Shi’ite shrine city of Najaf–killing 26 civilians and wounding 60.

In the ground war–an American officer said US forces had fought around 1,500 Iraqis overnight near Najaf–100 miles south of the capital–but he had no word on casualties.

Reuters reporter Luke Baker–near Najaf–said US forces had used tanks and heavy artillery. "The battle raged for a few hours. It finished about 3 a.m.," Baker said.

Sahaf said Iraqi forces had destroyed 33 tanks and armored vehicles and killed four invaders in the area. The United States reported four Marines missing near Nassiriya to the south.

Reuters correspondents with US units–some of which have raced to as little as 50 miles (80 km) from Baghdad–said the columns seemed in no hurry to get closer than that for now.

Officers said they needed to bring fresh stocks of food–fuel and ammunition down the long supply lines from Kuwait.

But Britain’s Army chief–Mike Jackson–dismissed suggestions the campaign had become bogged down.

"Armies cannot keep moving forever without stopping from time to time to regroup–to ensure their supplies are up," he told a London news conference. "It’s a pause while people get sorted out for what comes next."

In Washington–Air Force Gen. Richard Myers–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–said–"The (war) plan is sound. It is being executed and it is on track."

The Pentagon has ordered 100,000 more troops to the Gulf.

AID SHIP DOCKS

After chaotic scenes of Iraqis struggling to grab scarce supplies of food and water–the first aid ship docked in the southern port of Umm Qasr–part of an effort by London and Washington to show their foe is Saddam–not his people.

The Sir Galahad–a British naval supply vessel carrying 200 tons of food–medicine–blankets and water–arrived after days of delay while mines were cleared from the waterway.

In New York–the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve using billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenues to buy food and medicine in a bid to avert a humanitarian crisis.

Many thousands of Muslims around the world took to the streets to protest the war. "Death to America!" and "Long live Iraq," shouted protesters in Gaza. Egyptian demonstrators called on Iraqis to wage holy war against the invading US and British forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin–an outspoken opponent of the war–said it had pushed the world into its most serious crisis since the Cold War.

Investor worries a protracted conflict would damage the global economy–weighed on stocks and the dollar while oil prices rose.

BASRA CIVILIANS UNDER FIRE

Britain said Iraqi forces had fired mortars and machine guns at about 2,000 civilians fleeing fighting and deprivation in the besieged southern city of Basra–forcing some to turn back. In a similar but apparently separate incident on the road south from Basra–Iraqi forces fired mortar bombs near some 1,000 civilians waiting to cross a bridge–a British officer said.

In northern Iraq–jubilant Kurdish fighters poured over one front line near the town of Chamchamal after Iraqi troops pulled back toward the oil city of Kirkuk after heavy pounding by US bombers. But the Iraqis later shelled Chamchamal.

More US troops arrived in the north overnight–advancing plans to open a new front against Baghdad.

Reuters journalist Soheil Afdjei saw four transport helicopters–up to 60 vehicles and about 150 troops at the Harir airstrip–a day after 1,000 paratroopers secured it.

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