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Pentagon: Iraq May Be Responsible for Baghdad Civilian Deaths - 2003-03-26

Senior Pentagon officials say Iraqi authorities may be responsible for the explosions in a Baghdad residential area that killed 15 civilians. That word comes as coalition forces press their attack on Iraqi forces south of the capital.

A senior Pentagon official is raising the possibility that Iraqi authorities may have detonated at least one car bomb in the Baghdad residential area where the casualties occurred, blaming the United States for the deaths of what may actually have been critics of Saddam Hussein's regime.

This official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, says the neighborhood was heavily populated with Shiite Muslims, who lead the Iraqi opposition in the south of the country.

This official gives no other details but joins others at the Pentagon who say another explanation for the devastation Wednesday could be Iraqi missiles or artillery fire that went astray. The senior official says there was heavy Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, including surface-to-air missiles, at the time of the incident.

Coalition aircraft did target at least nine Iraqi missile sites in Baghdad that were located in civilian residential areas. But none of the targets were in the area where the civilian deaths occurred.

The senior official admits there were Iraqi missile sites in that neighborhood that were on the coalition target list.

But the official says an allied aircraft that was to have carried out a strike on those missiles diverted and did not drop any munitions. The official rules out the possibility that munitions from other coalition planes could have accidentally hit the neighborhood.

Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke criticizes Iraqi authorities for placing military equipment in civilian areas.

"Just a sign of the brutality of this regime and a sign of how little they care about civilians that they put military assets close to civilians, in and around and near civilians, deliberately putting their lives at risk," she said.

U.S. ground forces are meanwhile pushing towards Baghdad.

Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff says the advance has not been stalled by sporadic attacks from Iraqi forces, including paramilitary units.

"I can be unequivocal on that: it has not thrown the force off its plan... the logistics have flowed, continue to flow smoothly, additional forces continue to push forward," he said. "The plan has moved almost exactly with expectations; fast where we expected it to be fast, gathering strength where we expected to do that. So, the answer is it's right on the mark."

Senior U.S. officials are defending the strategy of pressing on towards Baghdad despite the presence of continued resistance to the south. They say if Saddam Hussein's regime is toppled, they believe that resistance will collapse.