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Obsessed with capturing Saddam Hussein, American soldiers turned a botched raid on a house in the Mansur district of Baghdad yesterday into a bloodbath, opening fire on scores of Iraqi civilians in a crowded street and killing up to 11, including two children, their mother and crippled father. At least one civilian car caught fire, cremating its occupants.
The vehicle carrying the two children and their mother and father was riddled by bullets as it approached a razor-wired checkpoint outside the house.
Amid the fury generated among the largely middle-class residents of Mansur - by ghastly coincidence, the killings were scarcely 40 metres from the houses in which 16 civilians died when the Americans tried to kill Saddam towards the end of the war in April - whatever political advantages were gained by the killing of Saddam's sons have been squandered. A doctor at the Yarmouk hospital, which received four of the dead, turned on me angrily last night, shouting: "If an American came to my emergency room, maybe I would kill him."
Two civilians, both believed to have been driving with their families, were brought to the Yarmouk, one with abdominal wounds and the other with "his brain outside of his head", according to another doctor.
At the scene of the killings, there was pandemonium. While US troops were loading the bullet-shattered cars on trucks - and trying to stop cameramen filming the carnage - crowds screamed abuse at them. One American soldier a few feet from me climbed into the seat of his Humvee, threw his helmet on the floor of the vehicle and shouted: "Shit! Shit!"
There was no doubt about the target: the home of Sheikh Rabia Mohamed Habib, a prominent tribal leader who had met Saddam but who was not even in his house when the Americans stormed it. One report says they killed a guard as they entered.
"The Americans searched the house completely, very roughly," Sheikh Habib said. "It seems they thought Saddam Hussein was inside." It appears the killings started as the troops were searching the building and as motorists approached the barbed wire which the soldiers had placed without warning across the road. Witnesses said the first car contained at least two men. "The second contained two children about 10, their mother and their father who had been wounded in the Iran-Iraq war - he was a cripple," a local shopkeeper told me. "They all died. The man's legs were cut in half by the bullets," he added. A third car then approached the Americans, who opened fire again. One of the occupants fled, but the other two remained in the vehicle and were killed.
When another car arrived US troops riddled it with more bullets and it burst into flames. It is believed that two people were inside and both were burnt to death. "The Americans didn't try to help the civilians they had shot, not once," a witness said. "They let the car burn and left the bodies where they lay, even the children. It was we who had to take them to the hospitals."
Yet again, false informers, ill-trained American soldiers who appeared to exercise no fire control and a lack of military planning has created a tragedy among the people the Americans claimed to be 'liberating' from Saddam Hussein only 15 weeks ago. Last night, there were reports from the southern city of Karbala that three men had been shot dead by American troops during a demonstration.
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