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Iraqi civilian deaths mount

The remnants of cluster bombs litter Hilla, where more than 30 civilians have died. (AFP)

At least 30 civilians have died and 310 were injured in coalition air strikes on the outskirts of a farming town south of Baghdad, a local hospital director says.

The deaths are part of a mounting Iraqi civilian death toll that is stoking international unease with the US-led war.

The hospital director in the farming town of Hilla, 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, Murtada Abbas, says coalition bombings near the town have killed 33 people, including women and children.

He was speaking at the Hilla hospital, where a large number of children lay wounded under blankets on the floor due to a shortage of beds.

‘Horror’

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, says the bombings around Hilla are a “veritable horror”.

“Our four-member team went to Hilla hospital south of Baghdad and what it saw there was a horror,” Mr Huguenin-Benjamin said. “There were dozens of smashed corpses.”

He says he believes the air attacks have left “dozens of dead and 450 injured”.

“We’re asking about the type of weapons used in these air strikes,” he said.

“There were women and children. All of them are civilians, farmers and their families who were on their fields or at home.”

At the hospital, 23-year-old Mohammad Karim explained that when residents “saw the warplanes flying at very low altitude, they rushed out of their homes toward the nearby plantation fields”.

“Then it started raining cluster bombs everywhere,” he said. “People were being slaughtered like sheep.”

At the scene of the bombing, dozens of what seemed to be parts of cluster bombs equipped with small parachutes were peppered over a large area, an AFP correspondent said.

Iraqi soldiers were seen collecting the debris, which witnesses said coalition warplanes had dropped over the neighborhood. The soldiers poured fuel on the ordnance and set it on fire to destroy it.

Dozens of homes were devastated in the bombing that also killed donkeys, dogs and chickens.

Rocket attack

In the nearby Haidariya region, fifteen members of one family were killed late on Monday when their truck was blown up by a rocket from a US Apache helicopter, the sole survivor of the attack says.

Razek al-Kazem al-Khafaji, sitting among 15 coffins in the local hospital, says he lost his wife, six children, his father, his mother, his three brothers and their wives.

US officers say marines have taken a key canal bridge in the Hilla area and have taken about 50 Iraqis prisoner as part of the drive toward Baghdad.

An AFP correspondent travelling with the troops says they were backed by artillery and two B-52 heavy bombers in their drive to take the canal.

Major Cal Worth says the Iraqis put up a fight but could not hold them off.

“There was good resistance initially,” he said. “But again we finished them up, we continue to push on according to schedule.”

Scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers were seen rumbling towards the canal near Hilla.

An intelligence officer put the size of the Iraqi force at between 300 and 400, a mixture of regular armed forces and militia loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad deaths, checkpoint shootings

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf says the British and US air strikes on Baghdad account for a further 19 people dead and more than 100 wounded since Monday evening.

US troops have admitted killing seven women and children when they opened fire on a civilian vehicle at a military checkpoint at Najaf on Monday.

On Tuesday, troops killed an unarmed driver who was speeding towards a roadblock near Shatra in southern Iraq.

International commentators and officials say the incidents are likely to fuel vocal international opposition to the war and deal a severe blow to the US-led force’s bid to win the trust of the Iraqi people.

“If such scenes become routine … the political war for Iraq could be lost even before the military one is won,” the New York Times warned in an editorial.

The British Government has admitted for the first time that Iraqi civilians may see US-British forces as villains, not liberators.

“We know that for the moment we will be seen as the villains,” Home Secretary David Blunkett said on BBC television. “We knew that from the reaction before the conflict started.”

‘Tragic accident’

The European Commission has called the checkpoint killings “a horrible and tragic incident”.

“It is not an isolated incident. Too many civilians have already lost their lives in this war,” the EC said.

US Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Owens says the troops opened fire at the checkpoint near Najaf “as a last resort”.

He says the civilian vehicle failed to stop at a military post despite repeated warning shots fired by US troops. Four people in the vehicle escaped unharmed.

The Washington Post quotes US Army 3rd Division Captain Ronny Johnson as shouting over the radio to his men after the shooting: “You just (expletive) killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough.”

A US military investigation has been opened.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says US President George W Bushregrets the deaths of Iraqi civilians but “recognises that most innocents have been lost in this war at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen”.

US troops are on edge after a suicide car bomb attack near Najaf killed four soldiers on Saturday.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has warned that more than 3,000 Arab volunteers are ready to carry out such suicide missions against the US-led coalition.

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