U.S. Admits Civilian Casualty Risk

     Kelly Toughill
     Toronto Star

     Friday 28 February 2003

Thousands could die in war, official says - Guns placed on the roof of media building

     WASHINGTON -  Thousands of Iraqi civilians will be killed if the United States wages war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials acknowledged for the first time yesterday.

     President George W. Bush's administration has steadfastly refused to discuss how many American troops might be hurt in a war to topple Saddam, or how many Iraqis would die.

     But a senior defence official yesterday told reporters that military planners are worried that Saddam's practice of hiding military weapons, ammunition and troops in crowded neighbourhoods could cost thousands of lives during a war that many expect to begin within weeks.

     "It could result in a very high number of casualties ... certainly in the thousands," said the official who spoke with reporters on condition he remain unnamed. The briefing was arranged by the U.S. State Department.

     Saddam has built munitions bunkers next to schools, set up a key military control centre beneath an orphanage that houses more than 1,000 children and stationed anti-aircraft guns on the roof of a media building where foreign journalists often visit, the official said.

     Saddam has also parked military equipment next to mosques and precious cultural and religious shrines, he added.

     Saddam's goal is to discourage bombers from attacking military sites shielded by civilians or cultural icons, the official said, and to create international outrage if they do.

     For instance, he said, military planners may have to decide whether to bomb a media building in Baghdad.

     "Foreign journalists might be at risk because (the building) has military weapons on its roof that are going to be shooting at our aircraft," he said. "Under the law of war, that becomes a legitimate military target."

     Far more civilians are likely to die in this war than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said. Various U.S. experts say between 1,000 and 3,000 Iraqi civilians died in that war.

     "The emerging Iraqi strategy is to try to create an urban warfare environment in Baghdad where you have a dense civilian population, potentially a high number of casualties, humanitarian problems, mass exodus," he said.

     A United Nations report leaked earlier this year suggested 500,000 Iraqi civilians could die in a U.S.-led attempt to topple Saddam. A study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that 100,000 Iraqi civilians might die.

     The U.S. Defence Department official refused to be more specific about the potential number of Iraqi casualties.

     There were some discouraging signs yesterday for those trying to avert a war.

     The Pentagon reported that the Iraqi president was preparing for war by ringing Baghdad with a moat of oil that could be set on fire to create a smoke screen to confuse laser-guided bombs.

     Two U.S. defence officials told Associated Press on condition of anonymity that American intelligence had detected some elite army troops moving into new positions around his hometown of Tikrit, about 160 kilometres north of Baghdad.

     Travellers yesterday saw dozens of tanks being transported by truck from the northern city of Mosul to an area near Tikrit. Both tanks and anti-aircraft guns were dug in at a long string of deep trenches with only their turrets exposed near Tikrit.