Resentment of U.S. Builds as Baghdad District Mourns

Days after car bombs killed 35 children, residents blame soldiers for letting the kids gather around them.

By Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

October 4, 2004

BAGHDAD — At dusk Saturday, residents of the working-class Iraqi neighborhood started to emerge from their homes and shops to gather at the sewage pumping station where 35 of their children died in a triple car-bomb attack last week.

They began by placing a few white candles atop a pipe in front of the facility. By dark, hundreds of little lights dotted the intersection and lined the sidewalks. Melting wax dripped over the curbs like streaks of tears and the scent of burning candles masked the usual stench of car fumes and trash.

Parents lighted candles for lost children. Children lighted them for friends.

In a dirt lot across the street, a dozen small clusters of flickering lights marked the spots were a body, or body part, had been found.

The Shiite Muslim residents of the Amal district in southwestern Baghdad say they are accustomed to a hard life. But nothing had prepared them for the horror of Thursday's attack in which the children and seven adults died — or the ensuing grief and anger.

"I watched children falling down like leaves off the trees," said Alaa Nahi. He operates a small kiosk frequented by neighborhood children, and on Thursday he watched some of them die.

"Who could give the order for such an act?" Nahi asked angrily. "Are they satisfied after seeing the pictures of the children? What were they thinking?"

Mourners from all over the city have flooded to this impoverished neighborhood to pay their respects. A row of traditional mourning tents, some as long as 150 feet, lines the main thoroughfare. Inside, friends and relatives of the victims consoled one another.

Inside the tents are banners bearing the names of the dead. A brother and a sister. A father and son. Such banners are typically black, but here many are white, symbolizing the innocence and youth of the dead.

As mourners filled the tents Saturday evening, two U.S. military Humvees rumbled down the street. Many residents quietly fumed.

"They h ave no business here," said Aimi Qahtan Dulami, 25, a barber.

Resentment against the Americans remains high. Many of the children were killed because they were gathering around U.S. soldiers, who were passing out candy after a ceremony to mark the reopening of the sewage facility.

After the first car bomb exploded, more children gathered to watch the soldiers and Iraqi police at work. Some of the youngsters died in the second and third blasts, carried out by suicide bombers who sped their cars toward the U.S. troops and Iraqi rescue workers.

Some residents praised U.S. soldiers for treating the wounded. But others said the Americans should never have allowed children to surround them or offered candy because insurgents frequently target U.S. vehicles and personnel.

"The Americans were giving the children candy just for propaganda, so people would say they are good," said Ali Hussein, 38, who refused to let his children go near the soldiers. He said he suspected that the U.S. s oldiers purposely surrounded themselves with children because it made them less susceptible to insurgent attacks.

"They are making the children into human shields," Hussein charged.

Witnesses also complained that protective barbed wire that had been blocking the streets was removed too soon by Iraqi national guardsmen, before the crowds had dispersed. The bombers drove through once the barriers were lifted.

The attack also wounded more than 140 people, including 10 U.S. soldiers.

American officials expressed sympathy for the victims but expressed frustration that their attempts to improve the neighborhood by repairing the sewage pump had backfired.

"I don't see how people can blame U.S. forces," said Rear Adm. Greg Slavonic, a military spokesman. "This was not some sort of effort by the coalition to seduce the children. This was all done in goodwill and in the spirit of cooperation."

He said there was little the military could do to prevent Iraq i children from running up to U.S. soldiers, as they often do. Interaction between soldiers and Iraqis — such as when troops pass out candy or soccer balls to kids — is a positive thing, he said.

"I know of no effort on the part of coalition forces to limit interaction between soldiers and the Iraqi people, including children, because of this incident," he said.

But neighborhood parents said they have ordered their children to steer clear of U.S. soldiers.

"We've advised our children to stay away from the Americans," said Abdulsalam Ahmed Azawi, 42, whose two nieces were killed in the attack.

When the first explosion struck, Azawi and most of his family were at home. But the nieces had been sent to the store for yogurt. The girls, Raghad, 12, and Maisoon, 11, had just bought their school uniforms and were looking forward to the start of classes this week. Raghad wanted to become a doctor so she could treat her grandfather's high blood pressure. Maisoon, who was de voted to her older sister, said she wanted to be her secretary, family members said.

After the blasts, Azawi and the rest of the family were forced to remain inside their house by police and soldiers until the scene was secured. Once he was allowed to leave, Azawi headed straight to the hospital; finding no sign of his nieces, he went to the morgue.

There he found the broken bodies of both girls.

"One of them had lost her leg," he said. "I looked for it but couldn't find it. Then the man at the morgue gave me a sugar sack filled with legs, arms and other body parts. But I couldn't bring myself to look."

Children who survived are also trying to cope with the trauma. Azawi's daughter broke down into tears when interviewed by a local TV station.

"The children are shocked," he said. "They are scared to go outside. Before, when the American troops came by, they would run out and give them a thumbs up or wave. But they don't do that anymore."

Ahmed Wathiq, 12, was wal king to the store and saw a classmate killed by shrapnel. He is struggling to comprehend the motive behind the attack.

"When I saw him and the other innocent people, I thought, 'Why is he killing them? For what?' "

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Raheem Salman of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.