U.S. military officials vowed to "examine our consciences" for steps to prevent future deaths of Iraqi civilians in allied bombing attacks after scores apparently perished in a targeted Baghdad building said to house a key Iraqi military unit.
An F-117A Stealth bomber unleashed two laser-guided bombs to destroy a heavily fortified structure that U.S. officials insist contained a military command-and-communications center vital to the Iraqi war machine. The Iraqis, however, say the building was a civilian air-raid shelter, not a military structure, and that many civilians, primarily women and children, were killed."Iraq will severely revenge every drop of its martyrs' blood. This ugly crime will not pass without the strongest retaliation from our people and armed forces," a statement by the Iraqi armed forces said.
In Baghdad, thousands of angry Iraqis marched to a cemetery to bury those killed in the bombing.
On Wednesday, Iraqi officials said 500 civilians were killed in the raid. Official Baghdad radio said Thursday that 94 bodies had been pulled from the rubble, but it apparently referred only to those already identified.
The superviser of the building said that by sundown Wednesday, 235 bodies had been recovered and hundreds more were believed buried beneath piles of concrete and twisted metal.
Clearly aware that the incident threatens to spark international criticism over the scope of the allied bombardment and resulting Iraqi civilian casualties, Pentagon officials promised a re-evaluation of the allied bombing strategy. At the same time, U.S. military officials said the incident may have represented a macabre scheme by Saddam Hussein to turn world public opinion against the coalition forces.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater expressed regret at any civilian casualties there might have been.
"The loss of civilian lives in time of war is a truly tragic consequence," he said. "It saddens everyone to know that innocent people may have died in the course of military conflict.
"We don't know why civilians were at this location, but we do know that Saddam Hussein does not share our value in the sanctity of life."
"We're going to examine our consciences very closely to determine if we can't do something in the future to preclude (future civilian deaths)," Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, dirctor of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference Wednesday.
"Now what we can't preclude is a cold-blooded decision on the part of Saddam Hussein to put civilians, without our knowledge, into a military facility and then have them bombed," Kelly added. "I don't know that that happened. All I address that as is a possibility. We don't have 100 percent intelligence of everything that's going on in Iraq."
Kelly said the raid was designed to minimize the possibility of civilian damage or casualties, saying the strike came at 4:30 a.m. Baghdad time Wednesday and used the most precise weaponary available.
Pentagon officials said the raid served its military purpose, hindering the ability of the Iraqi military to communicate with its massive army in occupied Kuwait. But the potential political fallout seemed to worry U.S. officials.
At the Pentagon briefing, Kelly and Navy Capt. David Herrington, the deputy director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, displayed detailed charts and drawings to support the claim that the bombed building represented a legitimate military target.
But in some quarters, the United States was reviled.
Palestinians in a half-dozen towns and cities in the occupied West Bank began a three-day general strike Thursday to mourn the Baghdad civilian deaths.
In Jordan, which has a large Palestinian population, King Hussein expressed outrage at the bombing and called for an immediate cease-fire and an investigation by the U.N. Security Council.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan Wednesday night, chanting "Death to America!" and waving black flags of mourning.
Destruction in Baghdad
Allied warplanes destroyed an underground facility killing hundreds. The United States called it a military command center, not a bomb shelter.
Inside the structure: Witnesses say the first missile or bomb hit the entrance of the facility jamming the only escape route. The second penetrated the 9-foot-thick concrete roof and exploded inside.
Source: Pentagon briefing