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Iraq Civilians in a Strike Zone

Today is the anniversary of 1991 US attack that hit civilians. Can it recur?

The Pentagon's list of military improvements since the 1991 Gulf War is designed to impress: One aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf today carries as much firepower as all six did back then; "smart bombs" are smarter; and the 5,000-pound "bunker buster" has been perfected.

Even the refusal of some key US allies in the Middle East to launch attacks on Iraq from air bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey is largely overcome by upgrading aircraft to carry more and heavier weaponry.

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These advances may help persuade analysts and politicians in Washington to use force in the current showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein - and imply that accidents that kill civilians will be rare. But the prospect of a heavy bombing releasing toxic clouds of the gases it was meant to destroy has some experts alarmed.

For Iraqis, memories of the raw power of even the 1991 weapons, and the civilian deaths they sometimes caused, are fresh. One reminder: the Amariya shelter - "Public Shelter Number 25," according to the sign outside - destroyed seven years ago today.

Between 200 and 400 Iraqi civilians sheltering there were killed when two GBU-27 laser-guided bombs were dropped by US stealth fighters. Though US planners are known to have spent months planning bombings in order to minimize civilian casualties, intelligence agencies determined that the Amariya shelter was a military command-and-control bunker not used by civilians.

The Iraqis had every reason to feel safe: This shelter was one of 25 built in the early 1980s in Baghdad, and one of ten reinforced to withstand the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast.

"We felt isolated from the world inside this shelter, and safe from everything," says Um Gaida, who lost nine members of her family in the attack.

The bombs perforated ten feet of reinforced concrete, caused walls to buckle, and seared the shelter and those inside. Reinforcement rods an inch in diameter splayed out from the blast.

The scene afterward was so hot that it reportedly melted the rubber gloves of rescue workers. Um Gaida's two children were between two columns.

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"You are a father, you can understand my feelings," says Um Gaida, whose name means "mother of Gaida." She wears a small faded portrait of her daughter around her neck. "I felt my world had ended, I lost my senses. Nobody expected this."

Um Gaida survived because she was briefly outside the shelter, caring for her elderly mother at home. Today she is the unofficial caretaker of the shelter. But she is worried - as are many Iraqis - that American boasts of heavier firepower will again be on display soon.

The Clinton administration is playing down the possibility of civilian deaths should US strikes on suspected Iraqi illegal-weapons facilities release chemical or biological agents.

"I think great care has been taken in terms of being concerned about collateral damage," says Defense Secretary William Cohen. "That would include taking into account any dispersal of chemicals into the atmosphere."

Officials say that the blast and heat of US bombs should destroy chemical and biological agents. In fact, the US is believed to be developing a bomb specifically designed to explode with tremendous heat capable of incinerating suspected biological agent stocks.

But some experts are unconvinced. They say while it is doubtful that bombing could release enough agents to kill huge numbers of people, those nearby would die.

"I am not afraid about myself, and haven't been since the first bombing," says Um Gaida. "But I am afraid for the Iraqi people. This time they may see worse than I did."

LIKE many Iraqis, she believes that the US attack on the shelter was deliberate. "They have their satellites, and they could easily see there were only women and children. When the news spread around the world, they tried to make excuses. If they do it again, they will again make excuses," she says.

"If it was a military place, no civilians would come here because we would have known the danger," she adds. "This time maybe they will kill more people. They have their missiles, planes, and weapons; we have only our faith in God."

In the aftermath of the attack in 1991, the US Joint Chiefs spokesman Tom Kelly was asked why Baghdad seemed to be so heavily targeted when the military mission was to expel Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait.

"That's the head. That's where the missions come from," he said, according to Rick Atkinson's book "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War."

But then, referring to the deaths of Iraqi civilians in the bunker, he added: "We are going to examine our consciences very closely to determine if we can't do something in the future to preclude this sort of thing."

* Staff writer Jonathan Landay in Washington contributed to this report.

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