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 Day 19

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"I Saw a Minibus of Children on Fire"

When Terror Came to Basra

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad.

It was the turn of Basra’s schoolchildren yesterday to suffer the horror of a suicide bombing. In what was the bloodiest attack on Iraq’s largest Shia city, bombers in vehicles packed with explosives detonated them against police buildings, killing 68 people, including children burnt to death in school buses.

"I looked around and saw my leg bleeding and my neighbour lying dead on the floor, torn apart," said Amin Dinar as he lay in his hospital bed. "I saw a minibus full of children on fire."

Until yesterday, Basra had been a relatively peaceful city where British soldiers wore berets rather than helmets and patrolled in open-top Land Rovers. The ruthless attacks show no place is safe in Iraq even though relations between the British troops and Iraqis in Basra have been much more cordial than the feelings Iraqi have for US forces.

Yesterday, just after 7am, the bombers drove their vehicles simultaneously into the fortified entrances of three police stations and a police academy. About 200 people were injured. The worst casualties were at the Saudia police station, close to Basra’s main street market, where two minibuses, one carrying children to a kindergarten and the other taking girls to a secondary school, were torn apart.

A crater, 6ft deep and 9ft wide, was blown in the pavement outside the police station. The bombers probably used heavy artillery shells wired together and detonated by the driver. British soldiers trying to reach the scene were intercepted by angry Iraqis who blamed them for failing to keep the city secure. Five soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers were injured, one of seriously.

There are 8,700 British troops in southern Iraq.

The bombings, inflicting the worst casualties in Basra since the war, are similar to suicide attacks in other parts of Iraq over the past eight months.

The bombers have generally blown up "soft" targets such as police stations, the United Nations headquarters, the International Committee of the Red Cross and hotels in Baghdad used by foreigners. They have ignored heavy Iraqi civilian casualties.

Basra, where British troops are in overall control, was probably targeted simply because it is almost the only large Iraqi Arab city which has been quiet in recent months. An aim of the bombing campaign is evidently to keep the political temperature in Iraq high by striking all over the country. The suicide bombers also seem most active when there is a lull in guerrilla activity. "I expect they are from al-Qa’ida," said Wael Abdul-Latif, who said there were up to 16 children and nine policemen among the dead. Other officials gave a lower figure for the number of children killed.

The fourth attack was at a police academy in Zubayr, south of Basra. British defence officials say the blast there killed three Iraqis and wounded four British soldiers, two of them seriously.

The US has insisted the bombing campaign is being masterminded by a Jordanian Islamic militant called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and have produced an intercepted letter from him to al-Qa’ida. But the role of Mr Zarqawi remains shadowy. Since before the war the US has tried to link al-Qa’ida, with no real evidence, first with Saddam Hussein and then with the resistance.

In practice, the Allies show little sign of knowing who is organising the attacks. Even if there is foreign participation it would be impossible for a non-Iraqi Arab to provide safe houses, vehicles and intelligence without being discovered.

As the suicide bombers struck in Basra, the ceasefire in the besieged city of Fallujah was looking shaky. US Marines said Iraqi insurgents attacked marine positions at dawn with a barrage of rockets and small-arms fire. The marines replied with tank fire and helicopter gunships, killing nine guerrillas according to a spokesman for the US forces.

Local residents said six civilians were killed and wounded in the fighting. The truce also looked shaky because no guerrillas have handed over weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine-guns, a condition agreed by local leaders in Fallujah on Tuesday. The marines, for their part, reimposed their blockade of the city, preventing Iraqi families from returning to their homes and keeping 600 people waiting at a checkpoint.

Captain Matt Watt, of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, said: "I think its one last surge by the mujahedin and criminal- type elements in the city to get one last attack in before the political situation snuffs them out. They see that the end is near and they are making one last push." In Baghdad the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has chosen judges and prosecutors for the trial of Saddam Hussein, but their names and identities will be kept secret.

Salem Chalabi, a US-educated lawyer, is director general of the special tribunal set up to try Saddam, who was captured near his former stronghold of Tikrit on 13 December.

The trial is not expected to start for at least a year.