US warplanes bomb Iraqi  eclipse site

MOSUL: Aug 10 (South News) - US warplanes bombed a fourth-century Christian monastery in northern Iraq Tuesday, killing and wounding a number of people at the site of a camp set up for astronomers and physicists from across the Arab world hoping for a grandstand view of the solar eclipse.

The planes fired three missiles at the site where correspondents of satellite TV channels gathered to watch the solar eclipse and a report on Iraqi TV said, " Some of the Arab satellite channels that were present in the area filmed the enemy bombing of the area."

The official Iraqi News Agency (INA) said a number of people were killed and wounded by three missiles fired by the planes, but did not give exact casualty figures. ``Planes of the American and British aggressors bombed at 10:30 a.m. the Dair Matti region in Ba'ashiqa district of Nineveh province where preparations to hold a campsite to monitor the eclipse are held,'' the agency said.

Iraqi astronomers prepare for Wednesday's solar eclipse in front of a famous old church in Dir Mati, 40 kilometers (24 miles) north of MosulUniversity authorities in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul said that they set up the campsite, near the village of Buashika, close to a fourth-century Christian monastery for astronomers from Egypt, Libya and Syria to view the millennium's last eclipse. INA quoted a university spokesman as saying of the air attack in northern Iraq: ``This heinous aggression ... shows their persistence (determination) to prevent Iraq from covering this natural global phenomena.''

Astronomers from across the Arab world attended the opening of a solar eclipse conference in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul despite US renewed bombing of the city outskirts on Monday. Eclipses were first recorded in Babylonia in the 21st century B.C.

Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan experts joined Iraqis at the conference organised by Mosul university to dicuss many issues including the Ancient Iraqi Astronomy and the contributions of Arab scientists to astronomy, the solar system, Astronomical ephemarides (past and present), Astrophysics and Cosmology in the period of 9-12 August.

On Wednesday the astronomers were expected to move to the monastry campsite  in the hope of the best possible view of the total eclipse on the sun. Iraqi astronomers say the total eclipse over Mosul will last for about two minutes while the partial eclipse will last two hours and 32 minutes.

Mosul was considered as the most appropriate area to monitor the total eclipse in the Middle East. They said that chances of clear weather over Mosul, 400 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, would be 85 percent.

The U.S. military confirmed Iraqi charges that it launched strikes on Tuesday. However the US Defense Department had no immediate comment on the Iraqi monastery charge, but Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon was asked by reporters earlier in the day if U.S. warplanes would halt strikes in northern Iraq to avoid injuries to astronomers during the eclipse period.

``If the Iraqis don't want to be attacked, it's very easy for them to arrange that,'' he replied. ``They can simply not challenge allied planes flying in patrol of the no-fly zones. If they don't challenge the allied planes, the allied planes will not respond.''

The US European Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, said the planes had acted in self defence after Iraqi air defences opened fire on them during a routine patrol of the northern exclusion zone. It said the two sites, to the north and northeast of Mosul, were used to relay information from radars that could be used to target the aircraft.

Such bombings have become routine in Mosul, barely perturbing normal activities. Shops remained open and the market was as crowded as usual. Nevertheless, the raids sparked anger as the inhabitants of Mosul -- which claims to be the best site in the world to view the solar eclipse -- prepare for Wednesday's spectacle.

"The Americans want to spoil our fun," said Abu Omar, a petrol station attandant. "They are jealous because Allah wanted the last eclipse of the century to pass over Mosul."

Iraq appealed to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan last week to step in and prevent the US flights over northern Iraq during the eclipse.

Mosul, founded by the Assyrians, whose empire lasted from 1521 to 911 B.C., was counting on renewing its status as a tourist destination -- shattered since sanctions were imposed on Iraq in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait -- on the back of the eclipse.

The big hotels of the city are booked up with astronomers and physicists who have come from the rest of the country, as well as from Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Libya for the event.

They are here to take part in a conference on the eclipse at Mosul university which is claiming to be the "best observatory" on the planet to see it. Iraqi astronomers say the sun will be completely obscured by the moon for two minutes at 3:47 p.m. (1147 GMT) on Wednesday.

At the moment when the city is plunged into darkness Moslem faithful will kneel before their mosques and pray in line with Islamic tradition on such occasions.

In the meantime, authorities are more worried about the danger to people's eyes from staring at the sun than the potential danger from US bombs, as Iraqis have no access to special protective glasses under the sanctions. Teams from the health ministry have set up shop on Mosul's main streets to answer queries and distribute brochures advising the population not to look at the phenomenon directly.