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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Images Of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Fuel Antiwar Feeling In Arab World

  • Charles Recknagel

The war in Iraq is producing horrific pictures of civilian casualties that are certain to complicate efforts by Washington and London to win popular understanding in the Arab world for the conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is in Kuwait and files this report.

Kuwait City, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Arabic-language newspapers and satellite television channels are bringing daily pictures of injured Iraqi children and adults into Arab homes, raising already strong regional sentiment against the now 15-day-old war.

One of the most painful images has been that of a coffin containing the bodies of a woman and her baby, who still has a pacifier in his lifeless mouth. A major Egyptian daily, "Al-Akhbar," ran that picture on its front page, along with another picture of a child lying on the ground, his head soaked in blood, surrounded by the feet of a helpless crowd.

The impact of the pictures of people killed by allied bombing or in cross fires as coalition troops battle Iraqi forces outside major cities is amplified by eyewitness accounts that some survivors give Arab and Western reporters.

A woman who this week survived one of the most tragic killings of civilians to date -- when U.S. soldiers on 31 March fired on a family car approaching a checkpoint near Najaf -- recently described in detail how her two little girls died. Lamea Hassan, who is nine-months pregnant and was riding in the car with her husband and other relatives, said: "I saw the heads of my two little girls come off. My girls -- I watched their heads come off their bodies. My son is [also] dead."

Her husband told journalists that 11 members of his family died in the checkpoint shooting, including his 2- and 5-year-old daughters, his 3-year-old son, his parents, two older brothers, their wives, and two nieces. He also said that the family was traveling toward allied lines because they thought an air-dropped leaflet had advised them to flee there for their own safety.

Top U.S. officials have publicly expressed regret over the shooting, saying the car failed to stop after soldiers at the checkpoint first fired warning shots into the air to slow its approach. The Pentagon, which reported seven people died in the incident, says allied soldiers are forced to make split-second decisions on whether civilians are combatants or noncombatants, because Iraqi forces frequently wear street clothes and use ordinary vehicles to attack U.S. and British troops.

Many of the images of civilian casualties have first been shown by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which is proving to be one of the most efficient of the war's battlefield observers. The Qatar-based channel has gotten access to areas behind Iraqi lines that Western journalists have not been able to reach, and it is widely viewed in Arabic-speaking countries.

Many Arab viewers regard Al-Jazeera as a counterpoint to their own state-controlled media and to Western-owned networks like CNN and the BBC. The Arabic-language satellite channel is widely seen as being against the war despite its own editorial stand that it is an objective observer.

Al-Jazeera now says it is ending its reporting from Iraq after Baghdad barred one of its correspondents, an Iraqi, from reporting and ordered another one to leave the country. The station said Iraqi authorities gave no reason for their decision.

Al-Jazeera will continue to transmit live images from its offices in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul.

Here in Kuwait, one of the few Arab countries where popular support for the war against Saddam Hussein is high, the images of civilian deaths have caused some editorialists to worry that Hussein is winning the battle for Arab hearts and minds even as he loses on the battlefield.

A columnist in the English-language "Arab Times," former Oil Minister Ali Ahmad al-Baghli, today accused much of the Arabic media of overlooking what he called Hussein's efforts to deliberately turn civilians into combatants by disguising his own soldiers, particularly the elite Saddam's Fedayeen, as ordinary townsfolk. The writer said that "Arab strategy and military experts hosted by many Arab satellite stations are failing to highlight this issue."

In Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, where popular sentiment against the war runs particularly high, many people say they directly blame U.S. President George W. Bush for the civilian casualties. King Abdullah of Jordan yesterday voiced strong opposition to the war, calling it an "invasion" and expressing "pain and sadness" over civilian casualties.

Western news agencies recently quoted an Egyptian student as commenting this way on the footage of civilian deaths aired by Al-Jazeera. He said "It hurts the heart, [and] it stirs up hatred of the Americans." Another student said "these pictures should be shown around the world, so that everyone knows what is happening." Some Western analysts have warned that the war could also make recruiting easier for international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, which seek to attack Western targets.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said on 1 April that more than 6,000 volunteers from other countries have come into Iraq to fight for the regime. That figure cannot be independently confirmed, but there have been reports of people seeking entry visas at Iraqi embassies in many countries in recent days. The Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party, which shares ideological roots with Iraq's ruling party of the same name, said early this week that its offices are open for volunteers to come forward.