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Iraq: Civilian Casualties Mount

  • Kathleen Moore

A boy has his arms blown off in a missile strike that kills his parents. A teenage girl sees her family killed by explosions as they try to flee Baghdad in a bus. Individually, these are tragic incidents. But they are just two snapshots of the suffering caused every day to civilians caught in the Iraq war.

Prague, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's lull in the fighting in Baghdad came a few days too late for Ali Ismail Abbas. He was asleep when a missile struck his home, blowing both his arms off and killing his parents and brother. Tears ran down his cheeks as he asked a Reuters reporter in hospital, "Can you help get my arms back?" Pictures of the maimed 12-year-old went around the world, a horrific reminder of war's cost to civilians.

Iraqi authorities said last week that over 1,250 civilians have been killed in the war and more than 5,000 injured. But a more accurate, up-to-date count may not come for some time.

The Red Cross says it has no estimates yet. Today it suspended its operations in Baghdad because of the dangerous situation there, so staff won't be visiting the hospitals to get more information on casualty numbers -- let alone to help the wounded.

Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said hospitals are overwhelmed and one of the largest is now without water or electricity. "Yesterday, and I believe today must be the same, hospitals were stretched to the limit. They were overwhelmed with huge intake of war wounded and they were hardly coping with this increase of war wounded," Doumani said.

Reports of individual tragedies like that of 12-year-old Ali come in daily. For some, it's been dangerous to stay at home. Others find it's more dangerous to leave. A teenage girl told France's AFP news agency that most of her family were killed by explosions near their minibus as they tried to flee Baghdad.

Perhaps most distressing have been the pictures of tiny corpses, the infants and children caught in the middle of the fighting.

In one incident last week, an Iraqi man in the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, said 11 members of his family were killed by a rocket fired from a U.S. helicopter. They were among 33 people reported to have been killed in a coalition bombing raid on the town.

Iraqi soldiers dressed in civilian clothes and suicide attacks against U.S. forces have both upped the risks for ordinary Iraqis. They are considered targets if they act suspiciously or ignore warnings to stop.

In one such incident, 11 mainly women and children were killed in a U.S. checkpoint shooting in central Iraq after the car they were traveling in failed to heed warnings to stop. Survivors said they were traveling toward allied lines because they thought an air-dropped leaflet had advised them to flee for their own safety. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, later expressed regret.

This week, an Associated Press correspondent reported seeing an old man with a cane approach U.S. Marines as they tried to cross a Baghdad bridge. The man appeared disoriented, and ignored three warning shots -- so they shot him dead.

Of course, when fighting rages, it's not always clear in the chaos who's responsible for civilian injuries and deaths. Iraqi and U.S. officials both blamed each other following the bombing of a Baghdad marketplace early in the campaign.

Coalition military and political leaders have stressed all along they are trying to minimize civilian casualties by using precision munitions against carefully selected targets.

This was what U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said nearly three weeks ago, just after the war began: "The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting, to see that the precise targets are struck, other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see -- the care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it."

But even where bombs or missiles do hit the target, civilians can still get in the way.

Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL's correspondent in Basra, visited the villa where the top associate of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali" was reported killed by coalition bombs over the weekend. He said neighbors told him that 13 people were killed in the bombing -- most of them relatives of the director of Basra's teaching hospital. "As one angry neighbor told me, 'If you want to kill people, don't kill everyone around,'" Recknagel said.

In Baghdad, the risks to civilians rose when fighting moved into the city after weeks of bombardment from the air. Artillery fire is less precise than guided smart bombs, and there's more crossfire to get caught in. Tank fire and street fighting add to the danger.

Doumani of the Red Cross said the situation has grown worse in the last few days. And she said she fears the current chaos is making an already precarious situation even more dangerous. "Civilians are being caught in the midst of this conflict. We've had a lot of civilian casualties since the beginning of this war, and we really fear that it can even get worse, definitely. But it's already very bad," she said.

Reports of civilian casualties throughout Iraq have made it harder for coalition officials to portray the war as one of liberation for the Iraqi people. It's not much of a liberation, critics say, when your family is killed.

But today has brought scenes of jubilant Baghdad residents, rejoicing that the regime's control appears at an end. In the final analysis, will the civilian deaths have been justified?

Emma Nicholson is rapporteur for Iraq in the European Parliament. She has worked for many years to promote child health and development and, like many people, was saddened by the pictures of Ali Ismail Abbas, the maimed 12-year-old boy.

Yet, as she wrote in a column in "The Times" of London today, the effort to topple Saddam is justified -- despite the suffering of children such as Ali. "The immensity of the suffering that Saddam Hussein continues to cause to the Iraqi people has to be stopped, even at the dreadful price of war. The term 'civilian casualties' is tossed around and it's a phrase that's a cosmetic cover-up for the pain of that young boy. By highlighting his pain I want the world to recognize that war is a dreadful cost [and] that we should try all other possible options first. But still, at the last resort, if all else fails to topple a dictator, force seems to be the only thing we have," Nicholson told RFE/RL.

There is a poignant postscript to Ali's story -- a wealthy woman in India has offered to pay for prosthetic limbs, and a British clinic has also offered to treat him. As tragic as his story is, there may be many more civilian victims who are far less lucky.