By Robert Fisk (New Zealand Herald Online - Newspaper )
Sunday March 23, 2003
Donald Rumsfeld says the American attack on Baghdad is "as
targeted an air campaign as has ever existed" but he should not try
telling that to
five-year-old Doha Suheil. She looked at me yesterday morning, drip feed
attached to her nose, a deep frown over her small face as she tried vainly
move the left side of her body.
The cruise missile that exploded close to her home in the Radwaniyeh suburb
of Baghdad blasted shrapnel into her tiny legs - they were bound up
with gauze - and, far more seriously, into her spine. Now she has lost all
movement in her left leg.
Her mother bends over the bed and straightens her right leg
which the little girl thrashes around outside the blanket. Somehow, Doha's
thinks that if her child's two legs lie straight beside each other, her
daughter will recover from her paralysis. She was the first of 101 patients
brought to the Al-Mustansaniya College Hospital after America's blitz on
the city began on Friday night. Seven other members of her family were wounded
in the same cruise missile bombardment; the youngest, a one-year-old baby,
was being breastfed by her mother at the time.
There is something sick, obscene about these hospital visits.
We bomb. They suffer. Then we turn up and take pictures of their wounded
Iraqi minister of health decides to hold an insufferable press conference
outside the wards to emphasise the "bestial" nature of the American
The Americans say that they don't intend to hurt children. And Doha Suheil
looks at me and the doctors for reassurance, as if she will awake from this
nightmare and move her left leg and feel no more pain.
So let's forget, for a moment, the cheap propaganda of the
regime and the equally cheap moralising of Messrs Rumsfeld and Bush, and
take a trip around the Al-Mustansaniya College Hospital. For the reality
of war is ultimately not about military victory and defeat, or the lies
about " coalition forces" which our "embedded" journalists
are now peddling about an invasion involving only the Americans, the British
and a handful of Australians. War, even when it has international legitimacy
- which this war does not - is primarily about suffering.
Take 50-year-old Amel Hassan, a peasant woman with tattoos
on her arms and legs but who now lies on her hospital bed with massive purple
her shoulders - they are now twice their original size - who was on her
way to visit her daughter when the first American missile struck Baghdad.
just getting out of the taxi when there was a big explosion and I fell down
and found my blood everywhere," she told me. "It was on my arms,
my legs, my
chest." Amel Hassan still has multiple shrapnel wounds in her chest.
Her five-year-old daughter Wahed lies in the next bed, whimpering with pain.
She had climbed out of the taxi first and was almost at her aunt's front
door when the explosion cut her down. Her feet are still bleeding al though
the blood has clotted around her toes and is staunched by the bandages on
her ankles and lower legs. Two little boys are in the next room. Sade Selim
is 11; his brother Omar is 14. Both have shrapnel wounds to their legs and
Isra Riad is in the third room with almost identical injuries,
in her case shrapnel wounds to the legs as she ran in terror from her house
into her garden as the blitz began. Imam Ali is 23 and has multiple shrapnel
wounds in her abdomen and lower bowel. Najla Hussein Abbas still tries to
cover her head with a black scarf but she cannot hide the purple wounds
to her legs. Multiple shrapnel wounds. After a while, "multiple shrapnel
wounds" sounds like a natural disease which, I suppose - among a people
who have suffered more than 20 years of war - it is.
And all this, I asked myself yesterday, was all this for 11
September 2001? All this was to "strike back" at our attackers,
albeit that Doha Suheil, Wahed Hassan and Imam Ali have nothing - absolutely
nothing - to do with those crimes against humanity, any more than has the
awful Saddam? Who decided, I wonder, that these children, these young women
should suffer for 11 September?Wars repeat themselves. Always, when "we"
come to visit those we
have bombed, we have the same question. In Libya in 1986, I remember how
American reporters would repeatedly cross-question the wounded: had they
perhaps been hit by shrapnel from their own anti-aircraft fire? Again, in
1991, "we" asked the Iraqi wounded the same question. And yesterday,
found himself asked by a British radio reporter - yes, you've guessed it
- "Do you think, doctor, that some of these people could have been
hit by Iraqi
anti-aircraft fire?"Should we laugh or cry at this? Should we always
blame "them" for their own wounds? Certainly we should ask why
those cruise missiles exploded where they did, at least 320 in Baghdad alone,
courtesy of the USS Kitty Hawk.
Isra Riad came from Sayadiyeh where there is a big military
barracks. Najla Abbas's home is in Risalleh where there are villas belonging
to Saddam's family. The two small Selim brothers live in Shirta Khamse where
there is a store house for military vehicles. But that's the whole problem.
Targets are scattered across the city. The poor - and all the wounded I
saw yesterday were poor - live in cheap, sometimes wooden houses that collapse
under blast damage.
It is the same old story. If we make war - however much we
blather on about our care for civilians - we are going to kill and maim
Dr Habib Al-Hezai, whose FRCS was gained at Edinburgh University,
counted 101 patients of the total 207 wounded in the raids in his hospital
alone, of whom 85 were civilians - 20 of them women and six of them children
- and 16 soldiers. A young man and a child of 12 had died under surgery.
No one will say how many soldiers were killed during the actual attack.
Driving across Baghdad yesterday was an eerie experience.
The targets were indeed carefully selected even though their destruction
inevitably struck the innocent. There was one presidential palace I saw
with 40ft high statues of the Arab warrior Salaheddin in each corner - the
face of each was, of course, that of Saddam - and, neatly in between, a
great black hole gouged into the facade of the building. The ministry of
air weapons production was pulverised, a massive heap of pre-stressed concrete
But outside, at the gate, there were two sandbag emplacements
with smartly dressed Iraqi soldiers, rifles over the parapet, still ready
to defend their ministry from the enemy which had already destroyed it.
The morning traffic built up on the roads beside the Tigris.
No driver looked too hard at the Republican Palace on the other side of
the river nor the smouldering ministry of armaments procurement. They burned
for 12 hours after the first missile strikes. It was as if burning palaces
and blazing ministries and piles of smoking rubble were a normal part of
daily Baghdad life. But then again, no one under the present regime would
want to spend too long looking at such things, would they?And Iraqis have
noticed what all this means. In 1991, the Americans struck the refineries,
the electricity grid, the water pipes, communications. But yesterday, Baghdad
could still function. The landline telephones worked; the internet operated;
the electrical power was at full capacity; the bridges over the Tigris remained
unbombed. Because, of course, when - "if" is still a sensitive
phrase these days - the Americans get here, they will need a working communications
system, electricity, transport. What has been spared is not a gift to the
Iraqi people: it is for the benefit of Iraq's supposed new masters.
The Iraq daily newspaper emerged yesterday with an edition
of just four pages, a clutch of articles on the "steadfastness"
of the nation - steadfastness in Arabic is soummoud, the same name as the
missile that Iraq partially destroyed before Bush forced the UN inspectors
to leave by going to war - and a headline which read "President: Victory
will come [sic] in Iraqi hands".
Again, there has been no attempt by the US to destroy the
television facilities because they presumably want to use them on arrival.
During the bombing on Friday night, an Iraqi general appeared live on television
to reassure the nation of victory. As he spoke, the blast waves from cruise
missile explosions blew in the curtains behind him and shook the television
So where does all this lead us? In the early hours of yesterday
morning, I looked across the Tigris at the funeral pyre of the Republican
Palace and the colonnaded ministry beside it. There were beacons of fire
across Baghdad and the sky was lowering with smoke, the buttressed, rampart-like
palace - sheets of flame soaring from its walls - looked like a medieval
castle ablaze; Tsesiphon destroyed, Mesopotamia at the moment of its destruction
as it has been seen for many times over so many thousands of years.
Xenophon struck south of here, Alexander to the north. The
Mongols sacked Baghdad. The caliphs came. And then the Ottomans and then
the British. All departed. Now come the Americans. It's not about legitimacy.
It's about something much more seductive, something Saddam himself understands
all too well, a special kind of power, the same power that every conqueror
of Iraq wished to demonstrate as he smashed his way into the land of this
Yesterday afternoon the Iraqis lit massive fires of oil around
the city of Baghdad in the hope of misleading the guidance system of the
cruise missiles. Smoke against computers. The air-raid sirens began to howl
again just after 3.20pm London time, followed by the utterly predictable
sound of explosions.
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