Between a rock and a hard place

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Comment by Jo Wilding

A few days before the bombing started, my friends Zaid and Asmaa and I decided, when the time came, we would be running through the streets of Baghdad together, tearing down Saddam portraits and letting down the tyres of US tanks. The fatal flaw in an otherwise perfect plan was that tanks don't have tyres, but it reflected what many Baghdadis told me. They did want rid of Saddam, but they wanted to do it themselves, not have the US and Britain invade and rescue - and impose their chosen changes.

My friend Raed explained how the poverty inflicted by the sanctions became the currency of Saddam's divide and rule methods. It was illegal to have a satellite dish. The penalty was six months in jail or a 300,000 Dinar fine (about #90). Doctors' monthly salaries were a tenth of that and 60% of the population had little or no income except the food ration: 210,000 Dinars of the fine went to the person who reported the illegal satellite dish - money which could save a child's life, reverse her malnutrition, buy her an education.

It was impossible to build effective liberation movements where people had been put in fear of their neighbours in that way. Yet still there was the courage to disobey. Raed muttered on a crowded street that he and two friends had a website critical of the Iraqi government.

Targeting civilians

There is no doubt in my mind that civilians were deliberately targeted in the bombing. Day after day, interviewing casualties in the hospitals, visiting the bombing sites, searching the area for the possible intended target, it became impossible to draw any other conclusion.

Omar and Zahra had been married a week when she was crushed in the rubble of a farmhouse in Diyala. Omar collapsed when he heard that she was dead. He was still crying when we went back the next day to get directions to the farm.

Omar's brother traced circles in the air with his finger, describing how the plane flew overhead for some time before firing three rockets, one of which hit the house, taking off the entire upper storey. We drove around looking for the intended target but there was nothing. A small bridge over the Diyala river, a tributary of the Tigris, and a bare marketplace marked the entrance to the village, with two sheep presiding. The village consisted of compact fields and farmhouses with a little mosque at the far end. Nothing else.

A house in a residential street was hit with a fragmentation bomb around midnight. These are scored into squares on the outside so they burst into thousands of fragments, disabling as many troops as possible. The walls of Munib and Sahar's house were a moonscape of small craters like bullet holes. In each was a metal square of about 5mm. Munib's body, his legs, his liver, his intestines were filled with the same fragments. He had gas gangrene and the doctors were struggling to save his legs.

”What am I going to do? I am a car mechanic. I think I am finished.”

Again, driving through the area, we could find no military base, no ministry building, nothing that explained the attack. Neighbours believed the target was the empty Balqis girls' school next door.

Several separate groups of farmers told of being attacked by helicopters. Some would attempt to land on the farm while others targeted the house to distract any resistance from the landing. In one, 10-year-old twin boys were killed by shells hitting their house; in another, two tiny boys suffered multiple bowel and intestinal injuries and their father was killed. A civilian farm remains a civilian object, whether or not a military helicopter wants to put down on the land.

Thanks for saying “no”

The bombing of Palestine Street followed a familiar pattern: two weapons, a short while apart, on opposite sides of the street. By the end of March, bombing continued all day and people were carrying on with the essentials of life. Akael's dad said his son was outside the house when the first bomb exploded and kids came running in from the street to tell him. The doctors were worried that the shrapnel embedded in Akael's forehead had pierced his brain but could not confirm it for lack of scanning equipment.

There was not a single intensive care machine in the hospital for all the critically ill victims of the Palestine Street attacks; the years of sanctions had prevented the replacement of worn out parts. Akael started to come round while we were in the ward and to thrash his arms and legs in pain, because there weren't enough painkillers or anaesthetics.

His dad, Zuhair, said “Help us, because we are bombed in homes and markets. We are not something to be squeezed.” Yet squeezed they were, between the Iraqi government and the US and British ones. A lot of people expressed the feeling that all three were on the same side, crushing the Iraqi people. Zuhair said, “We thank people in all the world, but especially England and America. More than one million people marched in England to say no to war.”