91504003

Amid the carnage, questions
By Paul McGeough
Baghdad
March 28 2003

The six cars, bumper-to-bumper against the curb in Al Sha’ab, are carbonised – charred metal now, devoid of all colour and fabric. The power of the blasts flipped another; all that remains of its tyres are the wire coils that ran through the rubber.

Yes, we are in a war zone. But Al Sha’ab is a civilian quarter, a maze of hard-working, hole-in-the-wall mechanics and electricians. And the attacking US-led military promised it would spare civilians.

The Pentagon says that it did not target the marketplace and has left open the possibility that two bombs that fell here on Wednesday morning could have been either American or Iraqi.

But there is no way around the grotesque in this story. There is no nice way to write about how 28-year-old Hisam Madloon, a guard, finds on the pavement the severed head of his boss, Sermat the electrician. Or of how one of his workmates thinks that a gnawed hand, severed at the wrist, might belong to Tahir, an expert on hot-water systems.

How can anyone tell whose are the brains found lying just near the door into one of the workshops? Or be able to recognise the remains of the mechanic who was working under one of the cars when it became a fireball?

How will the news be broken to relatives that two bombs have obliterated a family of five because fate had them driving through this part of town at 11.30am on Wednesday?

People like Sermat and Tahir keep going to workin Al Sha’ab, on the road north from Baghdad. Madloon was asleep, but 55-year-old Salah Yousif was walking up the street. He says: “I heard the planes overhead and then, two bombs, four seconds apart.”

In the city, I heard two short booms. By the time I got to Al Sha’ab, the last of the dead and injured had been taken away. Blood ran in the muddied street and the facade was ripped from many of the shops. Buildings and cars on both sides were charred black and there were two shallow craters on and next to the roadway. A dozen charred cars lay amid the rubble. Most of the 17 people who died were in cars in the traffic; many of the 45 injured were pedestrians or local workers and residents.

“Welcome, welcome,” I’m told by Yousif the witness. He says: “The Americans always claim they are defending us, but they do the opposite. That is why Saddam is on the right side, fighting this evil. He gives us strength and we give him strength.”

Madloon says that the pregnant woman who lives in this apartment is dead and that the pavement was littered with body parts. “They said they would attack the army, but this is a civilian area. Why do they do it? Do they know that Iraqis don’t change, that we are Iraqis and that we will not change for America?” he says.

The law of averages says the US was always going to present Iraq with a propaganda gift. But such has been Iraqi impatience that journalists have come away from some civilian damage tours around Baghdad with more questions than answers.

Most of the patients in the hospital they took us to after Baghdad’s first night of bombing seemed to have been injured by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. The orphanage they took us to before the Al Sha’ab bombing did not add up. The Iraq Family Village, home to more than 500 orphans of all ages, is a huge sprawling place, with walled and wired compounds and one building that stood apart from the rest because of what looked like inordinately large air-conditioning units on the roof. Five days ago, its laundry was bombed.

But the Al Sha’ab bombing is the sort of mistake that will play on the minds of Iraqis who might be on the verge of breaking with Saddam. They expect brutality from him – if they step out of line. But they were all minding their own business yesterday when they got it from the US.

Army Major-General Stanley McChrystal, vice-director for operations for the Joint Staff, told a Pentagon briefing: “Coalition forces did not target a marketplace, nor were any bombs or missiles dropped or fired” in that district. “We don’t know for a fact whether it was US or Iraqi. We’ll continue to look and see if we missed anything. Another possibility is that Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery or an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile falling back to earth was responsible.”

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/03/27/1048653803767.html

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