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Cluster Bombs on Babylon

Inside Babylon General Hospital

by ANTON ANTONOWICZ

Babylon, Iraq.

They lie in packed wards, eight to each airless room. Many are crying. Others softly moaning. Some stare, as if lifeless.

These are the survivors of what are claimed to be cluster bomb attacks on villages in Babylon and its capital Al Hillah, some 70 miles south of Baghdad.

The attacks, which happened around lunchtime on Monday, are said to have killed at least 60 people and injured a further 250. But no one has completed the tally.

I see six bodies in the makeshift morgue, a crude metal box teeming with flies, situated beneath an awning at Babylon General Hospital.

There are scores of slightly injured patients hobbling through the grounds. Beds are laid in the entrance, every space being exploited. But it is upstairs on those wards that the suffering scream.

Among the 168 patients I counted, not one was being treated for bullet wounds. All of them, men, women, children, bore the wounds of bomb shrapnel. It peppered their bodies. Blackened the skin. Smashed heads. Tore limbs.

Two sisters, Khoda, five, and Mariam Nasser, aged 10, share the same bed. Khoda is crying when I approach. Her mother is trying to re-dress the wounds to her forehead and the back of her skull. Mariam sits there saying nothing, a dressing over her left shoulder, cuts all over her back and one eye bloodied. They had been playing in the garden of their home, 15 miles from Al Hillah, when the bombs went off.

Goran Ali, three, has a huge blood-blister beneath one eye. His little body is a mess of tubes. His mother Zubeida just looks at me shaking her head at the madness of it all.

Kifel Hassan, 13, tries to tell me what happened when the explosions struck but the effort made in pointing to his mother, his brother and sister, all lying injured alongside him, proves too much. He lowers his bandaged arm. He has lost his hand.

Sejad Ali is five and lies alone. His three brothers were killed. His parents are burying them as I look upon this lad with wounds all over his body.

Khalid Hallil, 21, was inside his house three miles from the centre. His left thigh is torn from knee to crotch. His father Hamid speaks English: "Metal just came from everywhere. Believe me, there were no soldiers in the area. Only civilians. There was no reason for attacking us in our homes. No justification for this murderous act.

"Tell your countrymen what is happening. Let them see with their eyes instead of listening to Tony Blair’s lying words. Look, this is reality– not the make-believe world of Bush and Blair."

Ali Abed bends to kiss his injured son Hussein. Ali tells me his wife died in the attack. He is all that’s left for his four-year-old boy.

Azor Abdul Waled, 20, holds her seven-month-old daughter Zena, her head swathed in bandages. Two other daughters have died. Her own right leg is gashed. She comes from the village of Al-Ameinera, six miles south. And she tells me a different story.

Azor says that US soldiers had tried to land in the village outskirts by helicopter but that local militia and tribesmen had sent up a hail of fire which had seen off the three twin-prop transporters.

Then, some 10 minutes later, fighters screamed out of the sky, delivering their fatal payloads.

"All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs," Dr Hydar Abbas tells me. "Most of the people came from the southern and western periphery. The majority of the victims were children who died because they were outside.

"We have an ambulance driver, Abdul Zahra, whose leg has had to be amputated after he came under attack while he was driving to the area.

"What kind of war is it that you and America are fighting? Do you really think that you will be supported by the Iraqi people if you win? Do you think we will all forget this and say it was for our own good?

"This war is building a hatred which will grow and grow against you. I have no anger for the British people. But one day, I fear they will suffer for this just as we do now."

I find another ambulance driver, Hassan Ali, 37, and ask him what happened two days ago. He said he was racing to the scene of the first attack when cluster bombs erupted around him, cutting his tyres to shreds.

"I turned around and slowly drove back to shelter," he says. "Even in that short space, I saw so many injured. Some dead. Animals–dogs, cattle, sheep–lying all over." He adds that there are reports that a bus containing 35 people had been hit by a tank or artillery shell. But I cannot obtain confirmation.

It is getting on for 1pm, about the time that those bombs fell, and the minders want us back aboard the bus for the 65-minute journey to Baghdad. There is no time to make polite farewells to the injured. They are abruptly left to their misery…

On the way back, a guide proudly announces that we are crossing the River of Babylon, a tributary of the Euphrates. In the distance, through the date palm groves, lies the ancient city, named after the river.

Here, I can see the resistance with my own eyes. The troops digging in. The field guns and tanks hidden in the trees. The lorries parked in ditches. The machine-gun nests. It would be wrong to say it’s an iron ring. The defences are patchy but, nevertheless, there is a significant presence.

Yet the closer we come to Baghdad, the less evidence there is of soldiery –a few emplacements but nothing obvious. The guides prevent filming. Suddenly, over to the south-west of the capital and about six miles from our hotel–we see an enormous angry cloud. It is too light to be one of Saddam’s oil fires. It must be a bomb.

Its shape and colour then changes, with blacker smoke coming from its heart. Huge balls of fire lick and spit into the sky.

It didn’t look as if the local refinery had been hit. This looked as though the bombs had found a fuel dump–and an enormous one at that.

"No pictures!" yells the guide. None are taken but everything is seen.

It is only then that you notice how dark the sky is over the capital and how polluted the air is.

At Babylon, the sky was blue and cloudless. Here, on the edge of the city, its true colour is masked by smoke which is dark, low and cruel. That is the space in which five million Iraqis are forced to live.

Not that there are five million here any more. Most have moved elsewhere. Drivers in the hotel make constant phone calls to loved ones and return with tears in their eyes. They have to make a living and it’s a lonely one now their families have gone.

The Information Minister, Mohammed Sayeed al-Sahaf, gives us an afternoon update, saying 10 people were killed and 90 wounded overnight in Baghdad.

He also accused the Americans of dropping booby-traps–shaped like ballpoint-pens–to maim anyone picking them up.

During fighting on Tuesday and into yesterday morning, Iraqi troops had destroyed two Apache helicopters, nine tanks and 26 armoured personnel carriers.

"We have again inflicted heavy casualties on the mercenary enemy," he says.

He scoffs at reports that the US and Britain have made substantial gains.

"They claim to have taken Karbala. Well, this morning I sent an Iraqi TV team to record what’s really happening there and all the world will see it.

"I also had a detailed briefing from the Governor there, who said that what the Pentagon is saying is an illusion, all lies.

"They claim to have inflicted heavy losses on our soldiers. Believe me, the impact on our capacities is trivial–trivial."

He then went on to complain that enemy fighters were deliberately flying low over the ancient Shiite shrines in Kerbala and Najaf, attempting to wreck them. These magnificent tombs are the most sacred in Shiism. Any desecration would inflame the largely Shiite Iraqi population, not to mention the 65million faithful in neighbouring Iran.

Whether the claim is true or false, it is easy to see its value in the propaganda war.

"Deeds not words. That is what is important," the Minister is saying…

Deeds not words. Visible deeds which result in so many lying in Babylon Hospital. Visible deeds such as that fireball rising before us on the way home.

Invisible ones, like so much battleground bravery. Or the moment that high-flying pilot’s finger presses the button. All deeds which matter.

While words are tossed around like shrapnel.

ANTON ANTONOWICZ is reporting on the war for The Mirror, where this dispatch originally appeared.

Today’s Features

William S. Lind
The Pitfalls of War Planning

Jorge Mariscal
Latinos on the Frontlines, Again

Paul de Rooij
Arrogant Propaganda

Jo Wilding
From Baghdad: "I Am His Mother"

Tarif Abboushi
Operation Embedded Folly

Lee Sustar
Labor’s War at Home

Akiva Eldar
Israeli Dreams of Iraqi Oil

Bernard Weiner
The Vietnam Connection

Robert Fisk
The Graveyard at Baghdad’s North Gate

Steve Perry
War Web Log 04/01

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