Published on Tuesday, October 24, 2000 in the Hartford Courant
Stray Missiles, Shattered Lives
by Matthew Hay Brown
ABU FLOUS, Iraq -- Abdul-Rezak Jasim was sorting through the tomatoes, onions and potatoes, the only food available that day at the small market in this dusty desert hamlet 20 miles south of Basra, when he heard the sky rip open and felt the thud of the impact 100 yards away.
A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Jasim knew the sound and feel of a missile strike. He dropped the vegetables that would have been his family's dinner and ran for the low cement home where he lived with his wife and their seven children.
Then Jasim saw his daughter. Two-year-old Nasima had been playing in the street when the missile struck the block. Now she lay on her belly, with blood flowing freely from the burning shrapnel wounds in her head and shoulders.
A neighbor with a car pulled up to speed the injured child to the Abu Kaseeb medical clinic 2 miles away, but it was too late. Jasim was holding her broken little body in his arms when she shuddered and died.
Nasima was one of six villagers, all women and children, killed in the abrupt attack on Jan. 25 last year, residents here say. Others included a 2-year-old boy, a 4-year-old boy, a schoolteacher, a grandmother and an unmarried young woman who helped her mother around the house.
Jasim, recounting the strike more than a year later, still wonders why the allied planes came to his village that day.
U.S. commanders call it a humanitarian mission. U.S. and British pilots monitor no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq to protect Iraqi Kurds and Shiite Muslims from attack by the Sunni Muslim-dominated regime of President Saddam Hussein.
When Iraqi ground forces challenge the allied patrols with anti-aircraft fire, radar illumination or missile - gestures that both sides acknowledge pose little threat to allied aircraft - the pilots respond with missiles and bombs.
As the Iraqi challenges have grown more frequent, the allies have claimed broader license to strike back, putting civilians on the ground at greater risk. U.N. reports tell of stray missiles plowing into residential neighborhoods and nomadic camps.
Iraqi officials say more than 300 people have been killed and 900 wounded in allied attacks since December 1998, when Saddam ordered ground forces to fire at the patrols. Most of the casualties, the officials say, are civilians.
U.S. officials discount the Iraqi figures, but U.N. reports and investigations by foreign journalists indicate that at least some of the claims have been accurate. Mounting casualties led France to drop out of the no-fly patrols last year, and have drawn sharp rebukes from China and Russia.
"Why do they hate us?" Jasim asks. "We just want to be left in peace. We want the American government to take its hands from us and leave us in peace."
The United States, Britain and France began patrolling the northern no-fly zone in April 1991, six weeks after the end of the Persian Gulf War, after standing by as the Iraqi army slaughtered the Kurdish uprising that President Bush had encouraged. They established the southern no-fly zone in August 1992, after watching the army crush a Shiite Muslim rebellion.
Unlike the embargo, which was established through a series of resolutions by the U.N. Security Council, the no-fly zones are an allied invention. The allies have not laid out the conditions for their end.
From the beginning, Iraq has considered the patrols a violation of international law, but for the first several years, it challenged them only occasionally. Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and unguided missiles had little chance of striking jets flying 350 to 600 mph, 4 to 6 miles up, and brought swift retribution in the form of precision-guided missiles and bombs.
Then, in December 1998, the United States and Britain pounded Iraq with a 70-hour bombing campaign to punish the regime for ending cooperation with weapons inspections. Saddam ordered ground forces to fire on foreign aircraft in Iraqi airspace, whatever the cost.
"When you are in a situation to choose between defending your integrity and sovereignty and independence and avoiding bombardment, for us, we have chosen to defy them, whatever the consequences are," says Ambassador Saeed Hasan, Iraq's permanent representative to the United Nations. "It is a question of the principle that we could not really bargain on."
Challenged more often, the allies expanded their rules of engagement. Where pilots once were authorized to attack the source of anti-aircraft fire, radar illumination or missiles, now they may attack any part of what U.S. commanders call the "integrated air defense system" - that is, any anti-aircraft battery, radar installation, missile launcher communications center or headquarters in the country. They may strike at the time of the challenge, some time later, or both.
With more ordnance in the air, reports of civilian casualties increased. In January 1999, then-U.N. humanitarian coordinator Hans von Sponeck began investigating the Iraqi claims and verified several.
On Jan. 25, 1999, von Sponeck reported, 17 people were killed and 100 injured in separate strikes in the residential al-Jumhuriya neighborhood of Basra, the village of Abu Flous, the Basra airport and the Rumaila oilfield. On April 30, seven people were killed in an attack on a nomadic camp near Kuban in Ninewa. On May 12, 14 people were killed and 22 injured in attacks outside the village of Abu Awani near Mosul.
In the last incident, von Sponeck reported, shepherds were grazing their livestock on a stretch of pasture shortly before 10 a.m. when a missile struck four tents and exploded. Villagers rushed to the scene to tend to the wounded and take away the dead. As they worked, the jets returned and dropped a cluster of bombs, killing and maiming more people.
In a rare admission, the U.S. military subsequently acknowledged its error, but it blamed Saddam for any casualties. A press release said pilots had responded to anti-aircraft fire and radar illumination by dropping precision-guided bombs and launching air-to-ground missiles.
"Coalition aircraft have been enforcing the northern no-fly zone for more than eight years," the release continues. "Beginning last December, Saddam Hussein opted to challenge coalition aircraft enforcing the northern no-fly zone, putting his own people in harm's way. As he continues to target coalition aircraft, the Iraqi people will continue to be at risk. Coalition aircraft have every legal right to defend themselves against Iraqi hostility, and will continue to do so."
Von Sponeck says the no-fly patrols are themselves illegal.
"No Security Council resolution permits two foreign air forces to fly in Iraq," he says. "First we had a silent violation of international law. Since December of 1998, it has become a much more vociferous violation.
"It is not convincing to me that this is collateral damage, that the civilian victims were simply the result of an unavoidable self-defense.
"When they argue that the Iraqi gunners had fired on them, or the radar locked in on them, sometimes the target they choose has nothing to do with the source of the complaint. In other words, it's punitive."
Von Sponeck resigned his post earlier this year in protest of the sanctions. Tun Myat, his successor, has not reported on allied strikes during his tenure. But the Iraqi government continues to claim civilian casualties.
On April 6 of this year, Iraqi officials says, 14 civilians were killed and 19 injured in a series of attacks in southern Iraq. On Aug. 11, they say, two people were killed and 19 injured in Samarra in attacks that struck a government warehouse holding food and humanitarian goods from the U.N. oil-for-food program.
After that last attack, U.S. officials took the unusual step of discussing classified bomb damage assessments to dispute the Iraqi claims. They say pilots had attacked two command posts and a surface-to-air missile site. And they say, the warehouse contained military equipment and was surrounded by anti-aircraft guns.
U.S. officials say they attempt to avoid civilian casualties, but their task is made more difficult by the regime's practice of locating military installations in and around residential areas.
Revetments - low stone forts, each containing a single, movable anti-aircraft gun - dot the Iraqi countryside; small military bases and headquarters proliferate in and around cities.
"Probably some people have been killed, as the ordnance comes down on or very near the target," says Rear Adm. John B. Foley III, commander of the 14-ship Eisenhower Battle Group in the Persian Gulf. "They may very well have been civilian employees of the military, or military members. I don't think that the claims of mass civilian casualties are credible."
"We use precision munitions directed against military targets," says P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the National Security Council. "From the reports that we've seen, it's far more likely that that damage was triple-A fire or missiles that Saddam has fired that are coming back home to roost."
Abdul-Rezak Jasim welcomes visitors in his sitting room, the one room rebuilt by the Iraqi government after the missile strike last year. A single photograph hangs on the wall. Little Nasima is at the center of the family portrait, sitting in her father's lap. She is a striking child, with short, black bangs, large brown eyes and sharp features. While her parents and six siblings smile for the camera, she alone looks into the distance beyond it.
At 2 years old, Jasim says, Nasima had learned the Arabic words for mother, father, food and water. She didn't know the word for missile.
Abu Flous is a poor village of a few dozen families living in small, empty houses organized in a grid around a central plaza. Villagers say the children get sick from drinking the water. Sewage runs in open gutters through litter-strewn streets.
Jasim and most of the other men work for a state-owned fertilizer plant a few miles away, earning less than $10 a month operating machinery that dates from the 1970s and '80s. The women keep the houses and mind the children.
Residents say the only military equipment here is the aging anti-aircraft gun out in front of the civil defense headquarters by the main road into the village. The gun is more than 200 yards from the site of the missile strike.
Surprised by American journalists, villagers are eager to offer testimony. Uniformed soldiers at the civil defense headquarters produce twisted pieces of gray metal with writing in English: "WING," "CONTROL SECTION," "WARRANTY EXPIRATION." Children raise their shirts to reveal jagged scars on their chests and bellies.
"They attacked us for no reason," says 26-year-old Haidr Jabar. "There is nothing for them here. We are suffering already from the sanctions."
Haidr's brother, 17-year-old Abdul, was standing in front of his family's home when he felt the earth buckle. Shrapnel carved a deep purple groove into his left shoulder, ripping out a large chunk of muscle and tissue. His sister, 22-year-old Niheda, was killed.
Fatima Hadey, their mother, fantasizes about meeting the pilot who launched the missile.
"He bombed my heart," she says, her voice breaking. "So maybe I will kill him."
She pulls the black veil over her face to hide her tears.
Copyright 2000 Hartford Courant