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Under Iraqi Skies, a Canvas of Death

Under Iraqi Skies, a Canvas of Death 

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday , June 16, 2000 ; A01 

TOQ AL-GHAZALAT, Iraq  Suddenly out of a clear blue
sky, the forgotten war being waged by the United
States and Britain over Iraq visited its lethal
routine on the shepherds and farmers of Toq
al-Ghazalat about 10:30 a.m. on May 17.

Omran Harbi Jawair, 13, was squatting on his haunches
at the time, watching the family sheep as they nosed
the hard, flat ground in search of grass. He wore a
white robe but was bareheaded in spite of an
unforgiving sun. Omran, who liked to kick a soccer
ball around this dusty village, had just finished
fifth grade at the little school a 15-minute walk from
his mud-brick home. A shepherd boy's summer vacation
lay ahead.

That is when the missile landed.

Without warning, according to several youths standing
nearby, the device came crashing down in an open field
200 yards from the dozen houses of Toq al-Ghazalat. A
deafening explosion cracked across the silent land.
Shrapnel flew in every direction. Four shepherds were
wounded. And Omran, the others recalled, lay dead in
the dirt, most of his head torn off, the white of his
robe stained red.

"He was only 13 years old, but he was a good boy,"
sobbed Omran's father, Harbi Jawair, 61.

What happened four weeks ago at Toq al-Ghazalat, 35
miles southwest of Najaf in southern Iraq, has become
a recurring event in the Iraqi countryside. A week of
conversations with wounded Iraqis and the families of
those killed, around Najaf and in northern Iraq around
Mosul, showed that civilian deaths and injuries are a
regular part of the little-discussed U.S. and British
air operation over Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Yassin Jassem, spokesman for Iraq's air
defense command, said about 300 Iraqis have been
killed and more than 800 wounded by U.S. and British
retaliatory attacks in the 18 months since President
Saddam Hussein ordered his antiaircraft batteries to
fire on allied warplanes enforcing "no-fly" zones in
northern and southern Iraq. Of those killed, Jassem
said in an interview, "well more" than 200 were
civilians like Omran Harbi Juwair, caught in the wrong
place at the wrong time.

The Iraqi death toll has been substantiated in part by
a U.N. survey that examined some incidents
independently and accepted Iraqi reports on others.
While not conclusive on the overall toll, interviews
and observations during lengthy drives through the
regions where airstrikes have often been reported
backed up the government's contention that civilian
casualties have become routine.

U.S. and British warplanes enforcing the zones were
heard almost daily crisscrossing the skies, although
they were invisible flying at more than 20,000 feet.
The Iraqi air defense command says it has detected
penetrations into Iraqi airspace by more than 21,600
U.S. and British warplanes since December 1998, when
Iraqis started opposing the patrols with antiaircraft
fire. The sustained military operation results in bomb
or missile attacks on an average of once every three
days. The Pentagon says more than 280,000 sorties have
been flown in the near decade since the no-fly zones
were imposed, without a single loss of aircraft to
hostile fire.

Visits to a dozen airstrike sites, chosen by this
correspondent, showed that Iraqi antiaircraft
equipment--gray snouts of multibarreled cannons
sticking out of dugouts in the sandy soil--is
sometimes installed near towns and villages. That
increases chances of civilians being hurt or killed
when allied planes retaliate. But the travels showed
that air attacks have occurred as well in vast, open
fields or grazing grounds--such as in the strike at
Toq al-Ghazalat--with no signs of any military target
present or having been present near the sheep and the
boys who tend them in scenes reminiscent of the Bible.

The mounting toll--averaging one civilian death every
other day by Iraq's count--has prompted France to
freeze participation in enforcing the no-fly zones. It
has generated growing protests from Russia and has
left neighboring Saudi Arabia and Turkey increasingly
uneasy about continuing to provide air bases for the
U.S. and British enforcement aircraft.

Challenge and Response
The U.S.-led air campaign over Iraq has been underway
since shortly after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but
civilian casualties began to mount after Operation
Desert Fox in December 1998--a 70-hour U.S. bombing
campaign against targets across Iraq to retaliate for
the government's refusal to cooperate with U.N.
weapons inspectors. Iraqi air defenses received orders
after that campaign to fire on U.S. and British
patrols, drawing retaliatory airstrikes.

"That was a watershed," Riyadh Qaysi, undersecretary
in the Foreign Ministry, said in an interview.

Previously, U.S. and British aircraft were rarely
challenged. When they were, pilots replied to the
source of the challenge, usually with AGM-88 HARM
missiles that homed in on the radars that guide
antiaircraft missiles. But after Iraq's decision to
challenge patrols regularly, U.S. forces were
authorized to attack any Iraqi air defense
target--even unconnected to a specific attack, or at a
time well after any challenge--in retaliation for
antiaircraft fire, radar illumination or missile

The United States and its allies first imposed the
northern no-fly zone in April 1991, six weeks after
the end of Operation Desert Storm, citing a need to
protect northern Iraq's Kurdish population after an
uprising against the Baghdad government. They imposed
the southern no-fly zone in August 1992, citing a
similar need to protect southern Iraq's largely Shiite
Muslim population, which also had risen up against
Saddam Hussein immediately after his defeat in the
Gulf War.

The northern operation, based at Incirlik, Turkey,
banned Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel, which
runs just south of Mosul. The southern operation,
enforced by planes based in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
and aboard U.S. aircraft carriers in the gulf, banned
Iraqi flights south of the 32nd parallel.

President Clinton ordered the southern no-fly zone
widened to the 33rd parallel in 1996, after Iraqi
forces intervened in clashes between two Kurdish
guerrilla bands in northern Iraq. That gesture brought
the southern ban right to the outskirts of Baghdad,
the capital, and left 60 percent of the country
off-limits to Iraqi planes.

Since they were imposed, the no-fly zones have become
more than just a means to protect restive Kurds or
Shiites from retribution. According to officials in
Washington, the Clinton administration also sees them
as a tool to contain and degrade the Iraqi military,
humiliate Saddam Hussein and perhaps generate
opposition to his rule.

'Lifted . . . Into the Air'
"I was thrown to the ground and covered with dirt,"
recalled Ziad Ibrahim Taha, a 50-year-old shepherd.
"Then another blast. It lifted me right up into the

Taha was with scores of people on a broad, flat
expanse of open land 45 miles west of Mosul just
before 10 a.m. on May 12 of last year. As he and
others in the nearby village of Abu Auani recalled it,
two, perhaps three warplanes made repeated passes over
the congregated villagers, firing missiles and raking
the area with machine guns.

According to Iraqi authorities, 14 people were killed
on the spot and five more died later from their
injuries. Forty-six people were wounded and several
hundred sheep were killed. Taha's right leg was
injured at the ankle--red scar tissue, angry and
twisted, has replaced its normal contours. Two of his
sons, Mohammed, 24, and Ahmed, 20, were killed,
leaving him with one remaining son.

"They are trying to destroy the Islamic people," Taha
responded when asked what lay behind the attack.

Taha and others in Abu Auani said a group of youths
were tending 400 head of sheep that morning and had
taken refuge from the searing sun in a goatskin tent
pitched on the grazing range less than a mile from the
village of 500 residents. Older people remained at
home, tending to their affairs.

Then, Taha said, he heard the tremendous crash of an
exploding missile coming from the direction of the
grazing range. Alarmed, he and many others from the
village ran to the site. Inhabitants of several other
nearby villages also ran to look.

What they found, Taha said, was carnage. Many sheep
lay dead or dying. Several of the young shepherds were
killed or wounded. As the wounded boys were carried
away and owners began to slaughter their injured sheep
and round up those that had fled, the number of
rescuers and onlookers grew.

"When all the people were there together, another
plane came, and another missile came down," he

Nine missiles were fired in all, as best as he can
remember, over an area of about 200 square yards. He
said aircraft firing machine guns crossed the zone

Hama Mahmoud Ahmed, 20, a soldier home on leave in Abu
Auani, said he was in the goatskin tent when the first
missile hit. Pandemonium broke out almost immediately,
he recalled, and the situation became total chaos as
the second, third and fourth missiles came down.

"I was running away carrying a wounded boy on my
shoulder," he said. "But the boy got cut through his
stomach. Another boy I saw nearby got his head cut

Ahmed himself received a piece of shrapnel through his
left shoulder, leaving thick welts of scar tissue and
withered muscles unable to fully lift the arm below.

He was luckier than Raha Khader Ibrahim, 18, whose
left arm was severed by a fragment just below the
shoulder. Asked to describe what happened to him,
Ibrahim stammered repeatedly.

Questions of Responsibility
The attack at Abu Auani was one of the few in which
the U.S. military has acknowledged an error. A
communique from Incirlik Air Base that day said
Operation Northern Watch aircraft were targeted by
Iraqi radar and fired on by antiaircraft artillery,
generating a response with AGM-88 and AGM-130 missiles
and GBU-12 and GBU-15 precision-guided bombs.

"Results of the strike are still being assessed," the
communique continued. "However, a review of
post-strike data indicates that one of the targets,
believed to have been a surface-to-air missile site,
now appears to have been a nomadic camp with a number
of livestock in the area. Every effort is taken to
avoid any collateral damage to civilians and civilian
property. Ultimate responsibility, however, lies with
Saddam Hussein."

U.S. officials have stressed that, although they seek
to avoid civilian casualties, Iraq installs air
defense equipment near civilian-inhabited areas in an
effort to make civilian casualties more likely,
generating news coverage such as this article and,
Iraqi officials hope, more international opposition to
the no-fly zones.

In addition, U.S. and U.N. officials have maintained
that some casualties probably have been caused by
Iraqi antiaircraft fire falling back to earth.
Finally, the U.S. and British governments have
stressed that the airstrikes would not be necessary if
Iraq stopped firing at the U.S. and British planes in
its airspace.

Jassem, the Iraqi air defense command spokesman,
offered a theory that the civilian deaths and injuries
occur in part because U.S. pilots, who fly most strike
missions, may have targeting data that confuse
military equipment with farm machinery, such as large
harvesters, or tents and big herds of sheep. And
Jassem had another suggestion: Maybe, he said, some
pilots fear flying near antiaircraft batteries and
loose their munitions at what they hope is empty

Deadly Remnants
The airstrikes leave behind a lethal litter that could
claim civilian casualties for years.

In Rihaniyah, a farm village of 650 people 25 miles
west of Mosul, most people were still indoors at 9:30
a.m. on May 28, sheltered from the heat and sipping
their morning tea. 

But some of the boys went out to wander, exploring for
something to do on what promised to be a delicious
day, just after the school year finished. Wearing the
scruffy shirts and baggy, dusty pants of northern
Iraqi peasant boys, they left home ready for fun.

What they found instead was death and injury. Saoud
Nouri Jassem, 12, Khalis Abdullah Jassem, 15, and
Ahmed Omar Abdullah, 15, were killed. Fadhli Abdullah
Jassem, 10, and Muzhir Abdullah Jassem, 9, were
hospitalized and still carry their wounds.

At the edge of the village, they picked up an
unexploded piece of munition. It may have been one of
the many fragments spit out by bombs and missiles from
U.S. aircraft to destroy Iraqi antiaircraft equipment.
Or it may have been one of the many cannon rounds and
missiles fired by Iraqi antiaircraft batteries.

>From his sickbed at home, Muzhir described the
fragment as about six inches long and cylindrical,
with striations on the surface and a point at one end.
His right arm was dressed with a heavy bandage, from
the biceps down to the wrist. His left leg was dressed

Whatever its origin, the fragment exploded as the boys
were bringing their find to the center of the village.
No one knows for sure who was carrying it. Muzhir said
he thinks it was Ahmed. Those who were close enough to
know for sure did not survive.

"The explosion woke me up," recalled Raha Nouri
Jassem, 20, who looked over the edge of his roof as
soon as he heard what happened, then piled downstairs
in a panic. "I ran over there and found them on the
ground. Two of them were already dead, and another one
died in the hospital."

Dangerous Positions
Although the Iraqi government emphasizes casualties
among civilians, it was clear at Bashiqah, a town 18
miles east of Mosul famous for its ouzo-like drink
called arrack, that positioning antiaircraft
emplacements near houses and towns also contributes to
the toll.

The danger was far from the minds of two friends,
Mowafaq Atu Hathar, 23, and Shuthar Shukri Elias, 22,
as they worked on a new cinder block house last Aug.
23 on the edge of Bashiqah. Hathar was particularly
glad for the work. His father had no job. Those in the
family who still lived at home, mainly his parents and
his own wife and children, depended on his income for
a living.

That was the way things stood when a missile came down
just behind the house, killing Hathar and his friend.
Since then, the would-be owner has sealed the entrance
and stopped construction, convinced that no good can
come of finishing a house where something so horrible
happened. And the family has come to depend on

"Some people help us out, the neighbors," said
Hathar's mother, Kithir Hathar, 44. "One day we have
food, one day we have nothing."

That was not the end of it, however. The missiles have
continued to crash down around Bashiqah, where Iraqi
antiaircraft installations are visible at two sites
several hundred yards from town.

An attack May 29, Kithir Hathar recalled, sent ragged
fragments six inches long clanging up against her home
in the middle of Bashiqah. Luckily, she said, none of
them pierced the walls and nobody else in the family
was injured. But the noise of the explosion was
tremendous, and the concussion was felt up and down
the street.

"I heard it, and I felt the air push the scarf on my
head," she said.

The Iraqi military announced later that two civilians
were killed in the attack, and this was confirmed by
an Iraqi army officer stationed at the town hall who
accompanied a reporter to visit the Hathar family.

But suddenly an elderly man who had been sitting in on
the conversation silently, fingering his worry beads,
piped up uninvited. "They were soldiers," he
proclaimed. "They died in the blast. It was so strong
their eyes rolled back in their heads and stuff came
out of their ears."

Fielding a suggestion to go to the destroyed building
and get the story straight, the army officer said it
probably would be dangerous because planes were flying
overhead and could strike again. Pressed to go anyway,
he replied, "It is forbidden."

Iraq Resource Information Site

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