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12-year-old Iraqi amputee has become a symbol of war's effect on children

LONDON—There have been many tears shed in recent days at the Limbless Association in southwest London, but the latest ones are tears of happiness.

The charity, which has long assisted amputees in reclaiming their lives, is one of the groups that are working feverishly to help Ali Ismaeel Abbas, a 12-year-old Iraqi who lost both arms and was badly burned in a Baghdad missile attack that killed his pregnant mother, his stepfather, his younger brother and several other family members.

Wednesday, just days after his Baghdad doctors predicted he might die, he successfully underwent his first surgery at the Saud al Babtain Center for Burns and Plastic Surgery in Kuwait City. The U.S. military had flown him out of Baghdad.

When the Limbless Association's executive director, Diana Morgan, heard the news, "I cried about 10 minutes," she said. She herself is a double amputee.

Ali is one of perhaps thousands—no agency is yet keeping an official count—of Iraqi children who have been injured during the war. But something about him and his story have made him the chief symbol of what the war has done to Iraq's children, just as Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old girl who was pictured running naked down a road after being burned in a napalm attack, symbolized the civilian horrors of the Vietnam War.

Around the world, but especially in the United Kingdom, Ali' s tale has riveted hearts and minds. During the past week and a half, photos of him have been running nonstop in British newspapers, two of which have started their own fund drives.

The photo that appears most often, and the most unforgettable one, shows Ali lying on his back in a tattered hospital bed. The remains of his arms—bandaged stumps that stop inches above where his elbows were—are stretched out on each side. His burned torso is covered with a treatment gel and his lips are in a thin line of pain. The gaze from his large brown eyes seems unflinching.

Those eyes show "courage, incredible courage," Morgan said.

As soon as Ali's picture began appearing in London, the Limbless Association began receiving calls from the public seeking ways to help. The charity quickly established "Ali's Fund for the Limbless of Iraq." Within eight days, it had raised more than $250,000 for him and others.

But as Ali's situation in Baghdad appeared increasingly dire, the public demanded more.

"The phone calls began to change; it was too much for people to bear," Morgan said. She said people demanded, "You have GOT to get Ali out.'"

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror and London's Evening Standard began their own appeals, raising more than $500,000 in a few days.

In the United States, a report about Ali on CNN prompted the Jefferson County Medical Society in Kentucky to commit a medical team to his care, in the United States or overseas.

From Australia, an offer came from arm and hand transplant pioneer Earl Owen. More donations and offers of help are likely as Ali's story continues to spread, and fund-raisers hope that enough money will be raised to help many more of Iraq's war wounded.

If donations continue to flow, the Limbless Association would like to open a treatment center in Iraq.

The Daily Mirror and Evening Standard are clear in telling readers they are using Ali's plight to raise money for UNICEF and the British Red Cross.

Relief experts expressed concerns about building a campaign around a single individual.

"We must not forget the case is indicative of a larger problem," Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva. "Unfortunately, there are probably many more cases like Ali around."

More money has been raised "than Ali needs to get medical care," said UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele. "You don't put all that money toward one child. . . . It's important to realize that what you see in Ali is the fate of thousands of Iraqi children."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.