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Iraqi victim of war blames British, Saddam for injuries

BASRA, Iraq—Like so many Iraqis, Sadiq Baqr Sabhan and his wife Ghanim were trying to live a normal life during an abnormal time.

Outside their two-story brick home, Saddam Hussein's paramilitary forces were firing at British troops, using the neighborhood as a vast human shield. Inside, the couple had breakfast together, as they have every day for the past 24 years, talking, laughing and tuning out the unwanted conflict as best they could.

But on the morning of April 2, the war came crashing into their home. As the couple sat down to eat bread and tomatoes on a straw mat, a shell ripped through the wall, shattering their lives in a matter of seconds.

What happened to the Sabhans is a minor footnote to the war. They are only two of the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were killed or injured during the 26-day conflict. Yet the extent to which the Sabhans and other victims can rise from the rubble will be an important measure of the success of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

"What's the difference between Saddam and the British or Americans?" Sadiq, 45, a taxi driver, asked with bitterness in his voice. "Everywhere there is a mess."

He vividly remembers that morning. It was eerily peaceful. The fedayeen paramilitaries weren't firing at the British. Ghanim, 42, had laid out breakfast in the hallway near a staircase.

"Then we heard a very big explosion over our heads," Sadiq recalled.

The shell struck the wall at the top of the staircase like a battering ram, sending bricks and shrapnel onto their breakfast.

Bags of flour split open, sending clouds of white powder into the air, Sadiq recalled. He tried to get up, but collapsed. Ghanim was worse. She was bleeding profusely. The blood churned with the flour, creating mush the color of a candy cane.

The couple's six children and Sadiq's second wife, Shukriya, 30, miraculously escaped. They were sleeping in bedrooms that opened to the hallway. Jarred awake, they rushed to help the couple.

That's when a second shell landed on Sadiq's taxi van, parked in the back yard.

"My oldest son carried me. I was bleeding from my legs," Sadiq recalled. "My other son carried his mother. They took us outside. They were screaming for help."

But their neighbors, fearful of the bombing, stayed in their homes. Finally, one man agreed to take the couple to the hospital in his car, and they were placed inside it. But the car wouldn't start.

So the sons carried the couple to the nearest taxi stand. By the time they reached the hospital, Sadiq and Ghanim fell unconscious, weakened by the loss of blood.

Weeks later, the Sabhans are trying to recover. Sadiq lies on his living room floor with a cast on his right leg. He has wounds on his left leg, too, and burn marks on his buttocks.

Ghanim is lying in a hospital bed miles away. A flowery green blanket covers the lower half of her body. Doctors transfused 13 units of blood into her. But they couldn't save her right leg. It was amputated.

"This is my destiny," she said with a pained expression. "There's no one to blame. If you do find someone to blame, then ask him to pay for what happened to me."

Sadiq has someone in mind. Although he says the British had never fired on the neighborhood, he thinks they are responsible.

He said the fedayeen militia he saw in his neighborhood carried light weapons—rifles and rocket-propelled grenades—that couldn't have caused that kind of destruction to his home. British tanks were moving in and out of Basra at the time and were exchanging fire with the fedayeen, Sadiq said.

"It must have come from the British," he said. He added that there were no fedayeen near or inside his house. "I am angry at the British. I am innocent. I'm not fedayeen. I'm not a Baathist," he said, referring to a member of Saddam's Baath Party.

He also blames someone else: Saddam.

"If he had resigned and left the country, this would not have happened," he said.

Sadiq said he wanted the British to compensate him for his charred Toyota van, which carried 20 passengers, and the cost of rebuilding his house. His 10-member family depends on the $120 a month he earns from his taxi.

Once he's able to walk, he said, he'll go to the nearest British base and demand compensation. As he spoke, his bitterness grew. Even though he hated Saddam, he longed for the stability of the old Iraq.

"Saddam was unjust, but he controlled everything. Everyone had work," said Sadiq, his eyes on the ceiling. "Now there's no safety, no security. We don't know if someone will come here and loot this house."

For now, his three young sons will have to find work to help the family, he said.

Ghanim, as the first wife, used to shop, cook, bake bread and take care of the children. Now it will be harder to do these chores, if it's even possible.

"It will destroy the family," said Wisam Sadiq, 21, Ghanim's son.

She will have to hand over those responsibilities to Shukriya. As the first wife, Ghanim commanded respect. But in Iraqi culture, a wife usually loses respect if she's considered useless.

There's one thing the war hasn't snatched from her. As she lay in the hospital bed, waiting patiently for another operation, she remained devoted to the man she has spent more than half her life with, the man it will be difficult to cook breakfast for ever again.

She hasn't told her husband that her leg was amputated. And she has ordered her children not to reveal the secret.

"He's not in good condition to hear the news," she said, in a low, tired voice. "I know he's sick and in shock. I don't want to make it worse for him."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-victims