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Shielded by corpses, infant survives Baghdad suicide bombing

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A tiny cry rose from among corpses as Iraqis soldiers dug through the wreckage of a minibus caught in the rampage of suicide bombings that shook Baghdad on Friday.

The soldiers followed the wail to two slumped passengers, one headless and the other burned beyond recognition. They gently lifted up the bodies to find 8-month-old Sajjad Hassan, bloodied but alive, spared from the blast by the bodies of his dead mother and grandmother.

This scrap of life among so much death inspired hope in the soldiers at the scene, in the doctors who treated the shocked infant, in the stranger who cared for him overnight and in the father finally reunited with his son on Saturday. Sajjad's family and rescuers attributed his implausible survival to the will of God, a miracle on a day of destruction.

"I've seen so many tragedies in these past two years, but this was a reminder that no matter how many the terrorists kill, there will still be life," said Dr. Abdullah Younis, director of the hospital where Sajjad was treated. "This baby had no strength, no family, but he was alive."

Nawal Ghareeb, 26, and her mother-in-law, Hadida Saiwan, 56, boarded the bus early Friday morning to take the baby to a religious shrine in Kadhemiya, a heavily Shiite Muslim enclave. The infant had suffered from digestive problems, relatives said, and the women wanted to pray for his health in the shrine's sanctuary.

The bus route took them through central Baghdad, along a crowded street known for a popular kebab stand where Iraqi police and soldiers often stop. Just after 8 a.m., as the bus passed an Iraqi military convoy, a suicide bomber detonated his car. The windows of the bus shattered and shrapnel stabbed into the bodies of the passengers. Authorities at the scene expected to find no survivors on the crumpled, blood-drenched bus. Then they heard Sajjad's cry.

Red-hot metal had decapitated his grandmother, Saiwan, and burned the body of his mother, Ghareeb. Sajjad had been nestled in his mother's lap, rescuers said, and her limp body had protected him. Not knowing how to identify the boy, soldiers placed him with his relatives' bodies in an ambulance bound for al Numan General Hospital.

The emergency room teemed with victims and their hysterical families. Four suicide bombings had detonated in the same neighborhood, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens. Sajjad was handed to a doctor who pumped intravenous fluids into his dehydrated body. Nurses cleaned his little body and were amazed that, underneath so much blood, he had suffered only minor injuries.

Sajjad's head was scorched, his neck was charred and shrapnel marks speckled his soft belly. He was in too much shock to fuss at the strangers who examined him, doctors said. He would live, but there remained the problem of finding his relatives among the screaming masses in the hospital lobby.

Saadiya Nasr, a 59-year-old woman with a dozen children of her own, happened to be in the hospital with a sick relative. She heard about Sajjad's plight and wept for the black-haired baby with big dark eyes. On the spot, she declared herself the infant's guardian until his family came for him. She decided the noisy hospital was no place for a trauma-stricken baby, so she talked Iraqi police into letting her take the boy home with her for the night.

Skeptical at first, the authorities relented. Doctors needed all the spare beds they could find for the bombing victims pouring through the emergency-room doors. Police escorted Nasr home and took down her address and phone number in order to find Sajjad when his relatives came.

Through the night, Nasr and her daughters took turns dribbling water and formula through Sajjad's parched lips. He was passed from lap to lap, as the women traded shifts to rock him to sleep.

Nasr's family is poor—they live in a borrowed, decrepit house dotted with plastic furniture. But they scraped together enough money to buy the baby diapers and new clothes to replace the stained outfit he wore during the explosion.

"My conscience wouldn't let me leave a baby like that," Nasr said. "I would have cared for him as long as I lived."

Across town Friday morning, in a sprawling slum called Sadr City, Sajjad's father despaired. Hassan Rashid had expected his wife and mother back from the shrine by 10 a.m. By then, bloody images of the bombings were flashing across his television and he feared the worst.

"I kept thinking, `the baby, the baby,'" Rashid recalled later. "We just knew they were gone."

By 3 p.m., he'd enlisted his father and brother-in-law to help find the family. They drove nearly to the hospital before military barricades forced them to walk the rest of the way. Rashid stayed with the car, waiting in fear for his relatives to return with news.

"When they came back, I saw immediately that they were not themselves," Rashid said. "When my father saw me, he started to cry."

Faced with the loss of his mother and wife, Rashid couldn't believe that the baby had survived. His father told him Sajjad was in the care of a woman they would meet the next day. The father's first thoughts were of his two other young sons and their new life without a mother.

Rashid and his family went home, where relatives flung themselves to the floor in grief and cried until dawn. Then his father gathered them early Saturday to meet with the policeman who would reunite them with Sajjad.

They drove to Nasr's home early Saturday morning. Rashid scooped up his son and held him close, his big hands peeling back clothes to check the child's injuries. He stayed for a cup of tea that he sipped listlessly while staring at the floor. Then the men said they had to leave. Rashid still had to bury his wife and mother later that day.

He kissed Nasr's face, gripped her hands and thanked her for keeping his son safe. With Sajjad in his arms, Rashid and his relatives strode out the door and drove away.

"It's difficult to let him go," Nasr said, tears splashing on her black veil. "But this is right. Sajjad belongs with his family. I just hope he is happy and loved and lives to see better times."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SURVIVOR

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