Baghdad's Sadr City mourns its dead and injured

Karrar Ali Hussein, 16, was playing soccer when he was shot by what the family said was a U.S. military sniper. The U.S. military said they are not shooting civilians with sniper fire.
Karrar Ali Hussein, 16, was playing soccer when he was shot by what the family said was a U.S. military sniper. The U.S. military said they are not shooting civilians with sniper fire. Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — In Baghdad's Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City, U.S. airstrikes aimed at militants plague the population.

After a week of violence between the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the American military is targeting mortar teams and rockets that have bombarded the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters.

Inside the Imam Ali Hospital in Sadr City on Tuesday, Haider Jassim, 4, pointed to his belly and told his mother "oowa." An American child would say "boo-boo." His abdomen was wrapped in bandages after doctors cut him open to remove shrapnel lodged in his colon.

Last week he was playing in his home as his mother slept nearby with her 4-day-old baby. Now she spends night and day in the hospital with Haider.

He can't eat, and he urinates into a tube.

"I just want safety for my baby," Saleema Dwaich said. Her son wept in pain; she wept in response.

"When we got rid of Saddam, things were supposed to get better," said her brother-in-law Sabah Kokas Jassim.

Upstairs, Sabah Raheem's family sat on the bed next to his. The skin on his face was black from the burning shrapnel of a U.S. airstrike. On his chest were black craters where metal pieces had gouged his flesh. His left eye was gone, along with one of his legs. Around him were four other men with missing limbs.

His parents were at home, mourning his two brothers, both killed in an airstrike.

"We haven't told him about his brothers yet," said his uncle, Saad Naathoul, 39. "He's just came out of the coma."

Raheem's chest heaved and his eyelids fluttered. Earlier that day his 8-month-old daughter came with his wife to see him. She cried in fright at his blackened skin and missing leg. A large piece of shrapnel wedged in his stomach couldn't be removed; bandages covered the area.

"A missile hit the house," Naathoul said. "It's a family of six, and last year they lost one in a car accident. Now two are gone and then him. The situation speaks for itself."

He waved toward Raheem's bed.

"They said there was a very small chance he would live," Naathoul said. "But by the grace of God he is getting better."

Nearby, 16-year-old Karrar Ali Hussein's chest also heaved, because a bullet pierced his side and remained inside him. He was playing soccer, his father said, when a U.S. sniper shot him.

Downstairs, Ammar Ensayer looked at his father in worry. He was shot in a marketplace; he, too, says it was an American military sniper.

"We are an oppressed people, but what shall we do?" he said. "We can do nothing."

Nearby, Jabar Abdul Ridha was stoic in his small, shabby home in a narrow alley of Sadr City. His wife, Kareema Hafout, and daughter Nisrene Jabar were killed in a U.S. airstrike last week.

He came home last Wednesday and found them dead. It was 5:30 p.m. The glass in the two top rooms of the home was shattered, and the glass frame around the portrait of the revered grandson of the prophet Hussein was cracked.

His wife had been hanging laundry as his daughter and niece, Zahra, washed for prayer. The airstrike killed his daughter instantly; her head was separated from her body. His wife struggled to get inside but bled to death before he came home. Zahra was healing in a hospital.

Downstairs, wails came from the kitchen. His teenage daughter hasn't stopped crying, the image of her sister and mother burned into her mind.

But he doesn't cry.

"What shall I do?" he said. "I have two young sons. I was sitting with them, and I went out for two minutes. Two minutes, and I would have been with them."

Sijad, 7, doesn't understand that his mother and sister were killed. For now he thinks that they're visiting relatives in southern Iraq.

Abdul Ridha blames the American military for his loss.

"They are oppressors," he said. "Shouldn't they attack those that hold weapons against them? I swear to God, since we've lived here, the biggest weapon we have is the knife we use to cut the meat."

Other rumors spread: A U.S. military sniper had shot two women and a child in the past 24 hours, officials in the Sadr office said. Residents warned visitors not to walk where American snipers waited on rooftops.

"It's impossible," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the U.S. military spokesman for Baghdad operations, denying the reports. "They are not killing women and children."

American snipers did kill one man Tuesday morning after three warning shots, Stover said. The victim was suspected of being a spotter to warn militants of U.S. positions, he said. The military denied that anyone hit by a sniper was a civilian.

American airstrikes may very well have killed civilians, Stover conceded. U.S. troops can't get into the crowded urban area to report on whether civilians were killed, he said.

"In the middle of the night, could there have been a family under the roof where an enemy combatant was firing rockets?" he said. "Yes. It's sad, but there may have been some civilians who were hurt."

The American military said the airstrikes were targeting militants who were using rooftops to fire rockets into the Green Zone, he said. They try to avoid civilians at all costs, he added.

"It's sad," he said.

For now, after a statement from Sadr, his militia has stood down. But it complains that the government continues to raid, detain and kill its members.

"We follow (Muqtada al Sadr) blindly," said Abu Amir, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. "He has wisdom."

At the start of the violence, he said, he followed the Shiite cleric's orders. He went to the Iraqi army and gave the soldiers olive branches and the Quran.

"You are our brothers," he recalled saying. "We won't fight you."

Then the U.S. military surrounded Sadr City and was getting closer, he said. His fellow fighters were being targeted in Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's operation in the southern port city of Basra, and he saw that people were being killed in Sadr City.

"We had to fight back; they were attacking us," he said. "But I swear to God I didn't fight one Iraqi soldier; they were attacking us, and we didn't fight. They are our blood."

Many members of the Iraqi Security Forces turned in their weapons to the Sadr office, refusing to fight the militia, Sadr officials said.

Now Abu Amir has hidden away his weapon. He isn't fighting, because Sadr ordered them not to. But Sadr also asked that the government raids stop.

"We realized what kind of government we have: They are like foxes," Abu Amir said. "The Americans are our enemies, not our friends. Maliki is an agent of the Americans."

In Sadr City, a U.S. airstrike was conducted Tuesday morning.

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