The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Death whisper in dining room

Baghdad, March 25: Breakfast was simple, but late. Days of bombing had left the Khalil family sleepless. When a respite arrived at noon yesterday, a moment of ease in an uneasy time, they sat down, picking anxiously at boiled eggs, tomatoes and bread.

Shahid, nine, told stories, and her brother Ahmed, 12, laughed. The older family members, with harrowing memories of bombings in the 1991 Gulf War, sat uneasily, their silence an eloquent testament to worry.

Then a whisper sounded, ever so slight. In seconds, the house was shattered by a cruise missile, the family said.

Um Aqeel, the mother of five children, and her daughter-in-law, Sahar, were killed. Two sons and a daughter were wounded.

Hours later, weary and angry, Aqeel, the oldest son, looked out at his bandaged siblings laying dazed in their hospital beds.

“There are no soldiers in my home, there’s no gun in my home!” he shouted. “How can God accept this'”

In five days of bombing, the US and Britain have hurled hundreds of cruise missiles and bombs at Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

For the most part, their precision is stunning, carving out craters in the domes of presidential palaces and gaping holes in the sides of fearsome intelligence headquarters that dot the capital.

Even by the official Iraqi count, hundreds of civilians have been wounded but only a handful killed, despite a furious assault that has left the capital jittery and afraid.

But the arithmetic of war makes mistakes inevitable — blasts gutted the student union at Mustansiriya University on Sunday and a cluster of homes in the Qadisiya neighbourhood last week.

Adhimiya, a working-class quarter, may have witnessed another mistake, a snapshot of the horrors of war and the scenes of resentment and revenge that lay in their wake.

In a warren of narrow alleys, perched uncomfortably beside a trench of burning oil that cloaked the neighbourhood in a blinding, black haze, at least three houses were destroyed by the blast, which blew out the windows of others in an arc around the detonation.

Cream-coloured brick and cinder blocks were strewn across the muddy street. Rubble poured forth from a crater that left the homes resembling an archaeological dig.

Nearby rested the artifacts of domesticity — a mattress spring, a brown scarf and a green plastic bowl.

Residents insisted no military or government site was nearby, and none was visible from the limited vantage point of the street.

Journalists were accompanied by government escorts to the hospital where the wounded received treatment.

Neighbours said that at the sound of the blast and the smell of smoke, they rushed into the houses, pushing aside furniture and rubble to search for those buried by it. Dirt particles were suspended in the air.

Five minutes later, sirens announced the arrival of ambulances, which took the four dead and 27 wounded to Noman Hospital.

At the hospital, the head of Ali, 14, another son in the Khalil family, was wrapped in a bandage. He stared blankly at the ceiling. His sister, Shahid, lay motionless. Her fingernails were painted in sparkles and ringed by dried blood.

The face of his brother Ahmed was still bloodied. A bandage sat like a helmet on his forehead. “We trust in God, what can we do'” Ahmed said softly, curled in a fetal position. “I’m safe and alive. That’s most important.”

A doctor, Abdullah Abed Ali, leaned over to a visitor. He whispered, out of earshot of Ahmed.

“He doesn’t know that his mother has died,” he said, shaking his head.

Relatives ran into the hospital ward. Their eyes were red.

Aqeel, the oldest brother whose wife’s body was in the morgue, rested his head on the shoulder of one. He started sobbing. “It fell on us,” he said, his voice cracking. “It fell on us.”

In Adhimiya, militiamen and civil defence workers in red helmets picked through the rubble, searching for 70-year-old Khowla Abdel-Fattah.

Workers shovelled dirt to the side, and a bulldozer carted away brick and concrete. Sewage from broken pipes poured into the street, lapping at the rubble.

Without saying a word, as a baby cried nearby, neighbours passed around gnarled, fused pieces of metal they said were left by the blast of the missile.

Neighbours lined up to watch the workers dig clumsily through the rubble, now a makeshift grave. There were no chants for President Saddam Hussein, as there are in so many officially sanctioned public gatherings. There were no cries of “God is greatest.”

There was only silence, the shock of the devastation.

As the bulldozer crashed through another crumbling wall of his house, AbdelFattah’s brother, Thamir Sheikhly, cried out.

“Bush is cursed!” he shouted. “This is a civilian building, a civilian building, 100 per cent. There are no weapons of mass destruction. He wants to destroy the people. Maybe God will destroy him.” For a moment, he was quiet, then spoke again. “We’ll have our revenge with Bush.”

For most Iraqis, limited to news from state-run media, every day brings fresh victories over invading US and British forces. Daily television news bulletins show downed US strike helicopters, captured US soldiers and “heroic” resistance by Iraqis in battle. President Saddam Hussein broadcasts to the nation, exhorting his troops and calling on all Iraqis to stand firm and defeat the enemy.

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