Friday 25 April 2003
MOSUL, Iraq -Ten-year-old Ahmed Abbas sits up halfway in his hospital bed and lifts his left hand, wrapped in a bloody bandage.
"My brother picked it up first," he said, his voice barely audible. "He didn't give it to me, but I grabbed it from him. I thought it was a toy."
Ahmed lost four of his fingers in an explosion of ordnance left behind by the Iraqi army when it withdrew from the northern city of Mosul on April 11.
These hazards of war, scattered all around Iraq, are proving to be a major concern, and human rights groups have been adamant about the need to clean up unexploded ordnance, particularly in populated areas.
Such litter of war, found everywhere from Basra to Nasiriyah to Baghdad and other flashpoints in Iraq, is a serious threat to civilians, especially children.
In Baghdad, unexploded cluster bombs went off in the first days after U.S. forces entered the city, and killed at least three civilians who were trying to clean them up. The ordnance lay in yards, over gates and hanging in trees - leaving whole families afraid to venture out, and others afraid to return to their homes.
In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, new victims appear every day, stretching hospital resources to the limit.
"I pulled the hook," Ahmed said. "At first there was a little bang, then a big one."
In another room at the Saddam Hospital, renamed Azadi, or Freedom, 12-year-old Hussein Fadhel lay with his right hand bandaged. His father, Fadhel, said half of it is gone, along with two fingers.
"I was playing with the ball when my cousin picked it up. It was a round, yellow metal thing like that," he said, pointing to a doorknob. "It had a nail in the middle. I grabbed it from him. Then it exploded."
From his description, the ordnance appeared to be an Italian-made anti-personnel mine that was lying near his house in western Mosul.
Warrant Officer Steve Lucas, a demolition specialist with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said that unexploded ordnance is everywhere around Mosul - in farms and fields and on highways - and that U.S. forces had blown up only 2 percent of it.
"We just scratched the surface," he said.
On Thursday, a representative of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch met with retired Gen. Bruce Moore, America's top official in northern Iraq, urging American forces to make it their priority to clear land mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance, particularly in rural and urban centers.
The group said land mines and other ordnance are in the north, along the Iran-Iraq border, and throughout the central and southern regions of the country - pretty much everywhere except the sparsely populated western desert.
Doctors at Azadi hospital and the larger al-Zahrawi hospital said the casualties are from unexploded ordnance left behind by Iraqi forces and cluster bombs used by American air and ground forces during their attacks on Mosul.
Human rights groups have criticized Americans' use of cluster bombs. They contain 200 or more small bombs, each of which can explode into hundreds of metal fragments, but sometimes do not detonate until later.
Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade, said last week there are remnants of American ordnance still around Baghdad. He said an Iraqi man was killed April 18 and three soldiers from the 101st were wounded when an M-42 "bomblet" exploded.
On Saturday, an Iraqi girl handed an explosive to four U.S. soldiers on patrol and it blew up, injuring all five. Linnington said the girl approached one of the soldiers with an M-42 "bomblet," a canister-size piece of a cluster bomb, and it appeared to be an accident. None of the injuries was life-threatening, though one soldier's leg had to be amputated.
U.S. forces have printed three leaflets with pictures of the ordnance that litters Mosul and its outskirts, warning citizens not to touch it. The ordnance includes two kinds of anti-personnel mines, flat and round anti-tank mines, and rifle grenades. Doctors and U.S. military officials say caches of rifle grenades were stolen from Iraqi army ammunition depots immediately after Mosul fell earlier this month.
"They steal the brass cartridges and take the propellant and in the process the kids light the propellant and burn themselves," said Lucas, 33, from Vinton, Iowa.
He said he has seen 15 to 20 types of gunpowder in the Mosul area.
"It could be in a tube. It looks like a sparkler," he said, adding that some gunpowder is packaged in what looks like cheese wedges.
Dr. Mohammed Hameed at the Azadi Hospital's emergency ward said his staff had amputated limbs of two civilians because of gunpowder burns. He said that since the end of fighting here, he has treated about 10 people a day with wounds from handling munitions.
"The workload is extremely heavy," said Mohammed Riyadh, 26, an intern at the hospital. "I have never seen so many casualties, not even during the war. Because during the shellings, people stayed indoors, so they were less likely to be injured."
On Tuesday, doctors said they treated four or five people who suffered shrapnel wounds after American forces detonated ordnance in Mosul's al-Ghazlani neighborhood.
Lucas said his men clear the area before blowing up ordnance.
"The only time they could be hurt is when they are looting," he said. "I have three kids and I wouldn't want them to be playing with this stuff."
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