AMMAN – The horror. The horror. And unlike Apocalypse Now, there are real, not fictional images to prove it. But they won’t be seen in Western homes. The new heart of darkness has emerged in the turbulent history of Mesopotamia via the Hilla massacre. After uninterrupted, furious American bombing on Monday night and Tuesday morning, as of Wednesday night there were at least 61 dead Iraqi civilians and more than 450 seriously injured in the region of Hilla, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. Most are children: 60 percent of Iraq’s population of roughly 24 million are children.
Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, describes what happened in Hilla as “a horror, dozens of severed bodies and scattered limbs.” Initially, Murtada Abbas, the director of Hilla hospital, was questioned about the bombing only by Iraqi journalists – and only Arab cameramen working for Reuters and Associated Press were allowed on site. What they filmed is horror itself – the first images shot by Western news agencies of what is also happening on the Iraqi frontlines: babies cut in half, amputated limbs, kids with their faces a web of deep cuts caused by American shellfire and cluster bombs. Nobody in the West will ever see these images because they were censored by editors in Baghdad: only a “soft” version made it to worldwide TV distribution.
According to the Arab cameramen, two trucks full of bodies – mostly children, and women in flowered dresses – were parked outside the Hilla hospital. Dr Nazem el-Adali, trained in Scotland, said almost all the dead and wounded were victims of cluster bombs dropped in the Hilla region and in the neighboring village of Mazarak. Abbas initially said that there were 33 dead and 310 wounded. Then the ICRC went on site with a team of four, and they said that there were “dozens of dead and 450 wounded.” Contacted by satphone on Thursday, Huguenin-Benjamin confirmed there were at least 460 wounded, being treated in an ill-equipped 280-bed hospital.
Journalists taken to Hilla from Baghdad on an official tour on Wednesday talked of at least 61 dead. The Independent’s Robert Fisk described the mortuary as “a butcher’s shop of chopped-up corpses.” The ICRC is adamant: all victims are “farmers, women and children.” And Dr Hussein Ghazay, also from Hilla hospital, confirmed that “all the injuries were either from cluster bombing or from bomblets that exploded afterwards when people stepped on them or children picked them up by mistake.”
Iraqi journalists on site and later an Agence France Presse (AFP) photographer say that they have seen debris equipped with small parachutes characteristic of cluster bombs – which release up to 200 bomblets. Mohamed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Information Minister, has not volunteered details yet on the Hilla massacre. US Central Command in Qatar only admits it has used “six cluster bombs in the center of Iraq” – and against a tank column: these would be the CBU 105, the so-called “intelligent” cluster bombs which compensate for wind. The Pentagon line remains that there are “no indications” that the US dropped cluster bombs in the Hilla region.
Widely used in Afghanistan, cluster bombs are vehemently denounced by human rights organizations: they compare their deadly effects to anti-personnel mines, which are outlawed by the Ottawa Convention (not signed, incidentally, by either the US or Iraq). Cluster bombs are far from being smart. Most of its bomblets hit the ground without exploding. The small yellow cylinders remain deadly weapons threatening civilians – especially children. Human Rights Watch, in vain, has tried to persuade the Pentagon not to use cluster bombs, stressing that “Iraqi civilians will pay the price with their lives.” This is not the first incident of mass civilian deaths. The Independent newspaper of London claims that it has conclusively proved that an American missile was responsible for the devastation at the Shu’ale market in Baghdad last Friday, with at least 62 civilians confirmed dead. The missile – either a high speed anti-radiation missile (Harm) or a Paveway laser-guided bomb – is manufactured by Raytheon in Texas. Raytheon is the world’s largest manufacturer of so-called “smart” weapons – including Patriots and Tomahawks.
A piece of fuselage shown by a Shu’ale resident to the Independent’s Robert Fisk reads the number 30003-704ASB7492, followed by a second code, MFR 96214 09. An investigation by the Independent determined that “the reference MFR 96214 was the identification or ‘cage’ number of a Raytheon plant in the city of McKinney, Texas. The 30003 reference refers to the Naval Air Systems Command, the procurement agency responsible for furnishing the US Navy’s air force with its weaponry.” Many defense analysts have agreed that what happened at the Shu’ale market was almost certainly due to a Harm – which carries a warhead designed to explode into thousands of aluminum fragments. The Bush administration, Downing Street and the US Central Command continue to blame the civilian massacre in Baghdad on misfired Iraqi missiles.
Al-Mustansariya University in Baghdad – the oldest in the world – has been bombed. A Red Crescent maternity hospital has been bombed. In al-Janabiy, in the southeast of Baghdad, Patrick Baz, a veteran AFP photographer who stared horror in the face in Beirut in the 1980s, stumbled into a farm pulverized by missiles with at least 20 dead inside, including 11 children.
Iraq may not be totally united behind the renewed call of the Saddam Hussein regime, which is a complex mix of Arab nationalism and jihad invoked to rally every citizen to a war of liberation. But the terrible images of the civilian massacre in Shu’ale and the civilian massacre in Hilla, coupled with the Pentagon’s denials, have turned the Iraqi nationalist struggle into a volcano. Iraqi exiles in Jordan confirm that people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a Kalashnikov to defend Saddam are now committed to defend their families, their houses, their cities and their homeland. Anglo-American soldiers may barely disguise their perplexity, but the fact on the ground is they are now fighting the very people they were supposed to “liberate.”
Most, if not all, images of death from above raining over Iraqi civilians are being shown non-stop on al-Jazeera, Abu-Dhabi TV, al-Arabiya or the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. The anger over the Arab world must surely be growing. Even “moderate” regimes are being touched. The semi-official al-Ahram, Egypt’s premier newspaper, sums it up in an editorial, “The ‘clean war’ has become the dirtiest of wars, the bloodiest, the most destructive. Smart weapons have become deliberately stupid, blindly killing people in markets and popular neighborhoods.” Jordan’s King Abdullah was forced to publicly denounce what he termed the “invasion of Iraq” and vigorously register his “pain and sorrow” with the “murder of women and children … as we see on our television screens the growing number of martyrs among innocent Iraqi civilians. As a father, I feel the pain of every Iraqi family, of every child, and every father.”