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WAR WITH IRAQ

Villagers Count Their Losses, Say Promised Medical Aid Isn't There

In southernmost Iraq, as foreign troops advance, residents say they are suffering the results of regime change effort.

March 23, 2003|Mark Magnier and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

SAFWAN, Iraq — Amid the jubilation here as convoys of American and British troops streamed north, a panicked woman waved her arms and wailed in grief as the battered pickup in which she was riding skidded to a stop on the dusty street. On the floor of the truck were two dead men, their blood splattered over women supporting their limp bodies.

"It came from the foreign helicopter," one of the women said. "It came right into the house."

As the world watches the relentless U.S. and British advance through the desert, the view from this small corner of the conflict suggests that some Iraqis may pay a far higher price than advertised for regime change.

Claims of a dozen civilian deaths, and several times that many injuries, over the last three days could not be confirmed, nor could one report by a villager who said a helicopter opened fire in response to gunfire from an Iraqi rifleman. With many roads still mined, subject to sporadic gunfights or clogged with tanks -- along with no functioning police force -- getting to the truth will take time.

In this southernmost region of Iraq, there has been unexpected and persistent resistance to American and British troops.

A few miles to the east, U.S. Apache helicopters on Saturday shelled parts of the vital Persian Gulf port of Umm al Qasr in an effort to consolidate control of the town.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday pronounced that Umm al Qasr -- Iraq's link to maritime trade -- had fallen into the coalition's hands. But fighting continued through Saturday, with U.S. and British forces working to take out a number of "guys with guns" who had shed their uniforms and put on civilian clothes, according to a British military spokesman.

In the fight for nearby Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, U.S. forces came under artillery and machine-gun fire as they seized an airport and bridge.

Reporters attempting to reach Umm al Qasr and Basra ran into firefights and returned to Safwan, the first Iraqi settlement north of the Kuwaiti border, where area residents were seeking medical care and other help.

"He was such a good son, my only boy, Khamat, always taking care of me," said Fizah Abuaid Thekyal, 74, pounding his chest at the gates of the Safwan mosque as his son's body was being brought in from the pickup truck.

"We had a white flag on the house. I don't understand. I want to see him. I want to see my son."

Imam abu Ahmed emerged from the mosque and led Thekyal to where his 35-year old son's body was arranged on a stone slab.

The figure lay face up, a portion of his intestines exposed, his right hand mangled and separated from the arm. Shrapnel had cut gashes into his legs. An assistant prepared a white shroud.

Several Safwan villagers assembled in the streets expressed emotions ranging from bewilderment to anger at the level of damage they say they've suffered as coalition forces stormed past their homes. Gen. Tommy Franks, who heads U.S. Central Command and is running the war, reiterated Saturday America's determination to avoid civilian casualties. Despite such assurances, the conflict in southern Iraq has been messier than anticipated.

In addition to the two corpses in the truck, a stream of injured villagers made their way to a rundown health center or sought assistance from military police encamped on the nearby road to Basra.

At the village clinic, 20-year-old student Abbas Fadel lay stomach-down on a bed without sheets, gunshot wounds in his back. His sweaty skin stuck to a flowered plastic covering as flies circled overhead.

In the hallway, broken wheelchairs and mismatched plastic chairs graced the entryway beneath an imposing picture of Saddam Hussein. An old eye chart and a few health posters decorated otherwise bare walls.

Villagers expressed anger not only at the casualties and destruction, but also at the disruption of basic human needs, saying they had been led to believe humanitarian aid would quickly follow the military strike.

"People need food and water," said Mazen Abdullah, a volunteer at the Safwan Center for Health. "The ambulance can't even pick people up because of all the soldiers. We need doctors here. People are burned, there are shrapnel wounds. All we have here is the most basic first aid."

British troops led by 2nd Lt. Russell Cowhig of the Royal Military Police, a native of Machynlleth, Wales, said they were trying to get emergency supplies to villagers as well as 37 Iraqi prisoners of war who surrendered Thursday and were being held in a barbed-wire enclosure in a highway clover leaf.

"I'm hungry," said one of the men, who identified himself as Abdul Karim, as others sitting beside him complained of the cold and the long wait. Across the road, a British soldier was destroying a pile of Iraqi-issue Kalashnikov rifles with a sledgehammer.

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