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Friday, March 28

'Human shields' witnesses to collateral damage

By Greg Barrett | GNS

WASHINGTON - Kentucky pacifist Doug Johnson writes to say he is overwhelmed and tired. For three days, he has visited Baghdad hospitals and neighborhoods to record war's collateral damage.

He has seen the charred shells of automobiles toppled on their sides. He has heard eyewitness accounts of families who burned to death in their cars. He has seen a ramshackle auto repair shop, residential homes and a small Iraqi diner gutted by what he believes were errant bombs.

``Several large explosions have just shaken my building,'' Johnson wrote in e-mail Thursday. ``It's funny, but you actually get used to it. U.S. bombs are dropping everywhere. They have broken windows in my hotel. These bombs are not that `smart.' ''

During the first nine days of war, the Pentagon said, coalition forces fired 600 Tomahawk missiles and dropped 4,300 precision-guided weapons on Iraq. In a Pentagon briefing hours before the United States attacked Iraq, Col. Gary Crowder, a senior planner with U.S. Air Combat Command, stressed the caution used in selecting targets.

``It's really important to understand that in most instances - I won't say the majority - but a large percentage of instances, most of the targets that we are striking ... actually have very low potential for collateral damage,'' he said. ``They're military targets that are generally military installations.''

But Crowder added that commanders choosing a target often must decide ``what is an acceptable number'' of civilian casualties.

``There's no one answer,'' he said.

Last week, Johnson, a 43-year-old copywriter from Louisville, met 8-year-old Ali Jasem in the crowded trauma center of the Al-Kindi Hospital. Ali, a farm boy from the rural flats outside of Baghdad, had undergone surgery to remove shrapnel from his head.

The same explosions that had decapitated Ali's father had killed the two young sons of 36-year-old farmer Saaed Shalish, Johnson said. Shalish was in critical condition, so doctors were waiting to tell him about the fate of his sons.

``The only effect (the bombing) has on the Iraqis is that it pisses them off and they can't wait for the U.S. soldiers to arrive on the ground so that they can put up the fight of their lives,'' Johnson said.

How many of the dead Iraqis are soldiers or civilians is difficult to assess, said International Red Cross spokeswoman Amanda Williamson. It's also difficult to say how many of the killed and injured were struck by coalition bombs and how many were killed by Iraq's own forces.

An Iraqi surgeon at the Al-Kindi Hospital declined this week to place blame for the wounded people rushed to Baghdad's largest trauma center.

"I am a doctor, so I don't know whether the shells were missiles, rockets or anti-aircraft fire," Dr. Osama Saleh told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Robert Collier. "But the result is the same."

Unconfirmed numbers

Iraqi Health Minister Omed Medhat Mubarak estimated Thursday that 350 Iraqi civilians had been killed, a figure that major U.S. newspapers have treated as credible. Baghdad's doctors told Red Cross workers on Thursday that at least 250 civilians in the city had been injured, Williamson said.

The Red Cross has representatives checking daily with hospitals from Basra to Baghdad to Mosul, but it declines to confirm any count of the dead and injured. Red Cross officials only want to help Iraqi hospitals maintain supplies.

Meanwhile, the first funerals of the war resonate in the streets of Baghdad. Residents are braving the bombs for funeral marches that stretch several blocks long. Caskets are held aloft as mothers collapse on the sidewalks, weeping.

``I'm told that the U.S. media is claiming that Iraq is bombing (its) own people to frame the U.S., but I don't buy this,'' Johnson wrote from his room at the Hotel Al-Fanar, a cheap Baghdad hotel favored by peace activists from the United States, Canada and Australia.

``Bombs are dropping on Baghdad as I write this, and I'm willing to wager they're not Iraqi bombs.''

As war crept close this month and President Bush gave Iraqi president Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country, Johnson and 32 other members of the Chicago-based Iraq Peace and Christian Peacemaker teams ignored advice to leave Baghdad. With their fight for peace lost, they vowed to stay and risk their lives to witness the consequences for Iraqi civilians.

Witnesses to war

Embedded in Baghdad's hospitals, clinics and downtown neighborhoods, they carry only notepads and digital cameras. They vow to expose ``collateral damage'' as a sanitized euphemism. In e-mails sent home via an unreliable Internet connection at Baghdad's Hotel Palestine or through satellite phone links, they share photos and war diaries.

``Amal, my dear friend, I visited your once lovely home today,'' New York nurse Cathy Breen wrote Thursday. ``Glass is everywhere, shattered and strewn about, the windows and doors now gaping holes for the raging wind and sand to enter. Had it been by natural disaster, it would be easier to bear. But this destruction is cruel and senseless.''

Graphic photos credited to The Associated Press, Reuters and Al-Jazeera TV show people decapitated and maimed. The images, deemed unfit for family newspapers, circulate only on anti-war Web sites.

``To say God bless America as it goes to war is blasphemy of the worst kind,'' wrote Iraq Peace Team member Neville Watson in an e-mail this week to his newspaper back home in Perth, Australia.

Neville, 73, is an engaging and affable judge and Wembley Downs Uniting Church minister who laughs easily. When he flew to the Middle East from Australia on Jan. 27, he planned only to remain for six weeks.

But as the war drew near, he elected to stay. Even if it meant never again seeing his wife, children and grandchildren.

``I used to think of the U.S. as a peace-loving country, but the picture we have today is of a belligerent sheriff deciding which regimes will be changed,'' he said. ``I continue to be concerned at how easily the hand over the heart drops to the holster.''

April Hurley, a physician from Santa Rosa, Calif., recalled this week how a mother at the Al-Kindi Hospital screamed at the foreigners gathered in the emergency room.

Fatima Abdullah's 8-year-old daughter had been killed and two other daughters lay on stretchers, injured by a missile they said exploded on a farm near the Diala Bridge outside Baghdad.

Abdullah held her 4-year-old son Muhammad, his face crisscrossed with cuts from flying shrapnel and debris, and screamed:

``Why do you do this to us?''

On the Web:

www.iraqpeaceteam.org, site for the Iraq Peace Team.