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Iraq Journals

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Sunday, July 6

Photographer seeks out subject of picture made famous at war‘s start

By Christian Lowe | Marine Corps Times

MISHKAB, Iraq — In a single picture, a civilian photographer traveling with troops in Iraq captured the human toll of war during its opening days.


The image of the small boy, wounded in an American attack, in the arms of a clean-cut American medic who carried him to safety appeared on front pages around the world and buoyed the spirits of a public anxious after a tumultuous opening week of war.


Army Times photographer Warren Zinn, who took the photo, and a crew from CNN went back to the now sleepy village over the weekend to find out the human costs of America‘s war in Iraq. Specifically, they wanted to see if 4-year-old Ali Sattar and his family had survived.


“As a photographer during wartime, we take a lot of pictures of kids hit in U.S. attacks and show people the misery for maybe five minutes, then move on,” said Zinn, who had been embedded with the 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. “We never actually go back afterward to see how the people are doing.”


On Saturday, Zinn‘s group made the two-hour trek south from Baghdad through the lushly vegetated Euphrates River valley. Crossing the wide, swiftly moving river near Abu Sukhayr, Zinn recognized the area. His memory, aided by his navigation equipment, told him he was close.


But determining the location of the boy‘s house was more difficult. Stopping along the road, Zinn pulled out a copy of USA TODAY with the boy‘s photograph on the front page and asked a farmer if he recognized the child. The farmer pointed toward the river, back down the road a few yards. It was clear, to everyone‘s relief, that young Ali was indeed alive.


At a group of houses on the banks of the river, the process was repeated.


The house of Ali Sattar sits at the end of a dirt road, flanked by dried-mud fields that before the recent harvest grew acres of rice. The simple brick compound where Ali was sleeping when the attack began has three unlit rooms whose floors are covered by plain, well-worn rugs — a small mirror on the wall the only noticeable luxury.


Standing in the blazing sun and hair dryer-hot wind, Ali‘s father, Sattar Shamki, explained he had been awakened around daybreak March 25 by the sound of U.S. troops driving through this small farming village of about 20 homes. He and his family tried to flee their house, but there was too much gunfire. They instead retreated to a single room for cover.


Shamki said no Iraqi troops fired at the Americans from the village, which is not how Zinn recalled that morning fight.


Soon, Shamki said, they heard jets flying overhead. Holding Ali tightly in his arms, Shamki recounted how two explosions had racked his home, injuring his wife and son. A hole the size of a dinner plate in the bedroom wall — now repaired — and a shoe-box sized chunk missing from a wall in the courtyard are the only evidence of a U.S. air strike.


Except, that is, for the jagged scar running down Ali‘s left leg.

After the firing had died down a bit, a neighbor flagged the Americans and began carrying the victims of the attack toward the American armored vehicles.


At that point, Army medic Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, 26, ran across the open field and swept Ali out of his father‘s arms and raced with him back to the U.S. positions – the scene caught by Zinn‘s camera.

The story‘s appeal was aided by Dwyer‘s own story. He grew up in Long Island in a family of police officers. His dad, now living in Pinehurst, N.C., is a retired transit policeman. Two brothers work in New York City law enforcement. Dwyer was certain one of them had been killed during the Sept. 11 attacks. Two days after learning that his brother was safe, Dwyer, who had been working as an orderly at Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, enlisted in the Army.


"It was just what I could do at the time," he said shortly after the photograph was taken. Dwyer is back in the states now and could not be reached for this story.


Dwyer and an Army doctor treated the boy until an Iraqi Red Crescent ambulance arrived to take Ali and three other wounded civilians to a hospital in Najaf, about nine miles away.


Ten days of treatment and follow-up trips to Najaf helped the wound heal. Ali can walk, although with a limp, and his father said he still has some pain.


Despite the tumult and fear the war caused this simple farming family, they hold no ill will toward the United States.

“It‘s all right, I have no bad feelings toward America,” Shamki said through a translator. “But the accident really hurt us badly. We‘re hurt from all the terror we went through.”


Zinn gave Ali and his father with a copy of the photograph and the USA TODAY in which it had first appeared. The shy boy was clearly entranced with the picture. Shamki was pleased with the gesture, but didn‘t seem to understand what all the fuss was about.


“That image was one of the first ones I‘d ever taken that showed raw human emotion,” Zinn said. “I wanted to go back to visit the child to see that he was all right and show what happens to the people after the U.S. comes through places like this.”


“It meant a lot to me that he was still alive and OK.”