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Baghdad Residents Can’t Detach From War

March 26, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Ziad Khaled’s eyes welled with tears when he spoke of the explosion that killed his aunt and two cousins. ``She died in my own arms,″ he said of his cousin Maha, an 11-year-old schoolgirl.

Nearby, 14-year-old Hamza Kareem looked away and wiped his tears. ``I am not afraid of anything,″ said the boy, his tough talk belied by his emotions.

While U.S. officials talk of precision bombing and military targets, few of Baghdad’s 5 million residents can afford such a detached view of the war in their backyards.

For Kareem, Khaled and other Iraqis, the war has literally hit home.

They’ve lost relatives and friends; fear and grief are constant emotions. Looking beyond Iraq’s latest conflict _ the Arab nation waged two previous wars since 1980 _ sometimes seems impossible in battle-hardened Baghdad.

In the city’s latest tragedy, 14 civilians were killed and 30 injured in a missile attack Wednesday, Iraqi defense officials said _ the worst single reported instance of civilian deaths since the U.S. bombing campaign began one week ago.

A smaller-scale tragedy occurred Monday in the al-A’azamiah district when a cruise missile struck as the call for the Muslim noon prayers blared from mosque minarets.

The strike killed five people and injured 27, flattening one home and damaging two others. Khaled, a 31-year-old father of two, rushed to his aunt’s house to help, but there was little he could do against the dust and acrid haze of a bomb’s aftermath.

Killed instantly was his aunt, 70-year-old Khoula Abdel-Fattah; her son and granddaughter Maha died later of their wounds. Three other family members were injured.

Khaled’s grief is compounded by concern over his children: Khaled, 4, and Isra’a, 2. They are too young to comprehend the ugliness of war, yet they know something is wrong.

``When they hear explosions, I tell them it’s thunder and beg them to go to sleep,″ said Khaled, speaking over the drone of warplanes flying above. ``But even when they do go to sleep, they’re restless and keep waking up.

``They look frightened and their faces are pale,″ he said.

Sameera Abdel-Sattar, a Baghdad widow, lives with her daughters just a stone’s throw from the damaged houses. Both her parents _ Abdel-Sattar Hassan and Belqis Abdullah _ were injured in Monday’s attack, which rattled their nerves as much as their homes.

Her daughter, 20-year-old Rasha, said the family has ``lived at the house doorsteps since the attack″ _ ready to scramble for safety if the missiles begin falling again, staying inside only a few minutes at a time.

``Let us run out mother, there may be another missile coming,″ she screamed as her mother showed a visitor their damaged home. ``Would Bush have this happen to his own family or his people?″

The bombing of Baghdad, launched in the early morning hours of March 18, has continued around the clock in sporadic bursts, leaving the locals to consider their options _ a potential life and death decision.

Hundreds of thousands have fled the city, while others stayed put. For the latter group, deciding where to safely spend the night in Baghdad is a recurring question.

Such choices exact a subtle toll.

Kareem, a grammar school dropout, lacks the cockiness of most teens. The baby-faced youth won’t consider what the next decade, or the next two decades, might hold.

``I don’t think of the future,″ said Kareem, who earns less than 50 cents a day working at a bakery. ``Maybe I’ll be a soldier to fight the enemies of my country. I know I cannot go back to school, I am too old to return to 4th grade.

``Or maybe I’ll just keep working in the bakery.″

The bombings are also whipping anti-U.S. sentiments into a frenzy, with the chances of American forces receiving a liberator’s welcome in Baghdad dwindling as a result.

State television constantly invites Iraqis to read venomous poems directed at President Bush and his administration. Senior Iraqi officials feed the sentiment by deriding Bush as a ``villain,″ ``rascal″ and ``criminal″ while emphasizing Iraq’s civilian casualties.

``How can I not hate America?″ Kareem asked.

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