Wounded Iraqis Left Broken and Burdened

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By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 2, 2005

BAGHDAD, June 1 -- On a steamy June morning two years ago, a U.S. soldier's warning shot ricocheted off a sand berm and blew a hole in Raez Habib's life.

The stray bullet plowed through the meat of his left thigh and shattered his right femur, leaving him bleeding in the street, Habib recalled in a recent interview. A helicopter took him to a military hospital, where doctors amputated his right leg four inches below the hip.

The shooting was an accident, a tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to Habib and to statements from four U.S. service members who were at or near the scene, which Habib keeps in a tattered manila folder. He soon lost his job as a builder, because he could no longer carry heavy loads, and moved his family into his mother's three-room clay house.

Deaf since birth, Habib, 35, communicates through muffled groans and hand signals. "I have a wife and three children and no way to provide for them," he said, his fingers clenching the fabric of his long white robe as his younger brother Ghassan translated.

"We don't think about who to blame. It was his destiny," Ghassan Habib said. "It happened. We take care of him. That is all."

The U.S. military keeps a meticulous tally of its wounded -- 12,762 in Iraq as of Wednesday, along with 1,658 dead. Scenes of soldiers convalescing at well-equipped hospitals such as Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center are familiar symbols of the human cost of the war.

But more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion, there is little available data on the far greater number of Iraqi civilians wounded in the invasion and subsequent violence related to the insurgency. And few of the victims' stories have been widely reported.

While attacks on civilians are increasing, the wounded are getting little help from overburdened medical facilities, according to interviews with more than a dozen patients, physicians and health officials in Baghdad. The best rehabilitation hospital in the Iraqi capital is running out of artificial limbs and might soon close, its director said. And most of the wounded fall back on the only support network they have: their families.

Attempts to quantify civilian casualties here have largely focused on the number of dead, not the wounded. A widely criticized study by an international group of university professors released in October estimated that the invasion had caused 100,000 civilian deaths. At least 21,940 civilians have been reported killed in news stories, according to a database compiled by the group Iraq Body Count, which does not track the number of wounded.

"It is very difficult to give numbers, even roughly, because when we ask the Ministry of Health, they never tell us. For political reasons and some unknown reasons they don't give these numbers out," said Mazin Abdullah Salloum, general secretary of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. "It doesn't help them to show the reality."

After a long period of not reporting casualty figures, the Iraqi Health Ministry said Wednesday that 775 civilians were wounded in May, compared with 598 in April.

Many of most seriously injured end up at the Rehabilitation and Rheumatological Center, on a leafy campus in northern Baghdad. A decade ago, most of its patients suffered from polio, vascular disorders or such diseases as diabetes that sometimes require amputations, according to its director, Emad Khudair. Today, more than two-thirds are trauma patients, he said.


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