Suddenly out of a clear blue sky, the forgotten war being waged by the United States and Britain over Iraq visited its lethal routine on the shepherds and farmers of Toq al-Ghazalat about 10:30 a.m. on May 17.
Omran Harbi Jawair, 13, was squatting on his haunches at the time, watching the family sheep as they nosed the hard, flat ground in search of grass. He wore a white robe but was bareheaded in spite of an unforgiving sun. Omran, who liked to kick a soccer ball around this dusty village, had just finished fifth grade at the little school a 15-minute walk from his mud-brick home. A shepherd boy's summer vacation lay ahead.
That is when the missile landed.
Without warning, according to several youths standing nearby, the device came crashing down in an open field 200 yards from the dozen houses of Toq al-Ghazalat. A deafening explosion cracked across the silent land. Shrapnel flew in every direction. Four shepherds were wounded. And Omran, the others recalled, lay dead in the dirt, most of his head torn off, the white of his robe stained red.
"He was only 13 years old, but he was a good boy," sobbed Omran's father, Harbi Jawair, 61.
What happened four weeks ago at Toq al-Ghazalat, 35 miles southwest of Najaf in southern Iraq, has become a recurring event in the Iraqi countryside. A week of conversations with wounded Iraqis and the families of those killed, around Najaf and in northern Iraq around Mosul, showed that civilian deaths and injuries are a regular part of the little-discussed U.S. and British air operation over Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Yassin Jassem, spokesman for Iraq's air defense command, said about 300 Iraqis have been killed and more than 800 wounded by U.S. and British retaliatory attacks in the 18 months since President Saddam Hussein ordered his antiaircraft batteries to fire on allied warplanes enforcing "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq. Of those killed, Jassem said in an interview, "well more" than 200 were civilians like Omran Harbi Juwair, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Iraqi death toll has been substantiated in part by a U.N. survey that examined some incidents independently and accepted Iraqi reports on others. While not conclusive on the overall toll, interviews and observations during lengthy drives through the regions where airstrikes have often been reported backed up the government's contention that civilian casualties have become routine.
U.S. and British warplanes enforcing the zones were heard almost daily crisscrossing the skies, although they were invisible flying at more than 20,000 feet. The Iraqi air defense command says it has detected penetrations into Iraqi airspace by more than 21,600 U.S. and British warplanes since December 1998, when Iraqis started opposing the patrols with antiaircraft fire. The sustained military operation results in bomb or missile attacks on an average of once every three days. The Pentagon says more than 280,000 sorties have been flown in the near decade since the no-fly zones were imposed, without a single loss of aircraft to hostile fire.
Visits to a dozen airstrike sites, chosen by this correspondent, showed that Iraqi antiaircraft equipment--gray snouts of multibarreled cannons sticking out of dugouts in the sandy soil--is sometimes installed near towns and villages. That increases chances of civilians being hurt or killed when allied planes retaliate. But the travels showed that air attacks have occurred as well in vast, open fields or grazing grounds--such as in the strike at Toq al-Ghazalat--with no signs of any military target present or having been present near the sheep and the boys who tend them in scenes reminiscent of the Bible.
The mounting toll--averaging one civilian death every other day by Iraq's count--has prompted France to freeze participation in enforcing the no-fly zones. It has generated growing protests from Russia and has left neighboring Saudi Arabia and Turkey increasingly uneasy about continuing to provide air bases for the U.S. and British enforcement aircraft.
Challenge and Response The U.S.-led air campaign over Iraq has been underway since shortly after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but civilian casualties began to mount after Operation Desert Fox in December 1998--a 70-hour U.S. bombing campaign against targets across Iraq to retaliate for the government's refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. Iraqi air defenses received orders after that campaign to fire on U.S. and British patrols, drawing retaliatory airstrikes.
"That was a watershed," Riyadh Qaysi, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, said in an interview.
Previously, U.S. and British aircraft were rarely challenged. When they were, pilots replied to the source of the challenge, usually with AGM-88 HARM missiles that homed in on the radars that guide antiaircraft missiles. But after Iraq's decision to challenge patrols regularly, U.S. forces were authorized to attack any Iraqi air defense target--even unconnected to a specific attack, or at a time well after any challenge--in retaliation for antiaircraft fire, radar illumination or missile launch.
The United States and its allies first imposed the northern no-fly zone in April 1991, six weeks after the end of Operation Desert Storm, citing a need to protect northern Iraq's Kurdish population after an uprising against the Baghdad government. They imposed the southern no-fly zone in August 1992, citing a similar need to protect southern Iraq's largely Shiite Muslim population, which also had risen up against Saddam Hussein immediately after his defeat in the Gulf War.
The northern operation, based at Incirlik, Turkey, banned Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel, which runs just south of Mosul. The southern operation, enforced by planes based in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and aboard U.S. aircraft carriers in the gulf, banned Iraqi flights south of the 32nd parallel.
President Clinton ordered the southern no-fly zone widened to the 33rd parallel in 1996, after Iraqi forces intervened in clashes between two Kurdish guerrilla bands in northern Iraq. That gesture brought the southern ban right to the outskirts of Baghdad, the capital, and left 60 percent of the country off-limits to Iraqi planes.
Since they were imposed, the no-fly zones have become more than just a means to protect restive Kurds or Shiites from retribution. According to officials in Washington, the Clinton administration also sees them as a tool to contain and degrade the Iraqi military, humiliate Saddam Hussein and perhaps generate opposition to his rule.
'Lifted . . . Into the Air' "I was thrown to the ground and covered with dirt," recalled Ziad Ibrahim Taha, a 50-year-old shepherd. "Then another blast. It lifted me right up into the air."
Taha was with scores of people on a broad, flat expanse of open land 45 miles west of Mosul just before 10 a.m. on May 12 of last year. As he and others in the nearby village of Abu Auani recalled it, two, perhaps three warplanes made repeated passes over the congregated villagers, firing missiles and raking the area with machine guns.
According to Iraqi authorities, 14 people were killed on the spot and five more died later from their injuries. Forty-six people were wounded and several hundred sheep were killed. Taha's right leg was injured at the ankle--red scar tissue, angry and twisted, has replaced its normal contours. Two of his sons, Mohammed, 24, and Ahmed, 20, were killed, leaving him with one remaining son.
"They are trying to destroy the Islamic people," Taha responded when asked what lay behind the attack.
Taha and others in Abu Auani said a group of youths were tending 400 head of sheep that morning and had taken refuge from the searing sun in a goatskin tent pitched on the grazing range less than a mile from the village of 500 residents. Older people remained at home, tending to their affairs.
Then, Taha said, he heard the tremendous crash of an exploding missile coming from the direction of the grazing range. Alarmed, he and many others from the village ran to the site. Inhabitants of several other nearby villages also ran to look.
What they found, Taha said, was carnage. Many sheep lay dead or dying. Several of the young shepherds were killed or wounded. As the wounded boys were carried away and owners began to slaughter their injured sheep and round up those that had fled, the number of rescuers and onlookers grew.
"When all the people were there together, another plane came, and another missile came down," he recalled.
Nine missiles were fired in all, as best as he can remember, over an area of about 200 square yards. He said aircraft firing machine guns crossed the zone twice.
Hama Mahmoud Ahmed, 20, a soldier home on leave in Abu Auani, said he was in the goatskin tent when the first missile hit. Pandemonium broke out almost immediately, he recalled, and the situation became total chaos as the second, third and fourth missiles came down.
"I was running away carrying a wounded boy on my shoulder," he said. "But the boy got cut through his stomach. Another boy I saw nearby got his head cut off."
Ahmed himself received a piece of shrapnel through his left shoulder, leaving thick welts of scar tissue and withered muscles unable to fully lift the arm below.
He was luckier than Raha Khader Ibrahim, 18, whose left arm was severed by a fragment just below the shoulder. Asked to describe what happened to him, Ibrahim stammered repeatedly.
Questions of Responsibility The attack at Abu Auani was one of the few in which the U.S. military has acknowledged an error. A communique from Incirlik Air Base that day said Operation Northern Watch aircraft were targeted by Iraqi radar and fired on by antiaircraft artillery, generating a response with AGM-88 and AGM-130 missiles and GBU-12 and GBU-15 precision-guided bombs.
"Results of the strike are still being assessed," the communique continued. "However, a review of post-strike data indicates that one of the targets, believed to have been a surface-to-air missile site, now appears to have been a nomadic camp with a number of livestock in the area. Every effort is taken to avoid any collateral damage to civilians and civilian property. Ultimate responsibility, however, lies with Saddam Hussein."
U.S. officials have stressed that, although they seek to avoid civilian casualties, Iraq installs air defense equipment near civilian-inhabited areas in an effort to make civilian casualties more likely, generating news coverage such as this article and, Iraqi officials hope, more international opposition to the no-fly zones.
In addition, U.S. and U.N. officials have maintained that some casualties probably have been caused by Iraqi antiaircraft fire falling back to earth. Finally, the U.S. and British governments have stressed that the airstrikes would not be necessary if Iraq stopped firing at the U.S. and British planes in its airspace.
Jassem, the Iraqi air defense command spokesman, offered a theory that the civilian deaths and injuries occur in part because U.S. pilots, who fly most strike missions, may have targeting data that confuse military equipment with farm machinery, such as large harvesters, or tents and big herds of sheep. And Jassem had another suggestion: Maybe, he said, some pilots fear flying near antiaircraft batteries and loose their munitions at what they hope is empty terrain.
Deadly Remnants The airstrikes leave behind a lethal litter that could claim civilian casualties for years.
In Rihaniyah, a farm village of 650 people 25 miles west of Mosul, most people were still indoors at 9:30 a.m. on May 28, sheltered from the heat and sipping their morning tea.
But some of the boys went out to wander, exploring for something to do on what promised to be a delicious day, just after the school year finished. Wearing the scruffy shirts and baggy, dusty pants of northern Iraqi peasant boys, they left home ready for fun.
What they found instead was death and injury. Saoud Nouri Jassem, 12, Khalis Abdullah Jassem, 15, and Ahmed Omar Abdullah, 15, were killed. Fadhli Abdullah Jassem, 10, and Muzhir Abdullah Jassem, 9, were hospitalized and still carry their wounds.
At the edge of the village, they picked up an unexploded piece of munition. It may have been one of the many fragments spit out by bombs and missiles from U.S. aircraft to destroy Iraqi antiaircraft equipment. Or it may have been one of the many cannon rounds and missiles fired by Iraqi antiaircraft batteries.
From his sickbed at home, Muzhir described the fragment as about six inches long and cylindrical, with striations on the surface and a point at one end. His right arm was dressed with a heavy bandage, from the biceps down to the wrist. His left leg was dressed similarly.
Whatever its origin, the fragment exploded as the boys were bringing their find to the center of the village. No one knows for sure who was carrying it. Muzhir said he thinks it was Ahmed. Those who were close enough to know for sure did not survive.
"The explosion woke me up," recalled Raha Nouri Jassem, 20, who looked over the edge of his roof as soon as he heard what happened, then piled downstairs in a panic. "I ran over there and found them on the ground. Two of them were already dead, and another one died in the hospital."
Dangerous Positions Although the Iraqi government emphasizes casualties among civilians, it was clear at Bashiqah, a town 18 miles east of Mosul famous for its ouzo-like drink called arrack, that positioning antiaircraft emplacements near houses and towns also contributes to the toll.
The danger was far from the minds of two friends, Mowafaq Atu Hathar, 23, and Shuthar Shukri Elias, 22, as they worked on a new cinder block house last Aug. 23 on the edge of Bashiqah. Hathar was particularly glad for the work. His father had no job. Those in the family who still lived at home, mainly his parents and his own wife and children, depended on his income for a living.
That was the way things stood when a missile came down just behind the house, killing Hathar and his friend. Since then, the would-be owner has sealed the entrance and stopped construction, convinced that no good can come of finishing a house where something so horrible happened. And the family has come to depend on donations.
"Some people help us out, the neighbors," said Hathar's mother, Kithir Hathar, 44. "One day we have food, one day we have nothing."
That was not the end of it, however. The missiles have continued to crash down around Bashiqah, where Iraqi antiaircraft installations are visible at two sites several hundred yards from town.
An attack May 29, Kithir Hathar recalled, sent ragged fragments six inches long clanging up against her home in the middle of Bashiqah. Luckily, she said, none of them pierced the walls and nobody else in the family was injured. But the noise of the explosion was tremendous, and the concussion was felt up and down the street.
"I heard it, and I felt the air push the scarf on my head," she said.
The Iraqi military announced later that two civilians were killed in the attack, and this was confirmed by an Iraqi army officer stationed at the town hall who accompanied a reporter to visit the Hathar family.
But suddenly an elderly man who had been sitting in on the conversation silently, fingering his worry beads, piped up uninvited. "They were soldiers," he proclaimed. "They died in the blast. It was so strong their eyes rolled back in their heads and stuff came out of their ears."
Fielding a suggestion to go to the destroyed building and get the story straight, the army officer said it probably would be dangerous because planes were flying overhead and could strike again. Pressed to go anyway, he replied, "It is forbidden."
CAPTION: WATCHING IRAQ (This graphic was not available)