Children pay price of US offensive
Tuesday 16 November 2004, 19:25 Makka Time, 16:25 GMT
Ala Barham slumps in his hospital bed and stares blankly into the air in front of him.
Twelve years old and still deeply in shock, he can barely speak.
Ala's family had fled the Iraqi city of Falluja before last Monday's all-out offensive began. He was happily playing with his brother in the garden of their uncle's house in a village outside the city. Then the rocket hit.
"My uncle died. They took us to hospital," he mumbles, speaking in little more than a whisper.
His brother lies face down on the bed next to him, a bandage around his leg, a tube feeding into his stomach.
Their mother sits on another bed, cradling her now fatherless two-year-old nephew.
Across the room, another two-year-old lies on a bed in a nappy, a blanket covering one tiny leg. The other one was blown off by a shell.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says not a single civilian has died in the assault to retake Falluja from anti-US forces allegedly led by al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But the charred bodies in the streets of the city and the children in Baghdad's Naaman hospital tell a different story.
"Is this child one of Zarqawi's followers?" asks Nusum Hasan, flatly, holding out her nephew's bandaged right arm.
"Is any of this his fault?"
The families of these children were staying with relatives in the villages of Saqlawiya and Azraqiya, just outside Falluja, when they were wounded by air and artillery bombardments.
First, they rushed to Falluja's main hospital, separated from the city proper by the Euphrates river. Then, they were evacuated to Baghdad when US and Iraqi forces seized the hospital before the full-scale attack began last Monday night.
Allawi has accused the hospital of exaggerating casualties.
In April, US forces had to abandon their attempt to capture Falluja in part because images of wounded women and children caused an outcry.
This latest assault has stoked resentment - already high in Iraq's Sunni heartland - against the government and its US backers.
Marking the Muslim celebration that ends the month of Ramadan on Sunday, doctors at Falluja's general hospital, prayed to God for the resistance to defeat the US and Iraqi troops.
"God, make the mujahidin in Falluja victorious," one doctor told the 22-strong medical team gathered in a corridor.
His prayer was echoed by Saria Karim Ubais, who fled Falluja's Julan district, a hotbed for fighters, and now lives with her family in a tent pitched on the grounds of a Baghdad exhibition centre.
"We were displaced by the American bombardment. They bombed families without mercy," she said. "We went to the mosque as refugees and they sent us to this camp.
"I want God to make the mujahidin victorious against the American occupiers who have spared no woman or child."
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