Remembering Al-Amiriya

Nine years ago yesterday, the United States Air Force, as a part of the Allied forces engaged in the Gulf War, bombed the Al-Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad, at the height of the Gulf War. In the attack, nearly 1200 civilians, mostly women and children lost their lives. All but 14 survived the onslaught.

I had the opportunity to visit this place in August of 1999. It no longer serves as a bomb shelter. In fact, after the 1991 attack, Iraqis were so afraid that other bomb shelters could become Allied targets, that they discontinued seeking refuge in most of Iraq's civil defense shelters. Now Al-Amiriya is a shrine to those martyrs who huddled in fear while death rained down from Iraqi skies.

The story of Al-Amiriya should enrage each and every Muslim on the planet. It should enrage any human being who respects human rights and human dignity.

The United States claimed that the Iraqi military had concealed arms in the shelter and that it was therefore a legitimate target. However when you visit Al-Amiriya, you are struck by how non-military the site truly is. Not 50 yards from the shelter is an elementary school, and all of the surrounding area is a residential district. In fact, prior to the bombing, Iraqis in that neighborhood had used the shelter as a sort of refugee camp. They would come and go during the day to wash clothing or fetch foodstuffs; but for all intents and purposes, these people had made Al-Amiriya their home.

Iraqis who remember the bombing will tell you that for three days prior to the incident, surveillance aircraft flew over the neighborhood, presumably collecting the information that led U.S. military authorities to classify the shelter as a military target.

Didn't they see women and children walking back and forth from the shelter? Didn't the CIA, which prides itself on its accuracy in assessing such situations, know that such a bombing would result in a catastrophic loss of life? If the United States Air Force didn't know that civilians lived in the shelter, then you can count America as inept in its intelligence gathering skills. But somehow, I believe the military is a little better than that. I put forth that the United States knew exactly who was in that shelter and bombed it anyway. Some removed member of the military brass, possibly even General Norman Schwarzkopf himself, looked at his charts of facts and figures and decided that 1200 lives constituted acceptable "collateral damage."

How hypocritical is that? The United States, who praised the fact that not but a handful of its soldiers died in the Gulf War, allowed the lives of 1200 innocents to pass as a mere footnote, an insignificant statistic on a sheet of paper, contained in some thousand-page report recapping the Gulf War.

The people of Al-Amiriya had names and lives. They had potential. They had futures. But that all ended in the span of five minutes early in the morning of February 13.

It was just before the time for the Muslim Fajr early morning prayer. A single bomb hit the Al-Amiriya shelter screwing a 15-foot hole in the roof of a building that is constructed of reinforced concrete several feet thick. Several people must have died when it hit, because it left a huge crater in the floor of the shelter. But that was not the end of the attack. Five minutes passed -- five minutes of horror and confusion. Then a precision guided incendiary device threaded that tiny 15-foot opening, and exploded.

Temperatures in the shelter soared to well over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the civilians on the first floor of the shelter were burned alive. To this day, the smell of charred human flesh haunts Al-Amiriya. But the carnage didn't end there. There were more people seeking refuge in the basement of the shelter. That second bomb ruptured the hot water tanks on the lower level, unleashing a torrent of scalding water into the basement of the structure. So while the people upstairs were burned to death, those downstairs were boiled to death. Their flesh melted away from their bodies; flesh that can still be seen, pasted to the walls of Al-Amiriya to this very day.

This might seem graphic, but war is graphic. Death is generally not as graceful as it appears in the movies. People need to understand how truly horrible this attack was. And the United States government needs to take responsibility for its actions in this instance and in every other instance in which it has brought death to innocent Iraqis, not the least of which are the thousands of children who die each month as a result of the continued economic sanctions.

Ali Asadullah is the Editor of

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Human Rights, United States Of America
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