Iraqis come back to bombed-out village, seeking care, shelter
January 31, 2008
KHIDR, Iraq — An old woman wailed crazily as a man whose feet were blown off months ago was wheeled past the concertina wire. Hundreds of people, virtual refugees in their hometown, lined up amid mud and rubble for a medical clinic held by American troops in this rural village northwest of Iskandariyah.
The rubble that surrounded the crumbling schoolhouse at the center of Monday’s clinic included the remains of an Iraqi health clinic.
Like much of the town, it was destroyed late last year in fighting between al-Qaida in Iraq and troops from the Army’s 3d Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.
“The people here got run out when al-Qaida took over their houses,” said Sgt. Jeremy Ireland, a 24-year-old civil affairs specialist from Erie, Pa. “Then the U.S. came in and blew up their houses. Now people are starting to come back … they’re living 15 or 20 to a house.”
Many of the roughly 300 people who made their way to the clinic brought ailments caused by the lack of basic necessities, especially clean water, said Lt. Col. Tim Monahan, 44, of Woodstock, Conn., a dermatologist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3/7 Infantry, based at Fort Stewart, Ga.
“We’re seeing a lot of dehydration, kidney stones, aches and pains, colds and flu,” Monahan said.
As he spoke, a man who said his feet were blown off in an explosion nine months ago wheeled toward Monahan, his raw red stumps jutting forward.
“I’m not going to be able to treat him,” Monahan said quietly, standing in the doorway of a dimly lit classroom.
Set in a rural area surrounded by palm groves and fields, where fish-farming ponds stretch along the Euphrates River, Khidr is not as isolated as it seems, said Sgt. 1st Class Monty Ramisate, 36, also of Headquarters and Headquarters Company.
Residents are within traveling distance of seven hospitals, the Hinesville, Ga., native said, but they seem to prefer American medical care. Travel to the Iraqi hospitals is a challenge, too.
“Nobody wants to walk half a day to get to a clinic,” he said.
It’s Khidr’s location, relatively secluded but about midway between southern Baghdad and Babylon, that also made it an attractive target to al-Qaida, said Sheik Jaffa Hussein Denden al-Massoudi, a local tribal leader. The insurgents arrived in February, he said, and U.S. troops followed them in December.
American soldiers found a series of tunnels that they said were used by al-Qaida to hide weapons and fighters. The tunnels were destroyed by airstrikes, the military said in December.
Of the village’s roughly 1,400 former residents, a mix of Sunni and Shiite, about 500 have returned in recent weeks, al-Massoudi said.
The sheik said that only a few families, those who were helping al-Qaida, had remained behind when it took over the town. Now many of the same people are manning checkpoints as part of American-funded “concerned local citizen” groups, he said, reflecting a larger reality in what has become a linchpin of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
“They helped al-Qaida and now they come work with me,” al-Massoudi said through an intepreter. “If I give them a hard time, they will just go somewhere else and do the same thing again.”
First Lt. Marshall Tucker, 23, of Monroe, N.C., a fire support officer with Company B, said the Army has poured about $1.7 million into the “concerned citizen” programs in the area.
Col. Said al-Shumari, a battalion commander with the 8th Iraqi Army Division, said an effort would be made sometime in the future to bring those who committed crimes during the reign of al-Qaida to justice. But for now, he said, the focus remained on rebuilding basic infrastructure.
“Anybody who killed, we will send them to the courthouse,” he said. “Not right now, but we will go back and have justice for what happened.”
As for the man whose feet were blown off, Monahan said his amputations appeared to be healing well. The best thing, Monahan told him, was to wash with soap and hot water, but the man wanted medicine.
After some negotiation, he left for the rubble with four tubes of ointment and a bottle of betadine.