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Al-Amiriyya: Once upon a bombing in Iraq

Al-Amiriyya: Once upon a bombing in Iraq
From Al Jazeera - February 13, 2018

Iraqi collective memory is crowded with signifiers of pain and loss. Recent years have only added to the piles of bodies and rubble and their signifiers in a country ravaged by decades of brutal dictatorship, genocidal sanctions, and wars.

The 2003 Anglo-American invasion (also known by its Orwellian name, "Operation Iraqi Freedom") dismantled what was left of the Iraqi state drained by wars and sanctions. It also triggered and normalised the politics of chaos, corruption, and sectarian civil wars. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was only the most recent and visceral byproduct of that invasion. While its discursive and symbolic repertoire digs deep into the distant past, ISIL's umbilical cord was formed and nurtured around 2003.

Iraqis are still reeling from the violence and horror unleashed by the rise of ISIL and its occupation of Mosul and other cities in 2014 and the massacres and destruction it left behind. Mosul and other cities and towns are liberated now, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are still displaced in camps far away from their now destroyed homes. Promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation by one of the most corrupt regimes in the world are yet to be translated to concrete results.

But today, as with every year, many Iraqis will mark and mourn a massacre that took place 27 years ago. "Al-Amiriyya" is still a major entry in the Iraqi book of pain.

At 4:30 am on February 13, 1991, two US F-117 flying over Baghdad fired two laser-guided "smart" bombs, each weighing 2000 pounds (900kg). Their destination was a large civilian shelter (number 25) in al-Amiriyya, a residential neighbourhood in western Baghdad.

A thousand civilians were sleeping in the shelter that night. The first bomb pierced the fortified concrete wall through the ventilation opening. The second one followed through and exploded deep inside. The bombing killed408 civilians, including 261 women, and 52 children. The youngest victim was seven days old. Most of the victims were incinerated by the heat of the explosion. The bodies taken out by rescue workers later were charred and unrecognisable. The smell of burned flesh stayed in the neighbourhood for days.

The Pentagon insisted that the al-Amiriyya shelter was a bunker used as a military command centre. It claimed that US surveillance had detected signs indicating that it was a military installation in the days before the bombing.

The Pentagon's operation director at the time said that "both bombs landed right where they were programmed." But foreign journalists who visited the site right after the bombing found no indication whatsoever that the place was anything but a civilian shelter. President George HW Bush's spokesperson, Marlin Fitzwater, said: "We do not know why civilians were at that location, but we do know that Saddam Hussein does not share our value for the sanctity of human life. [He] kills civilians intentionally and with purpose."

Dick Cheney, who was defence secretary at the time, laid the blame on Iraq and suggested that it was intentionally putting civilians in military sites.

The daily bombing campaigns all over Iraq had been ongoing since January 17 of that year. The declared objective was to drive the occupying Iraqi army out of Kuwait, which it had invaded in August 1990. But it resulted in crippling Iraq's infrastructure by destroying 134 bridges, 18 of Iraq's 20 power-generating plants, industrial complexes, oil refineries, sewage pumping stations, and telecommunications facilities. Postwar electricity was reduced to four percent of prewar levels.

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