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Iraqi Children Live in Fear of Bombings

BASRA, Iraq — In a southern suburb of this smog-ridden oil town, the shrill wail of an air raid siren surprises no one. Women in long black abayas move purposefully along the burning pavements, their trailing robes raising puffs of dust. Two little girls play tag in the relentless sunshine, while their older brothers stroll in the shade, waiting for afternoon classes to begin. "This happens every day," shrugs Amjed Mohammed, a tall, gangly 15-year-old. "There's nowhere we can hide, so we ignore it. We just hope they don't hit us this time."
In the impoverished Djun Gmhara neighborhood, they speak from experience. Nearly three years ago, on Jan. 25, 1999, U.S. military jets launched missiles into the residential district, killing several people, including three children of one family.

Now, like the Basra airport — struck twice within the past week in an attempt to wipe out Iraqi air defenses— Djun Gmhara has been patched up and life goes on with seeming normality in the face of U.S. preparations for a new war.

Yesterday, U.S. and British warplanes dropped thousands of warning leaflets on southern Iraq and bombed an air defense command center after Iraq's military tried to shoot down planes that dropped the leaflets, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. Central Command said from its headquarters in Tampa, Fla., that a strike with guided bombs was launched at 4:30 a.m. EDT, 12:30 p.m. in Iraq, against a military air defense and operations center near Tallil, about 260 kilometers southeast of Baghdad.

The U.S. Central Command said the target was a military communications hub for radar surveillance and anti-aircraft missile sites in the southern no-fly zone. They also said the strike was a response to Iraqi attempts to shoot down coalition aircraft that dropped 120,000 leaflets warning the Iraqi military against continuing to fire missiles and artillery at U.S. and British jets patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.

"No tracking or firing on these aircraft will be tolerated. You could be next," said a sample leaflet, which included a drawing of a warplane firing missiles at a radar and anti-aircraft battery on the ground.

There have now been 46 strikes this year by U.S. and British aircraft policing two no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Thirty-six of those have come in the southern zone, Reuters News Agency reported.

At the Basra airport, used by military as well as civilian aircraft, windows shattered in the recent air strikes have been replaced, and the shrapnel cleared out of the passenger terminal so that flights can resume from other cities in Iraq.

But, said Dr. Abed Al Kareem, deputy director of the Basra Hospital for Women and Children, "nothing is really normal in Basra. People are living with underlying stress and tension, because they can see the effects of war, and now there is a new threat. They know these things very well."

Unlike Baghdad, which was bombed during the Gulf War, and in Operation Desert Fox in 1998, Basra has repeatedly been targeted through more than two decades of hostilities with neighboring Iran and then with the United States.

Basra lies on the Shatt-al-Arab, the main shipping route for food and commercial products between the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

Both Iran and Iraq have laid claim to islands in the channel. They were seized by Iran in 1971, and a decade later Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to retaliate, attacking his neighbor, which was by then under control of a revolutionary Islamic government.

Between 1981 and 1988, Basra was in the middle of one of the bloodiest wars in the modern history of the Middle East: 375,000 Iraqis and more than 800,000 Iranians were killed or wounded, though the dispute was never resolved.

Today, statues of dead Iraqi soldiers stand around Basra's harbor, their arms pointing accusingly toward Iran. But nowadays the fingers of Basra's citizens are pointed in the direction of Washington.

"Not just the bombing, but illness is blamed on America," said Al Kareem. "Cases of leukemia and other cancers are rising steeply, especially in children. There are many abnormal births. People believe this is because of depleted uranium shells that have been fired at this region."



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