Wounded Iraqi Forces Say They've Been Abandoned

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International Herald Tribune

Wounded Iraqi Forces Say They've Been Abandoned

by
Michael Kamber

BAGHDAD -  Dawoud Ameen, a former Iraqi soldier, lay in bed, his shattered legs splayed before him, worrying about the rent for his family of five.0702 09

Ameen's legs were shredded by shrapnel from a roadside bomb in September 2006 and now, like many wounded members of the Iraqi security forces, he is deeply in debt and struggling to survive. For now, he gets by on $125 a month brought to him by members of his old army unit, charity and whatever his wife, Jinan, can beg from her relatives. But he worries that he could lose even that meager monthly stipend.

In the United States, the issue of war injuries has revolved almost entirely around the care received by the 30,000 wounded American veterans. But Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been wounded in greater numbers, health workers say, and have been treated far worse by their government.

A number of the half-dozen badly wounded Iraqis interviewed for this article said they had been effectively drummed out of the Iraqi security forces without pensions, or were receiving partial pay and in danger of losing even that. Coping with severe injuries, and often amputations, they have been forced to pay for private doctors or turn to Iraq's failing public hospitals, which as recently as a year ago were controlled by militias that kidnapped and killed patients — particularly security personnel from rival units.

No one knows the exact number of wounded Iraqi veterans, as the government does not keep track. In a 2006 report by the congressional Research Service, Major General Joseph Peterson, the American commander in charge of Iraqi police training, said that in just two years, from September 2004 to October 2006, about 4,000 Iraqi police officers were killed and 8,000 were wounded.

That number does not include soldiers in the Iraqi Army, who are far more numerous than the police and, Iraqi commanders say, have suffered injuries at a far greater rate.

In a February 2006 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, the report states, Donald Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, said that Iraqi security forces were being killed and wounded at "roughly twice the rate of all coalition forces." If that rate held up, the number of wounded Iraqi veterans might well surpass 60,000.

Iraqi government officials say that the wounded are being treated well, and that a law providing for veterans' care is being drafted. In the interim, they said, wounded veterans would receive their full salaries from the Ministry of Defense.

"The wounded soldiers from the MOD still get their salaries after the incidents, depending on the reports from the medical committees," said a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Staff Major General Muhammad al-Askari. "We are waiting for the Service and Pension Law for the veterans from the Iraqi Parliament, but they still get paid during that time."

The veterans interviewed for this article disputed Askari's statement and said they were paid only a fraction of their salaries, or nothing at all. They described the government's treatment of them as at best indifferent and at worst vindictive.

On the day United States forces arrived in Baghdad in April 2003, Hussein Ali Hassan, a sergeant in Saddam Hussein's army, was hit by a tank round. With his legs crushed and burns covering much of his body, Hassan was taken to a Baghdad hospital, where his left leg was quickly amputated.

But in the chaos that broke out after the fall of the Hussein government, the staff fled the hospital. "The looters stole beds and ripped the pipes from the walls around me," Hassan said.

His friends and family cared for him until the staff trickled back. Weeks later, after doctors told him the hospital was rife with infectious bacteria, his family hastily took him home.

An Italian organization was arranging a visa so that Hassan could fly to Italy for care. But with violence rapidly mounting in the fall of 2003, the group closed its doors before the visa request could be completed.

In need of more surgery, Hassan borrowed money and embarked on a series of operations at Al Jabechi, a private hospital in Baghdad, eventually spending about $13,000 of his own money, he said.

"I could have waited months in the public hospitals, and the care is very bad there," he said.

Hassan says that in the five years since he was wounded, his repeated requests for a disability pension have been ignored. Two weeks ago, however, he learned that he had been awarded a pension of about $165 a month for his 23 years of military service (though nothing for medical care and no acknowledgment that he is disabled, he said).

Before the approval of his pension, Hassan says that he had heard only once from the government, when a health official solicited a $3,000 bribe to approve his travel to Germany for medical care. He refused the request.

He says it does not help his cause that he was a member of Saddam's Sunni-dominated army, anathema to the current Shiite-led administration.

To repay his debts and support his family, Hassan has been driving a taxi, his walker clattering in the roof rack as he plies the streets of Baghdad. With Iraq's high unemployment rate, he considers himself lucky to have a job.

With the uncertainty of government pensions and Iraq's desperate economic plight, some wounded security force members have stayed on active duty, knowing it is their only hope of making a living.

Nubras Jabar Muhammad, a 26-year-old soldier, was shot by a sniper in May 2007 as he was on duty at a Baghdad checkpoint. He nearly bled to death, losing a kidney and part of his liver, while suffering damage to his right hand. His torso is scarred, and two fingers are locked in a permanent curl.

He says he still has shrapnel lodged in his back, and rarely sleeps through the night. He has trouble digesting food. But the army refused him a disability pension, claiming he was able-bodied, and he was forced to return to active duty after nine months. He says he has already spent about $2,100 of his own money on operations, selling jewelry and a pistol to raise the cash.

Though he had instructions from his doctors to avoid standing for long periods, the army quickly returned him to checkpoint duty, where he is on his feet all day long in temperatures up to 120 degrees. "I demanded that my superiors give me a desk job," said Muhammad. "They told me if I keep complaining, they'll kick me out of the army."

Dr. Waleed Abdul Majeed, who has extensive experience treating wounded soldiers, says he believes that they are getting adequate care. But he concedes that they have to wait for it, in part because three military medical centers under Saddam's government have been closed.

"Now the burden is on civilian hospitals," he said. "It would be better if we had a military hospital. The soldiers are taken good care of in the beginning, but there is no follow-up."

But with many physicians having been driven away by sectarian militias, there may not be enough competent doctors remaining to staff the hospitals. "At least 25 percent of our doctors have left the country," Dr. Majeed said. "I see 120 to 150 patients in a day; 30 to 40 need operations every week, so they just have to wait. And prosthetics is a big problem. The Ministry of Health does not have the specialized equipment for this."

Before the American troop increase, which contributed to improved security in Baghdad, many hospitals were controlled by armed factions that tortured and assassinated members of the security forces in their beds.

Nubras Jabar Muhammad, the sniper victim who was forced to return to duty, fled a public hospital that was controlled by the Mahdi Army militia of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

"They would come in the night and give you injections to kill you," he said. "I was scared of being murdered, so I left."

Hussein Ayad Ali was a 22-year-old member of a Judicial Police commando unit in 2005, when shrapnel from a grenade ripped into his legs and stomach. Soon after, his new battalion commander saw a note in Ali's file about a fight he had as a 16-year-old. As he lay at home recovering from his wounds, Ali says, he was notified that he had been fired because of his "criminal background."

"The army knew about this all along," he said of the fight. "I told them when I signed up, but only after I was wounded did they kick me out."

Despite what they have suffered, most of the veterans interviewed said they were proud of their military service. "I consider my injury an honor," said Ameen, the paraplegic army veteran. "I am only sorry the government does not pay attention to us."

Just half a mile down the street, Colonel Ali Farhan shows up each morning at his police station, even though he lost his right leg below the knee from a bomb explosion in November 2006.

Well connected, he was able to remain on active duty rather than try to scrape by on a disability pension of $200 a month, a third his regular salary. He says he works partly for the money and partly because he is proud of his contribution to Iraq, he said.

But, he added: "I lost a leg and can barely walk. I see on TV in the U.S. they lose two legs and they are running races. Why don't they do the same for us in Iraq?"

Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune

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