Al-Amiriyya: Once upon a bombing in Iraq

Iraqis still remember the more than 400 civilians the US military killed in a single bombing in Baghdad in 1991.

An Iraqi woman lights candles in al-Amiriyya shelter in Baghdad on February 13, 1999 in memory of her relatives killed during the US bombing  [Reuters]
An Iraqi woman lights candles in al-Amiriyya shelter in Baghdad on February 13, 1999 in memory of her relatives killed during the US bombing [Reuters]

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.

Amir Adnan, a survivor of al-Amiriyya shelter tragedy, celebrates his birthday inside the shelter on January 10, 2001. Adnan’s seven-member family was among the more than 400 civilians who were killed inside the shelter [Reuters]

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 don’t 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.

Just as Secretary of State James Baker had warned, Iraq was bombed “back to the pre-industrial age”. The economic loss of the 43-day bombing campaign was estimated to be $232bn.

A few months later, on June 8, a victory parade was held in Washington, DC to celebrate the end of “Operation Desert Storm”. General Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the operation, joined Bush Sr in the reviewing stand. But back in Iraq, another war went on in a different manner and would go on until 2003. The economic sanctions that were imposed on Iraq to force it out of Kuwait were kept in place despite their cruelty and devastating effects on all facets of life.

By 1995, the UN reported that more than half a million Iraqi children had died because of these lethal sanctions and that far from hurting the regime, they were killing civilians and destroying Iraq’s social fabric.

Still, Madeleine Albright, the then US ambassador to the UN, said in an infamous interview that the political “price was worth it”. So much for the “sanctity of life”.

Every US administration after Bush Sr has bombed Iraq for one reason or another. Some of the same characters who oversaw the first Gulf War in 1991 made a comeback in in the beginning of this century to sell and execute the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

An Iraqi woman who lost eight of her children during the bombing of al-Amiriyya shelter in 1991 explains to visiting members of an Arab union who attended a conference in solidarity with Iraq in February 1999 [Reuters]

The Iraqi regime made use of the tragedy and the site for its propaganda purposes. The destroyed al-Amiriyya shelter became a memorial. The black-and-white photographs of the 408 victims hung on the walls of its dark chambers. Some of the scorched and eviscerated bodies of the victims had left their marks on the walls and floor.

Survivors and relatives would visit to mourn and remember. A mother who lost eight of her children became a guide.

Today, however, the site is neglected and closed to the public. An Iraqi army unit is stationed there. There will be no official mention or commemoration of the al-Amiriyya massacre. The Iraqi government and the entire political class are beneficiaries of the US and its wars. They recognise and commemorate the crimes of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime and now ISIL and exploit them for their narrow and sectarian political purposes.

But Iraqis will never forget al-Amiriyya.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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