- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Ali Ismail Abbas, a 12-year-old boy who became the face of Iraqi civilian suffering during the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein, has made a strong recovery from the wounds he suffered when an errant American bomb hit his Baghdad home.

Ali, whose parents and more than a dozen other close relatives died in the March 30 strike, lost both arms and suffered severe burns over more than a third of his body. His tear-filled eyes and desperate pleas for his lost limbs, broadcast from his Baghdad hospital bed in the days after the incident, sparked a global wave of sympathy and concern.

Today, according to visitors and the doctors treating him at a Kuwaiti burn center, “Orphan Ali” has left the intensive care unit, is taking brief walks on his own and has responded well to skin-graft treatment as he weighs multiple offers to be fitted for prosthetic arms.

He is receiving regular schooling at the Kuwaiti hospital and has been assigned a consulting psychologist to deal with the trauma of the attack, much of which he does not recall.

“He’s walking, he’s talking, he’s in very good spirits, he’s making jokes,” said Dr. Felah Hafuth, a Cambridge, Ontario, physician who spoke with Ali by telephone Tuesday.

“He was obviously very depressed at first, but he’s in the best spirits since I first began speaking with him,” said the Iraqi-born Dr. Hafuth, who hopes to bring the boy to Canada to live with his family.

The global publicity campaign surrounding the boy’s plight has sparked a nasty competition among various aid groups eager to help Ali while promoting their own organizations, critics say.

Ali was moved from Baghdad to Kuwait City’s al-Babtain Center for Burns and Plastic Surgery, with the Kuwaiti government covering his extensive medical bills. Mohammed Abed Hamzah, a cousin of Ali’s father whom the boy refers to as his uncle, serves as his guardian.

Ali’s right arm was amputated just above the elbow, while his left arm was amputated closer to his shoulder, complicating the task of fashioning artificial limbs.

Taraq al-Mezram, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti Information Office in Washington, said the government decided early on to finance all the necessary medical care for Ali, even if it proved necessary to import specialists from abroad.

Ali’s case “has been an issue of great interest in our country,” Mr. al-Mezram said. “He is a symbol of the war for us. For Kuwaitis, this is a human story, not a political story.”

There has been no official count of civilian casualties in the Iraqi campaign, but it is expected the final tally will number in the thousands. Some 3,500 Iraqi civilians died in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, mostly from errant air strikes, and the toll in the just-ended campaign may end up higher, according to the most recent estimates.

A handful of other Iraqi children hurt in the war are receiving similar aid in Kuwait, but Ali’s story has garnered by far the most popular attention, with prominent Kuwaiti singers and actors visiting his hospital bed.

Ali’s mental state also has improved markedly, according to those who have talked with the boy.

In one gripping scene captured on film soon after his injury, Ali told doctors, “If I can’t get a pair of hands, I will commit suicide.” Doctors in Baghdad said Ali would die of his wounds if not evacuated to get specialized care.

But Dr. Hafuth and others say Ali now takes an active interest in being fitted with artificial limbs, with the swelling on his arms now down to the point where prosthetic devices can be measured.

Third-degree burns to the boy’s groin and abdomen have responded well to skin grafts, and the area still needing treatment has been reduced to less than 3 percent of his body.

Ali has also had a steady parade of international visitors to his Kuwaiti hospital bed. The newspaper the Australian reported that the parade of visitors included foreign journalists, a British member of Parliament, and American and British charities with offers of aid and gifts such as a soccer jersey signed by British star David Beckham.

A number of British newspapers have used Ali’s image to fuel fund-raising drives to help injured and orphaned Iraqi children, and medical charities in Britain and the United States have publicized rival efforts to provide treatment for Ali.

“It is like there is a big competition going on between some of these [groups], and Ali is the prize,” Imad al-Najada, Ali’s plastic surgeon, said in an interview last week with the Australian.

Zafar Khan, president of the London-based Limbless Association, visited Ali in Kuwait on May 4 and said his group has given the Kuwaiti Health Ministry a standing offer to pay for prosthetic arms and rehabilitation treatment for the boy and other Iraqi children.

Mr. Khan, who himself has an artificial leg, said it will be up to the ministry to decide on the best offer for Ali, with no decision having been made yet.

He said his group’s interest in Ali was part of its normal work but acknowledged that Ali had become “an icon of civilian war casualties for many here in Britain.”

“We hope he can become a role model, an inspiration,” said Mr. Khan in a telephone interview from London yesterday. “Let’s face it: People will always remember him.”

Canada’s Dr. Hafuth said his own interest in the boy was sparked by the powerful early images of his suffering. Ali’s family also lived close to the doctor’s old neighborhood in Baghdad, establishing another bond, he said.

“I just remember watching the television and starting to cry,” Dr. Hafuth said. “I am a father and an Iraqi, and I just felt I had to do something.”

He contacted Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and is now working with Raj Chahal, a Toronto lawyer and well-connected former aide to the prime minister. There is no precedent under Canadian immigration laws for the adoption of Iraqi children, but Dr. Hafuth vowed to keep trying.

“We have a community of 5,000 Iraqis here in Cambridge and some 75,000 in Toronto. We can offer him a welcoming community and top-flight medical care. I hope it will happen,” he said.

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