Private Atiya was driving a heavy truck on the outskirts of Baghdad when he saw the flash. Then, a deafening boom and darkness. When Atiya came to, he was lying on the side of the road and the truck, still carrying 11 of his colleagues from the Iraqi National Guard, was rolling on without a driver. He looked down. "I saw my leg was gone," he says, squeezing his eyes shut at the memory. "It was the worst pain." One of his arms was broken, the other severely burned.
Atiya (who asked that only his first name be used for safety reasons) is one of thousands of members of the Iraqi security forces who have been wounded on the job. That attack, near the town of Abu Ghraib last Wednesday, was the third time Atiya, 32, has been hit by an IED since he joined the Guard last year. He was quickly taken to the American-run Combat Support Hospital, known as the Cash, in the Green Zone, often the first stop for critically wounded soldiers. "These guys are in harm's way more than any other slice of the Iraqi population," says an American doctor at the Cash who asked not to be quoted by name.
During a speech last year, the then secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that Iraqi security forces take casualties at "roughly twice the rate of all Coalition forces." That's approximately 40,000 wounded and more than 6,000 dead, grim numbers by any measure. (Both the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the U.S. military refuse to divulge data on Iraqi wounded for "security reasons.") "I've lost many friends," says Atiya, a soft-spoken man with a thick black mustache and receding hairline. At the Cash, Iraqi and American soldiers receive the same state-of-the-art care until they're stabilized. But for the Iraqis, it's downhill from there. "The problem is what happens afterward," says the U.S. doctor. "The safety net is very low."
Most of the Iraqi soldiers are first transferred to a hospital in central Baghdad that, by local standards, has decent equipment and well-trained doctors. Some Sunni troops are terrified of being absorbed into the public-healthcare system, which is run by officials with ties to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. All the Baghdad hospitals that receive Iraqi wounded have heavy security to guard against insurgents.
Under Saddam Hussein, an extensive infrastructure was put in place to deal with the casualties of the dictator's wars. Military hospitals were set up for long-term care and an Association of Veterans' Affairs helped the disabled and paid out pensions. Now one of the largest former military hospitals is used by squatters and the veterans' office doesn't deal with soldiers who signed up after 2003. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense says that wounded soldiers are looked after well and continue to receive their salaries even if they can't return to the job. But anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Shakir Mohammed, a fair-haired 27-year-old soldier from Baghdad, received severe burns on the right side of his body from an IED attack in 2004. After treatment at the Cash, he says the Iraqi Army forgot about him. "When we left the hospital, no one asked about us anymore," he says. "All aid stopped at that time."
Mohammed still has nasty purplish scars on the right side of his body and says he's often in pain. He's also back on the job: with unemployment as high as 50 percent, the roughly $550 he receives each month is tough to beat. "There are no other jobs," says Mohammed. Swathed in bandages, Private Atiya looks down at his missing left leg and says he hopes the Guard can find him a posting in Najaf, his hometown. "I have no regrets," he says. "I want to serve."