Scenes of hell on the silent road to Baghdad

Independent Decade
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is, they say, where Western civilisation began - one of mankind's first towns, identified in the Bible as the home of Abraham. Standing on top of the Ziggurat, the scene looked more like the place where civilisation ended.

To reach it, we had come through apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of the Somme in 1916. And although the war is over and the allies are going home, the dying may not yet be done.

A biting gale drove the rain across the deserted mudflats. The whole site, including the tombs, has been neglected and some are collapsing. Mounds of earth and pottery are forming mud slides which threaten to refill the huge hole dug by archaeologists, as if the earth had chosen to re- bury a civilisation which had come to this.

The Ziggurat, one of the oldest man-made monuments in the world, was within seconds of being destroyed by allied fire last week. Colonel David Wood, of the 101st Airborne Division, said he had targeted the Ziggurat among bunkers and other military installations when his strike force attacked the nearby airfield. He had been about to order his men to fire when one of his officers noticed the monument on the map.

Less than a mile away is the entrance to an air base. Along the runway Allied bombing has blasted holes you could drop a bus into, along lines of fighter aircraft. I counted 28, ranging from the latest Soviet-built MiG-29 to ageing MiG-23s.

Some lie broken- backed or flipped over in the mud as if some vengeful giant had kicked and stamped his way across the airfield. Others are no more than shattered heaps of melted metal.

The road past Ur is a six-lane motorway, now virtually deserted except for American patrols. All along it are the sickening remains of convoys and civilian cars hit by Allied air fire a week ago. The bodies and bits of bodies still lie across the road or have been fixed in cremated motion as they tried to scramble to safety. Near some lorries which have not burned are boxes and suitcases, burst open and exposing the sentimentality of soldiers bringing home a brightly coloured scarf or dress or a pair of children's shoes.

The US forces set up a camp on the motorway five nights ago. On the first night they gave food and water to 1,200 people. Most stayed the night in their cars to keep out of the cold, but American soldiers said the keening and wailing of those who had lost relatives had kept everyone awake all night.

Captain Sholla Swift, the commander, said he had seen horrific shrapnel wounds, burns and many other injuries in the past five days as well as measles, dysentery, malnutrition and dehydration.

Two nights ago, when I stayed overnight in the camp, there was one family of 13, eight of whom had been turned back from Kuwait. Five had been let in. They were in a car piled high with mattresses and suitcases. The children were dehydrated and hungry and the four-month-old baby died in the night.

Captain Swift exploded with rage next morning, demanding to know why his men had not woken him so that he could have got the baby to a field hospital. This unit, like all US forces on the Euphrates, is expected to leave by the weekend. When they go, the last drop of outside help will be lost as the region, already smashed by a month of bombing and the ground war, plunges into civil war.