Shot at, bombed and declared traitors by both sides, Najaf ambulancemen fight losing battle

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The Independent Online

Abu Sadiq can reasonably claim to have one of the most thankless and dangerous jobs in the world. He has been beaten up; every day he braves shooting from all sides to do his work; and he gets paid a mere $65 a month. For Abu Sadiq is one of Najaf's 80 ambulancemen who risk their lives every day to bring the injured and dying to al-Hkeem hospital, the only one of the three main hospitals in the city functioning for civilians.

At 39, Abu Sadiq has been an ambulanceman for 15 years; but this is the first time he has been caught up in a conflict in which both sides regard him as an enemy. "The Mehdi Army call me a traitor and say I'm with the police; the police say I'm with the Mehdi Army," he explained.

Three ambulancemen have been killed since the present battle began three weeks ago - one by a mortar attack on the room at the hospital the drivers and paramedics use between calls. Thirteen of the city's 32 ambulances have been destroyed.

An ambulance at the depot is riddled with bullets; blood is splashed on the inside of the doors; the windscreen is smashed and a tyre is flat. This ambulance, it turned out, was commandeered by the police and the two officers in the front were shot dead by Mehdi insurgents.

According to Abu Sadiq, the event made the Mehdi Army more suspicious of bona fide ambulances. Police regularly check ambulances for Mehdi weapons but, he says, they also used another ambulance themselves to transport weapons. How does he react to this? "It is a kind of oppression. They are using us," said Abu Sadiq, who like many on the front line of this treacherous battle prefers to give a familiar name rather than his real one.

Najaf police deny they use ambulances to carry weapons and accuse the Medhis of doing so. Whatever the truth, Abu Sadiq knows all about the latter charge. About 12 days ago, as he was returning to the hospital, he was stopped by police who were suspicious because his delivery had been close to Mehdi positions.

He claims he was hit around his right ear with rifle butts and left unconscious on the street where he was found by a taxi driver. So why, after all this, has he come back to work? He admits his family say, "Your life is in danger. You should stay at home and Allah will help us to have a living". But he adds: "My job is a humanitarian one. I do it for the sake of Allah. I would pick up injured Americans, injured Mehdi Army people, IPs [Iraqi policemen], anyone. That's my job."

Would he not be better off working for the police for up to five times the salary? "No, because we are serving the people more than the police. My job is a more humanitarian job than theirs."

And yet for all the risks, Abu Sadiq and his colleagues are taking, they know they are saving only a fraction of the injured. Ambulances cannot usually penetrate the area around the Imam Ali shrine, at the heart of the fighting.

Last Friday, hospital officials said that only five of the estimated 77 people killed in a bombing raid the previous night were brought to the hospital.

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