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Ordinary Iraqis bear brunt of war

Thursday, two car bombs went off in Baghdad. The Monitor looks at a family hit by a bombing 17 months ago.

Little Zeinab Yasseen was still asleep as the third Ramadan of her young life dawned. Like every night, she had drifted off listening to the chatter of the 26 relatives who also shared the house in Baghdad's poor Al Shaab neighborhood.

She awoke to her home collapsing on her. A car bomb exploded in front of the police station down the street, but it brought the roof down on Yasseen and her family. Somehow, everyone survived.

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But 17 months later, Zeinab still can't move her legs. And the family is still recovering - emotionally, financially, and physically - from that instant of devastation.

Each explosion of this kind deepens Iraqis' doubts about the US and Iraqi government's ability to bring order. But whatever each attack costs the this government in credibility, it is ordinary Iraqis who pay the highest price.

Thursday's bombings in Baghdad brought more of the same.

After a steady decline in attacks during the last three months, insurgents launched a string of assaults this week, including coordinated car bombings, a reminder they continue to have the resources and expertise to strike apparently at will. Two car bombs went off a minute and a few hundred yards apart Thursday around 10 a.m. in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah.

US soldiers at the scene said 14 Iraqis were killed and 38 were wounded. Among the dead were a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old, brothers who were working painting the street curb. The series of attacks may signal a return to the levels of attacks seen before the Jan. 30 elections, a pattern predicted by many US military analysts who say history shows that the average insurgency takes about 10 years to put down.

Near the site of the first bomb, the back window of a car was blown out and lay on the ground littered with twisted black metal. A yellow decal on the cracked window read in Arabic: "In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful." The opening line of the first chapter of the Koran was meant to protect the car's owner.

For Zeinab's family, Thursday's attacks stir painful memories. The same October morning in 2003 when Zeinab was injured, four other car bombs ripped across Baghdad, killing some 43 people in one of the best orchestrated attacks up to that point. The day solidified the car bomb as the new weapon of choice in the escalating insurgency.

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And almost a year-and-a-half later, Zeinab's family is still recovering. "The doctor said maybe it will get better," says Ashwaq Muhsin, Zeinab's mother. She has sold her jewelry to put food on the table. "She needs new clothes," adds Mrs. Muhsin. The family - all 27 of them - now live in four 15-foot by 20-foot municipal buildings since their home was destroyed.

Iraqi families like the Yasseens fall between the cracks of the meager state support networks that exist in Iraq. The US military offers compensation, but only for damage or death caused by the military. Victims of car bombings and other violence don't qualify. Most humanitarian organizations fled Iraq when the United Nations headquarters was attacked with a car bomb in August 2003.

Zeinab's sister Nisreen, 4 years old at the time, was uninjured. The day after the blast, she sat in a dirty pink shirt watching the adults pick through the rubble, surrounded by the few things the family had been able to salvage: Coffee pots, rolled-up mattresses, bits of clothing, and cups.

Now Nisreen is an energetic 5-year-old, bounding around the small room that is her house. Her younger sister, Zeinab, is now 4 but looks half that age and seems to have lost the ability to speak, as well as walk, since the explosion, her mother says.

Since the bombing, some of the neighbors have rebuilt their homes, and to everyone's horror, the police station has reopened. They don't see it as a source of security, but rather a fresh target for the insurgents.

The conservative Shiite family calls the people who set off the bomb "terrorists." But they also blame the American forces for not securing the country or giving them help. But most days, politics and religious ideology are far from their minds. Their focus is survival.

The family had hoped before the bomb to raise themselves above the subsistence level by operating a taxi.

"My son worked 10 years in Jordan to collect money for this car," says Jabbar Kathem Hassan, the 80-year-old patriarch of the family while pointing to a crumpled, blackened frame they had planned to use as taxi. "This was all we had and now it's gone."

Zeinab's father points to the room with no heat, electricity or indoor plumbing that opens onto a small, walled-in courtyard. The packed dirt yard serves as bathroom and kitchen, explains Mr. Kathem, a tall, thin man with a deeply lined face. Wet clothes are strung above it. A spigot that is the only water source juts out of the ground near toothbrushes hanging in a faded red basket on the wall.

Some 17 months after the bombing, his son, Hamid Hussein, provides the household's only regular source of income. His teacher's salary was recently doubled to 200,000 dinars a month, about $142. Most of that goes towards their huge hospital debts from that day. "The [extended] family helped us but couldn't pay to treat everyone so some people still have glass in their bodies," says Hamid.

Hamid had squirreled away $1,200 and bought the requisite gold jewelry so he could to marry his fiancée. It was all stolen from the rubble by looters after the blast, he says. His wedding day has been indefinitely postponed.

"I am busy giving my salary to the people who lent us money for operations. Life is expensive," he says, looking down at the floor of his bare cement room. "It's not enough. We only have one meal a day instead of three."

With no outside aid, Kathem knows they must rely on themselves and so he and the other men in the family try to find work as day laborers. Most days they come back empty handed.

"We're waiting for God's help," Kathem says. "I will work doing anything."