An Iraqi man with an amputated leg speaks with US soldiers on a foot patrol in Mosul. The health ministry has just 21 rehabilitation centres and 12 prosthetics workshops and cannot open more because it lacks doctors and technicians. Image Credit: Reuters

Baghdad: Amputee Hamza Hameed is a living reminder of the US "shock and awe" bombardment during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, one of up to three million Iraqis disabled after years of war, sanctions and economic deprivation.

He lost his right leg, amputated just below the hip, and the index finger on his left hand when he was wounded in a marketplace during what he says was a nearby US bombing run.

Left on his own to cope with a life-changing injury, and deprived of his only hobby, football, Hameed sank into a depression that left him confined to his bedroom for a year, until one day he jumped into a river to rescue his brother.

He is now a swimmer on Iraq's national Paralympic team, but still lives with his wife and four children in a single room in his parents' house and cannot get a useable artificial limb.

"My friends called me comedian Hamza, who nothing could affect, even his disability," Hameed, a younger-looking 40-year- old, said as he sat on a sofa, holding his crutches, at al-Rafidain Association for Disabled Iraqis. Violence in Iraq has ebbed. But the wounded are a constant reminder of fighting that the Iraq Body Count project says killed 100,000 Iraqis since the invasion.

Iraq's health ministry said it has no specific figures but it estimates the number of physically and mentally disabled people at between 2 million and 3 million.

US-based Mercy Corps considers 2 million conservative. It said a 1977 census put the disabled population at that time at 9 per cent of Iraq's 12 million people, or about 1 million. The government now estimates the population at 30 million. "If you take into account that Iraq has been at war since 1977, the Iran-Iraq war, the American bombings, sanctions, all of which have contributed to more people becoming disabled, 2.7 million or 10 percent of the population is a conservative estimate," Mercy Corps spokeswoman Tiana Tozer said.

The government says it cannot cope. The health ministry has just 21 rehabilitation centres and 12 prosthetics workshops and cannot open more because it lacks doctors and technicians. Only a quarter of amputees who need artificial limbs get them because the raw materials are not available, it said. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs gives disabled people about 50,000 Iraqi dinar (Dh146) a month.

"To be clear, we are not doing what is required from us ... but eventually, God willing, we will reach a high percentage of what is required," deputy health minister Khamis Al Sa'ad said.

Hameed depends mainly on crutches because the artificial limb he got from a government workshop was uncomfortable. When he sought a private manufacturer to make him a better prosthetic leg, they wanted $5,000 (Dh18,350), so he scrapped the idea. Hameed had almost given up on life when he saw his brother, who was swimming in a river in his home town of Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, begin to struggle in the water. Hameed, who was sitting on the bank, did not know what to do because he could not swim.

"I decided to jump in and try to save my brother even if I drowned myself, because I am already dead," he said.

That first swim eventually led him to the Iraqi Paralympic team and he has won medals at international tournaments.

Will the long-term impact of war ever be accounted for? Should a bigger budget be allocated by the US to help those who suffered physical damages due to the Iraq War?