November 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Ali Abbas still has a thing or two to learn about the whole fame game. “The problem is that I get lots of kisses,” he says, slightly embarrassed. “I don’t like the kisses.” Ah, but someday, young man, someday…

That Abbas, 13, is even alive today is already something of a miracle. Last March 30, during the opening days of the war in Iraq, two American missiles slammed into his family’s home in a village near Baghdad, killing his mother, his father, his brother and 13 other members of his family. Abbas’s own wounds were devastating. Both arms were so badly mangled they had to be amputated, and third-degree burns covered at least 35 percent of his body. With only the care and medications then available at Baghdad’s ravaged hospitals, Abbas would surely not have made it without an extraordinary rescue effort. “He was dying and rotting before my eyes,” says his uncle, carpenter Mohammed Abd Hamzah, 37.

But a Reuters news photographer snapped a picture of him and brought his story to the West, where Abbas’s disfigured body became an emblem of the war’s human toll. In Britain donations poured into newspapers from a public that demanded action. With a push from Prime Minister Tony Blair, Abbas was airlifted to a modern hospital in Kuwait, where doctors performed skin grafts—and, for the first time in 18 days since the bombing, gave him painkillers to dull the agony caused by the burns. “When he was brought to Kuwait, the flashbulbs were popping,” says Dr. Ahmed al-Shatti, a Kuwaiti Health Ministry official who has been monitoring his care.

Now living as a guest of Britain’s Limbless Association in a suburb of London—where he shares a house with his uncle Mohammed, his new friend Ahmad, 15, who lost a leg and a hand during the same bombing raid, and Ahmad’s father—Abbas continues to recover. In early September doctors at Queen Mary’s Hospital fitted a high-tech artificial limb to the remaining stump of his right arm. Using muscle contractions to activate circuitry within the electronic arm, he can now grasp a ball and is learning to dress himself (see box, above right). “When I finally got to put my arms on, Ahmad peeled an orange and I used my artificial arm to eat it,” Abbas recalls. “I was so happy!” Abbas has a cosmetic arm for his left side, where the muscle damage was worse, and doctors hope to replace it soon with an electronic model. In the meantime Abbas, who is learning English at a private school in Wimbledon, has already mastered using his feet to feed himself, to paint pictures and to operate his Playstation.

Before the bombing he led a typical life in Iraq, going to school and playing soccer in the village of Arab Al-Khrsa. On the night the missiles hit his two-room house, he was sleeping near his father, Ismaeel, a farmer, his mother, Azhar, who was six months pregnant, and a 10-year-old brother named Abbas. “I thought I was going to die too,” Abbas says.

The loss of his parents as well as months of painful burn treatments sent the young victim into depression. But he has begun to recover, helped along in part by an October meeting with Christopher Reeve at an award ceremony in Germany. “When I saw Superman,” he says, “I thought, ‘At least I have two legs and can breathe by myself.’ He really has a challenge to face.” The upbeat outlook is no surprise to those closest to Abbas, who wanted to be a soldier before the war and now wants to work as an Arabic interpreter. “He has a great spirit,” says his physical therapist Nafisah Kamal, 37. And a face so famous in England that people recognize him on his way to school. “I would rather not have fame. I would rather be normal and nobody,” he says through a translator. Then, switching to English, his face breaks into a big smile. “I am very happy,” he says.

BOB MEADOWS

Juliet Butler in London

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