AS one of the most badly injured casualties of the 2003 Iraq war, few believed Ali Abbas would survive to celebrate his next birthday.
But today the handsome 21-year-old poses proudly in the sharp new suit in which he will MARRY.
He says: “I suppose you could say I’ve been on a long journey but boarding the flight home to Baghdad tomorrow to prepare for my wedding will be one of the biggest steps I’ve ever taken.
“I’m nervous but excited at the same time. There were moments when I thought that getting married was something that would never happen to me.”
Ali still remembers the terrifying moment that changed his life. He said: “The ceiling and the wall fell on us and the fire was all over the house. I could hear my family screaming and felt fire on my body.”
A taxi driver neighbour eventually plucked Ali from the burning rubble.
His tragic plight touched millions of people around the world and when medics in Iraq put out an appeal, he was airlifted to Kuwait for life-saving surgery.
Ali was eventually flown to Britain later that year where he was fitted with two artificial arms by specialists at Queen Mary Hospital in London.
He passed a UK citizenship test and formally became a British citizen in June 2010.
Despite learning to call Britain “home”, Ali has made annual trips back to Iraq to be reunited with his surviving sister and members of his extended family.
Ali recalls: “I remember Ankam as a child because she is the daughter of a distant relative called Mohammed who was the first person to care for me both in the Kuwaiti hospital and later when I was flown to Britain. For a long time my injuries meant that I never even thought about getting married or finding a lady who would love me, but then a visit home in 2010 changed everything.
“Ankam is friends with my 18-year-old sister Hedel and came to our family compound with her.
“My sister joked with her, ‘Ali is single. Perhaps you can marry him!’ Apparently she said immediately, ‘I wouldn’t mind that at all’.
“I was too shy to speak to her directly so I asked Ankam’s mother for permission to talk to her privately about the possibility of dating and getting engaged.
“Two days later her family called back to give me their blessing so we got to know one another over two months that summer and decided we wanted to be together. I was frank with her and told her, ‘I am disabled — you have to be aware of that and be sure that you can accept it’. She simply told me, ‘I accept everything’.”
Ali and Ankam, 18, got engaged last summer and took part in a ceremony that included a blessing from the Koran by an imam.
Ali explains: “In Iraq we throw an engagement party designed to show the couple off in front of their families.
“It was very emotional for me because I thought of my parents a lot.
“My mum used to tell me how she would dance with joy when I got married. I wish so much that she could meet Ankam and be there on my wedding day. Ankam arrived wearing a beautiful blue dress and looked incredible. She has a great sense of humour and is a really kind person.
Ali, a fanatical Manchester United supporter, will be reunited with Ankam in Baghdad next week to plan their wedding ceremony.
They will later apply for a visa that will allow Ankam to accompany Ali back to Britain.
“I need to go on with my life and that is very much in Britain. I have lots of friends here and I have become part of British society. Both Ankam and I dream of having children and it is where we would like to raise them. Britain has been very kind to me and I would like my kids to experience that culture.”
Ali’s severe disability means he still needs the help of a carer to wash and dress, although he has become adept at using his feet to write, draw and use a computer.
He says: “I’ve had prosthetic limbs fitted but I find them difficult and uncomfortable to use.
“I try to do my best and I’m always working towards being more independent. But there are still some tasks that I find very hard and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wish I had my arms back.
“But I just have to accept the reality of these things and get on with life.”
And he is adamant he will not allow his lack of mobility to affect his marriage, adding wryly: “If people ask, ‘How will you hug your wife?’ I will answer, ‘It doesn’t matter because I am a good kisser’.”
Meanwhile, in a wonderful twist to the latest chapter in Ali’s story, his closest friend Ahmed Farhan will perform best man duties at his wedding.
Ahmed, now 23, was also badly injured by a separate missile strike in the 2003 conflict, losing an arm and a leg. The two boys, who were previously strangers, found themselves fighting for life in the same Kuwaiti hospital and formed a deep friendship after both were brought to Britain by a charity for amputees.
Ahmed, who is also hoping to marry his Iraqi fiancée on the forthcoming trip to Iraq, has selflessly devoted much of the past nine years to caring for his friend at their small home in south west London.
Ali says: “Ahmed and I are more than brothers. We have both been through almost exactly the same experience.
“He has been there for me every step of the way as my friend and my carer. I trust him implicitly.
“We do everything together so we might as well get married together.”