Health & environmental catastrophe in Iraq:  what could be done?


The March 3rd meeting organised by “Solidarity for Independent Unified Iraq was shown Professor Günther’s film, “Deadly Desert Dust”, of his extensive investigations of the contamination and effects of Depleted Uranium. The ruthlessly cut 1½ hour film showed evidence of very high radiation readings, children playing in contaminated wrecked tanks, patients suffering incurable and unusual cancers, and evidence of discharged DU munitions in Baghdad buildings.  Professor Günther gave evidence to the Lloyd enquiry and helped a British serviceman get recognition for his disability due to DU dust inhalation; this was a first, although general acceptance of the connection between DU radiation poisoning and illness is still not in prospect. Chromosome damage causes birth defects for generations and experience from 1991 suggests an epidemic due now.

Marion Birch of MEDACT used the recent report, “rehabilitation under fire”, to highlight inadequate medical facilities in Iraq, and explain some of the causes. It is clear that the occupiers didn’t honour Geneva Conventions, they commandeered health services for military use, damaged essential infrastructure, created havoc, discharged key administration staff for membership of the Ba’ath party (whatever their motives for membership), failed to help provide a secure environment for health workers, looked on whilst vandalism and looting took hold, and were largely responsible for the greatest exodus of health professionals ever seen.

Basic supplies of medical equipment were lacking after years of sanctions but there was no concern about resupplying Iraq. The Author of “War crime or just war?, Nicholas Wood, showed us how inexpensive, and easy  to obtain, basic medical equipment is. He said Hilary Benn wrote that provision of medical supplies was the job of the Iraqi government. Nicholas appealed for scanners to enable mothers to terminate pregnancies of malformed foetuses. 

Much money has been spent on a variety of infrastructure contracts like hospitals but it has often gone to expensive contractors like Bechtel, or contracts have been left uncompleted or shoddily executed, or all three. Health services are declining as need increases so that many Iraqis are untreated or inadequately treated. There is a crisis in mental health but treatment is almost non-existent. Iraqi infant mortality now ranks with the world’s poorest. There is little chance of treating the severe cancers and other conditions caused by exposure to DU radiation. Instability makes Iraq the most dangerous place for NGOs yet demand is greater than ever. Even health ministers don’t hang around. The US imposition of neo-liberal doctrine, market forces and private contracts makes things worse. As in other fields of activity, the US administration is deaf to advice from organisations like WHO, and doesn’t engage with users, staff, or managers.

An irony of the 2003 war is that it was supposed to rid the area of the threat of weapons-of-mass-destruction. Lubna Samara, of Arab Media Watch, reported on the use of indiscriminate weapons /WMDs in the wider Middle East, for which Israel is notorious - most recently the extensive use of cluster weapons in the last hours of the Lebanon conflict whilst a truce was being negotiated. Of the four million scattered in Lebanon an estimated 40% remained unexploded. Incidents date back to the 1948 use of chemical and biological weapons including typhus, the use of unidentified chemical and biological weapons in the West Bank, white phosphorous in Lebanon in 1982, and DU in Lebanon and Egypt. The Amsterdam plane crash caused illnesses locally and it transpired that the cargo included Sarin ingredients. Israeli arsenals of WMDs include nuclear capability probably equivalent to that of France. The USA used white phosphorous, cluster munitions, and DU (and possibly some modified napalm) in Iraq in 2003 and subsequently. Yet Iraq which had none was attacked.

Nicholas Wood is campaigning to treat known deposits of DU dust in Iraq with crude oil to bind it and limit erosion. DU dust is blowing around during storms and spreading contamination.

Jonathan Steele explained his involvement with campaigns since the sanctions years - recently Iraq Occupation Focus, Hands Off Iraqi Oil, and Justice For Iraq, which is organising an event in June. He reports that replying to complaints, David Miliband said he was disinterested in the last five years and was focused on the next five – will occupation continue that long? 

The meeting expressed anger and dismay. Grown men cried and there was a call for further meetings and publicity of their cause. It made me consider how I would feel were my country brought to its knees after invasion by an unsympathetic foreign power.

At the meeting I met Faruq Ziada, who held a senior post in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry for many years including during  the period of sanctions.  As a non-Ba’ath-party member under Saddam his career was impeded, but after the 2003 invasion he was invited to assist the Coalition Authority. He remained in Baghdad until a few months ago when he fled to Jordan. He now lives with relatives in Surbiton and I met up with him a few days later for a further discussion.

He told me that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfovitz and others were behind a report in the 1990s, (supported by the Israeli lobby), advocating Iraq dismemberment by splitting the Shia, Sunni, and Kurd populations, thus reducing its power and influence. When the 2003 invasion was approved, post-invasion planning was suddenly snatched from Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and passed to Donald Rumsfeld and a team of novices at the Pentagon who disdained knowledgeable sources. Shortage of personnel made policing and security impossible; there wasn’t a plan to ensure continuity of administration and most key Iraqi civil servants were Ba’ath party members who were summarily discharged. A group of US administrators primed to take control of vital services and ministries were kept out for 6 weeks or so whilst law and order deteriorated sharply and ministry buildings were looted and vandalised. Iraqis wanted change but were unhappy about invasion. As a one-party state there was no political structure once the Ba’ath party was eliminated.

Faruq insists US administrators, from Paul Bremer down, were disinterested in advice from those formerly in charge in Iraq, and many of the US decisions helped create the chaos which ensued. He believes this was not accidental. Iraq was a secular society not divided by ethnicity or religion. Inter-marriage was common, and many were unaware of their neighbour’s affiliations. When Saddam was deposed there were spontaneous demonstrations showing support for a new liberated democratic secular Iraq. Ethnic clashes came later, with the main attacks directed at the discredited occupiers. One of the first acts of the US administration was to classify everyone according to religion and ethnicity. They disregarded accepted figures (believed to be Sunni 65%, including the Kurds who are under 15%), proclaiming that Shi’as are the majority and Kurds 20% of Iraq, and decreed that seats in the government be allocated according to their figures, despite voting returns contradicting this. Faruq argued the case in vain and worries that to redress the situation will cause further ethnic tension. He is concerned that despite ‘democratic elections’ the Americans are pulling the strings. He says standards in public life are not high, many are undeservingly in positions of power and influence, and many lack education, qualification, and experience. Many of the more able and qualified people have fled or been assassinated. I likened this to the US covert operation in Vietnam, as part of ‘Operation Phoenix’, to assassinate vocal educated people who could be a focus for discontent about US action. Covert activity in Iraq is codenamed ‘Operation Gray Fox”, but it isn’t clear what the agents are up to. Faruq is suspicious about attacks on Mosques and other atrocities which have contributed to sectarian distrust.

The ‘troop surge’ coincides with a lull in violence but doesn’t deserve full credit. The lull is partly due to troop numbers, but partly because barricades now separate ethnically cleansed and segregated areas, and partly because Saderists agreed a six-month truce. Faruq thinks the lull is temporary with problems in store. The Americans, who are universally disliked and distrusted, should go quickly - Iraqis will meet the challenge to sort out the mess the US has created.

Noel Hamel