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The Hapless Iraqis- victims of a heinous crime
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

February 24, earlier this year, marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War that ‘liberated’ Kuwait from the brief Iraqi occupation, but shackled the hapless Iraqis in the fetters of a most oppressive regime of sanctions the world has ever known. Ten years on, there is no end in sight yet to what former President Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, boasted to be history's most stringent sanctions.

The outside world has little inkling of what the UN imposed stifling embargo means to the 23 million people of Iraq. The agony of the Gulf War was short-lived; even then it exacted a toll of nearly a quarter million Iraqi lives. More than 50 thousand Iraqi soldiers and civilians-those fleeing from Kuwait on that fateful day ten years ago---were mercilessly butchered by the American helicopter gun-ships and missiles fired from the air on the killing fields of Mitla Ridge, in what the American field commanders merrily described as a ‘Turkey Shoot’. This writer saw the tell-tale signs of that slaughter a few months after the war, and couldn't help shedding a tear on that senseless massacre. There were no weapons there but thousands of objects of everyday use that civilians carry as personal possessions and mementoes still littered a vast area of the erstwhile ‘shooting range’.

However, ten years of wrenching sanctions have since wreaked a far greater havoc on the poor Iraqis. Even by most conservative estimates, shared by UN agencies active in Iraq, more than 1.5 million Iraqis, including nearly a million children under the age of five and most vulnerable to the banal sanctions, have so far perished in the ten years since Iraq was thrown into the dungeons of history's most heinous collective punishment on a people. The saga of death is yet unending for the Iraqis; there is no light for them at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel. The first act of the new Bush administration since stepping into office-and picking up the thread of the Senior Bush administration of a decade ago-has been the release of $ 8 million in preliminary assistance to the ragtag ‘Iraqi opposition’ ensconced in US and Britain, and made up largely of criminals and shady anti-Saddam factions. This is part of a special fund of $ 100 million sanctioned by Congress during the Clinton era but which the latter never deemed fit to utilize. The new President, refreshing the legacy of his father, has not lost much time in helping himself to Congress's largesse. He had also no compunction in ordering fresh air-strikes within days of taking up his office, north of the illegal ‘no-fly zone’, in the outskirts of Baghdad because the allied aircraft were, allegedly, ‘threatened’ by Iraqi radar.

By sheer coincidence, with the impending 10th anniversary of the anti-Iraq sanctions, the western world was served a timely reminder of what these biting sanctions have meant to the hapless Iraqis. The western memory was jogged by the deaths of several veterans of the 1999 Balkan war against Yugoslavia in Italy, Portugal and Spain from what is strongly suspected to be the ‘Gulf Syndrome’. The three European governments were quickly rattled into action and ordered special enquiries into the after-effects of the deadly Depleted Uranium (DU) on the health of those exposed to it. Nato, under whose umbrella the Europeans and the Americans had gone to war against Yugoslavia in Kosovo, reluctantly accepted that nearly 9000 DU-tipped shells were used against the enemy in the Balkan theatre. DU is said to be highly effective, when used at the tip of a shell, in penetrating thick armour of battle tanks, as also heavy concrete used in the building of bunkers and aircraft pens. However, DU is also a lethal agent with an infinite life cycle; some scientists believe it is as long as 430 million years.

Now that the chickens are coming home to roost and a handful of their soldiers have succumbed to the deadly after-effects of DU, the European states are up in arms against its use in the weapons of war. Human rights groups, veterans associations, writers, academics, journalists et al , on both ends of the Atlantic, are joining a rising chorus of condemnation against the use of an agent strongly suspected to be the cause of very serious ailments, such as leukemia, skin cancers, neurological disorders, deformities of birth etc. etc. The chorus of condemnation is reaching a crescendo, notwithstanding persistent disclaimers and denials from Nato, and US and British governments that DU is the cause of these medical problems. That both these allies have been less than forthcoming on the issue is an open secret. As far back as 1993, the Surgeon-General of US Army had reached the conclusion, in a confidential report which was also passed on to the British Government, that DU was strongly suspected to be the cause of serious medical problems amongst the war veterans.

In all this increasing ballyhoo, there is not a word being said about the plight and suffering of a much larger body of people who were mercilessly exposed to the lethal after-effects of DU a decade ago in the Gulf War. The allies-American and British troops-used a much larger quantity of DU-tipped shells against Iraq during the Gulf War operations. The exact number of such shells lobbed with total impunity in southern Iraq has never been disclosed but is estimated, by the western sources themselves, to be many times higher than the numbers used against Yugoslavia in 1999. Millions of Iraqis, wedged in the fertile plains around Basra and the Shatt-ul-Arab region, were blatantly exposed to the deadly effects of these shells and have continued to suffer from their lethal fallout ever since. Their unmitigated suffering, compounded by the banal 10-year old global sanctions against Iraq, has never been adequately chronicled, or reported , to possibly stir the collective conscience of the world.

Southern Iraq has always been an area of high density population because of its rich agriculture and its world-famous date-palm orchards where the finest dates in the world have been grown for millennia. It was here that the western allies unleashed their blind vengeance against Iraq with a brutal fury during the Gulf war. The area was first pummelled mercilessly from the air-for seven long weeks---in the most intensive bombardment in the history of military conflict since World War II. It was then subjected to hundreds of thousands of DU-tipped shells, which not only slaughtered soldiers and civilians alike but their residues also seeped into the soil and underground water table. The stage was thus set for the untold suffering and abject misery of the people of that unfortunate land area.

This writer lived and worked in Iraq not too long ago, from November 1996 until March,1999, and witnessed in several visits to that area the horrendous after-effects of the lethal material used against its people with absolutely no regard for their safety, health and welfare. Incidents of blood cancer( Leukemia), and various manifestations of skin cancer, have increased in southern Iraq 12 times higher than in other parts of Iraq. BBC recently showed a 3-minute report sent from the region by one of its correspondent , and highlighted in particular the case of a 14-year old boy (who couldn't be more than 4 at the time of the Gulf War) who continually oozes blood from festering wounds and must be given a daily blood injection of up to 10 pints. Badly mangled and deformed Iraqi war veterans, who inhaled the deadly fumes from DU exploded shells on the battlefield can still make you sick in the overcrowded wards of hospitals in and around Basra.

I saw, with my own eyes, terribly deformed babies born to hundreds of mothers in that scarred region due to the lingering after-effects of DU. Those miserable souls have no way to escape the blight and scourge of this demonic agent, just as the Vietnamese have not, to date, been able to recover from the lethal fallout of ‘Agent Orange’ used against them during the Vietnam war of the mid 60s and early 70s. A Canadian team of scientists and researchers is still working in Vietnam to fully comprehend the deadly extent of that chemical used to defoliate the verdant jungles of Vietnam. No such study has yet been commissioned for Iraq despite repeated demands from the Iraqi government for an independent enquiry into the after-effects of DU on the land and people of Iraq. This call has ,once again, been renewed by Baghdad in the wake of the recent alarm raised in various European capitals. It remains to be seen how the UN, to whom Baghdad's appeal has been primarily addressed, discharges its responsibility in the matter.

How massive is the suffering of the Iraqis may be gleaned from one episode to which this writer was, again, a witness. In the Fall of 1998, the Iraqi government had organized an international seminar at Baghdad's plush Rasheed Hotel on the deadly effects of DU. Delegates came from around the world, including some Gulf War veterans from US and Britain. Amongst them was an American nurse who had served for a few days in a field hospital of the US Army in southern Iraq during the war. She spoke of a variety of serious diseases which had been consuming her, including blood cancer, since her exposure to the lethal agent, DU. But she brought nearly everyone to tears in the huge conference hall when she produced, from her vanity bag, a baby diaper that she said she was forced to wear all the time because her bladder had been so perforated that she could not hold her urine. Hers was one solitary example; think of millions of Iraqis who have much more horrendous and galling tales to narrate but have no access to the global news media to air their own heart-rending suffering over the past ten horrible years.

The world may be wearying of the sanctions against Iraq, and some of the barriers are indeed coming down or being flouted, but there is precious little awareness abroad of the enormity and gravity of the Iraqi suffering. How many in the Islamic world , for instance, know that half of the Iraqi children under 5 are chronically malnourished? How many of us are aware that the Iraqi students are being denied access to something as basic and rudimentary as a lead pencil, because the American and British monitors on the Sanctions Committee in New York think that the graphite in a lead pencil can be extracted for use in weapons ? Is there any perception amongst us that the Americans are still single-mindedly pursuing, ten years since the end of the Gulf War, James Baker's threat to bomb Iraq ‘back into the stone age’? Do we know that more bombs have been dropped against Iraq than was the case in the Vietnam War? This is despite our daily chest-thumping that we are spiritually one ‘ Muslim Ummah’. Could there be a more deserving cause for our Islamic sensitivity to be rattled into action than the suffering of 23 million Iraqis groaning under wrenching sanctions which have long since lost all relevance and justification? Our paralysis in this human tragedy of epic proportions is as regrettable as the general apathy of the international community to live up to its humanitarian obligations.

The Iraqis, after all, are as much a part of our global community of mankind as any other people. They are not the children of a lesser-God and ought not , therefore, be shunned as pariahs. No other people, in recorded history, have paid such a heavy price for the wrong-doings of so few of their leaders. How much longer must they be punished? It may be all right for Madeleine Albright to exact a price as awesome as the lives of more than a million Iraqis for the ‘crimes’ of their leadership; is it also all right for us in the Islamic world ? Let the Ummah stand up and answer.

The author was Pakistan's ambassador to Kuwait, from 1991 to 1996; and to Iraq, from 1996 to 1999. q

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