Sizing up the damage
A new report on the humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq paints a grim picture, reports Nyier Abdou
Should the US decide to lead a military campaign aimed at removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power, it will not be the Gulf War Part Two. A new report issued by the US-based International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a federation of national medical organisations, concludes that the short- and long-term effects of a new war in Iraq will cause far more military and civilian deaths than the 1990-91 Gulf War, as well as significant health and environmental damage. IPPNW, which operates from Cambridge, Massachusetts, promotes non-violent conflict resolution and was the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
The 12 November report, "Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq", was produced by Medact, the UK affiliate of IPPNW. Rather than posing a best- or worst-case scenario, the report draws on the most likely course of action in Iraq, projecting a significant deployment of US troops and weapons with the goal of regime change.
The report warns at the outset that accuracy was greatly hampered by the quality of data. Jane Salvage, a nurse and London-based international health consultant who authored the report, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there is a shortage of "reliable, valid statistics" on health and social issues because it is obviously advantageous for the Iraqi government to manipulate this data. Also, the technology necessary for good data collection and analysis was simply not possible in the aftermath of the war. Environmental damage is even harder to assess, and accurate military information, such as numbers of dead and wounded, is hard to come by "because governments on all sides have political reasons for being dishonest".
Salvage notes that while it is likely that governments have secretly drawn up estimates of potential damage, "To our knowledge, no one else has attempted to do what we did ... We invite anyone who disagrees with our estimates to come forward and present their case, so it can be openly debated."
Figures totalling the number of Iraqi military casualties and deaths directly attributable to the Gulf War range widely, but the Medact report cites an estimate of 142,500- 206,000 Iraqi deaths. This figure coincides with a top-end figure of 205,000 calculated in a seperate analysis of casualties caused by the war and its aftermath commissioned by the US Census Bureau. Some 400 coalition fighters were killed in action in Iraq, while some 50,000-120,000 Iraqi soldiers died. Another 3,500-15,000 civilians were killed during bombing. The environmental effects caused by the dumping of oil and the destruction of chemical and biological factories, the Medact report says, "was arguably unprecedented".
According to Michael Christ, executive director of IPPNW, the people of Iraq are in a debilitated position, with roads, communications, schools, manufacturing and electricity facilities, water and sewage systems, food production, health care centres and "other critical parts of the social web" all badly damaged by the war. "Death, disease, hunger, disability, and infirmity are rampant in Iraq," Christ told the Weekly. "The Iraqi people are weak and vulnerable, particularly the very young and the elderly, and thus are much less able to withstand the effects of another war."
Medact predicts a total of 48,000-261,000 deaths on all sides in the first three months of conflict. Indirect deaths and long-term adverse health effects would take another 200,000 lives, while civil war or the use of nuclear weapons could easily take the number of deaths up to the millions.
The most obvious point of reference for an attack on Iraq is last year's US-led military campaign in Afghanistan. The Medact report indicates that an attack on Iraq will be far more devastating than Afghanistan, although many of the factors cited as accelerating humanitarian problems in the advent of war, such as long-destroyed infrastructure, impoverished civilians, poor or non-existent health facilities, lack of routes for aid access and the potential for civil war all existed in Afghanistan in October 2001. But IPPNW's Michael Christ notes that the war in Iraq will be a much larger-scale affair. Despite doubts about the preparedness and effectiveness of the 375,000-strong Iraqi army, Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, believed to number between 80,000 and 100,000, is expected to be a significant fighting force. By contrast, Christ notes, "the US met an essentially non-existent national military in Afghanistan."
Jane Salvage agrees that the situation in Afghanistan "has some interesting parallels with Iraq", but points out that the war on Iraq "will not be fought in caves, but in the streets of Baghdad, and perhaps other major cities, following ferocious air attacks. The likely casualties will be at least 10 times the number who died in Afghanistan."
Asked if IPPNW finds it plausible that Iraq has managed to maintain substantial biological weapons supplies, Christ remarks that his organisation, "like the rest of the world, is not in a position to rule on whether Iraq maintains a residual chemical or biological weapons capacity. This is precisely why further weapons inspections are needed."
Salvage suggests that "few really know the answer to this -- and those who know the truth are not telling." Noting that "objective, non-political sources" agree that Iraq seems to have some chemical or biological weapons capabilities, Salvage stresses that Hussein must be encouraged to disarm -- "like many other countries possessing such deadly weapons, including the US and UK". She adds: "We are also puzzled by the flawed logic that says war is necessary to force Iraqi disarmament. If Saddam is that well armed, surely a war will encourage him to unleash his arsenal -- and no one can then predict the consequences, which could easily spiral out of control."
Asked just how realistic the fear of a war in Iraq going nuclear is, Christ warns that the presence of nuclear weapons in the region "represents an extreme risk to human health and security, should war in Iraq spin out of control". Should Hussein still have biological or chemical weapons, says Christ, he may very well use them before falling from power -- an act that could precipitate a nuclear response.
IPPNW is hoping that "Collateral Damage" will help to raise awareness about the human face of war. Christ observes that ordinary Americans, and to a lesser extent the British public, "have little appreciation for the humanitarian consequences of war". During the first Gulf War the US-led coalition dropped 88,500 tons of bombs -- the equivalent of nearly seven Hiroshimas, Christ notes. And despite the lustre of the "smart" bomb, the US Air Force has admitted that as many as 70 per cent of its bombs were off target. "The impact of those bombs gone astray was never seen by the average American."
"Medact believes that war is always too high a price to pay," says Salvage, pointing to the report's recommendations of non-violent alternatives to war that remain to be explored. "There is no guarantee that a war on Iraq would be short and clinical. US and UK leaders are silent on its possible impact and have not commented on -- or challenged -- our estimates. As usual, it will be tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Iraq, and possibly elsewhere, who will suffer."