'Why do they hate us?'
Unspeakable devastation, unthinkable human loss: this is what Iraq has suffered -- and continues to suffer -- under occupation that poses as liberation, writes Felicity Arbuthnot*
Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?
-- Axel, Count Oxenstierna, letter to his son, 1648
Seven years ago today, I wrote: "It feels as if I have a memory of every building that falls, crushed and broken to the ground. My pain could never be the same as it is for those who are losing those they love, limbs, homes, history and all that is familiar to them in Mesopotamia, the 'land between two rivers' (the great, biblical Tigris and Euphrates) the 'cradle of civilisation'. It is only a second-best pain, but it surely feels like the real thing."
I had just returned from Iraq. In Iraq and across the globe, certainty was that another bombardment of enormity and invasion was inevitable and could be unleashed any hour. Over numerous visits to the country since the first onslaught in 1991 -- as the US/UK driven embargo squeezed ever tighter, sucking life's normalities and life itself from an entire nation -- I wondered each time if I would be again welcomed. I always was, with warmth, generosity of spirit and spontaneity utterly humbling to someone living in a country responsible for vetoing everything from cancer treatments, Ventolin inhaler for asthma (as pollution rates overtook Mexico City, due to the vetoing of spare parts for cars), insulin, medical syringes, surgical instruments, even ping pong balls, paper and children's toys.
Mind-numbingly, a consignment of several tons of shroud cloth fell foul of the Sanctions Committee. Even in death, a being could not escape the embargo.
In February 2003, I was welcomed again, unreservedly. Susan, who had the franchise for the little shop in the Palestine Hotel, along with everyone else, beamed, hugged and said: "Welcome home" and showered me with sweets. As a child, she was one of the eight survivors of the Ameriyah Shelter bombing. Her parents, brothers and sisters were incinerated.
It was dark, street lights were off (spare parts vetoed) but the need to feel Baghdad again -- the sounds, the smells -- overwhelmed. Anyway, money needed changing, and a visit to an old friend who ran a liquor store, to later indulge in a glass of inimitable Iraqi arak with friends. (Manufactured by the Iraqi Chemical Company, overindulge and the following day you knew you had finally discovered Iraq's most lethal chemical weapon.)
Unhesitating, I set off, navigating by the oil lamps, or generated light, from shops and homes, in familiar Saadun Street. In the money exchange ("Welcome, Madam Felicity, welcome, welcome again in Baghdad...") I changed $50 for Iraq's collapsed dinars, about 2,300ID to the dollar (1989 $3 to 1ID). Great wads were piled up for each $5. Worthless anywhere else, but a fortune for most Iraqis. I walked back, carrying, not concealing, the tell tale black plastic bags the exchanges used -- as did most people -- with little concern. Now, one would be lucky to make it beyond the door. On the way I bought the arak -- more beams, more welcomes -- more sweets, with tiny glasses of minted tea. These gracious people are now: "camel jockeys", "rag heads", "sand niggers," or worse.
Contrasting the safety of Iraq just before the invasion and now are different worlds. Last year, on the sixth commemoration of the occupation, Souad Al-Azzawi, an associate professor at Baghdad University who has lost her husband, 22 relatives, 50 friends and suffered 15 abductions of "close relatives and people I know and love", to America and Britain's invaders or imported or generated criminality, wrote, of the "New Iraq":
- 72 months of destruction.
- $607 billion spent on the war.
- Two million barrels of oil being sold per day.
- Two million displaced Iraqis inside Iraq.
- Three million Iraqis forced to leave the country.
- 2,615 professors, scientists, and doctors killed in cold blood.
- 338 dead journalists.
- $13 billion misplaced by the current Iraqi government.
- $400 billion required to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure.
- Three hours average of electricity daily.
- 24 car bombs per month.
- Seven major mafias running the country.
- 4,260 Americans dead.
- 10,000 cases of cholera per year.
- At least 1.3 million Iraqis dead since 2003.
Al-Azzawi wrote of the deliberate targeting of civilians and the uncounted additional casualties among children resultant from "unexploded ordinance along military engagement routes". Further: "The direct killing and abuse of children during American troop raids on civilian areas like Falluja, Haditha, Mahmodia, Tel Afar, Anbar, Mosul, and most of the other Iraqi cities. The massacre of Haditha children in 2005 is a good example of 'collateral damage' among civilians."
This year, she writes of collective punishment, of whole cities being starved "by blocking the delivery of food, aid and sustenance" and then being raided, children especially tormented and deprived. Also of "Microbial pollution and lack of sanitation [plus] drinking water shortages for up to 70 per cent of the population caused the death of 'one in eight Iraqi children' before their fifth birthday. [Iraq's child mortality] has been attributed to water borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, etc." (Until the embargo, cholera and typhoid has been virtually eradicated. Since the invasion, and with the total neglect of infrastructure, they have become endemic.)
Further: "exposing other heavily populated cities to chemically toxic and radioactive ammunitions, cluster bombs, napalm, white phosphorous, and depleted uranium [have drastically increased] cancers, deformations in children, multiple malignancies and child leukaemia. Children in areas like Basra, Baghdad, Nasriya, Samawa, Falluja, Diwanya and other cities have... multi-fold increases of such diseases. Over 24 per cent of all children born in Falluja in October 2009 had birth defects. The minister of environment in Iraq called upon the international community to help Iraqi authorities in facing the huge increase of cancer cases in Iraq."
Further: "The deterioration of the health system and assassination of doctors have resulted in an increased [mortality] amongst children." In the death toll of up to over a million between 2003 and 2007, the collapse of the health system "is specified as one of the major causes".
In addition: "By 2004, it was estimated that two out of every three Iraqi children were dropping out of school... Prior to the US invasion, UNESCO indicated that school attendance was nearly 100 per cent. Assassination of educators and academics... drove their colleagues to [flee]." There is a "cultural cleansing of Iraqi society and identity". Contrasting the safety of Iraq pre- invasion to the hell of "liberation" is to recall another land.
In stark contrast, Professor Martin Yapp points out in The Near East since the First World War that after Iraq took the petroleum industry into state control in 1972, "the main emphasis was on social and economic development... health, housing and especially education." UN statistics showed that "by 1990, 87 per cent of Iraqis had clean water, 93 per cent had access to [free] healthcare... by 1980 virtually 100 per cent of children attended elementary school... adult literacy had risen from 15 per cent in 1958 to 90 per cent in 1990. The education of women was particularly advanced..."
The revolution was "secular" and "social reforms should be based on what were regarded as universal principles of human development." In seven years, Iraq has been reversed to a failed state and what, were it not US implemented, would be called a barbaric one.
Gideon Polya, author of the meticulously researched Body Count: Global avoidable mortality since 1950, calls Iraq's mortality between the imposition of the embargo in August 1990, the invasion and this woeful time of reflection "an Iraqi Holocaust... an Iraqi Genocide." He has written a letter to the media worldwide:
"It is the 7th anniversary of the illegal and war criminal invasion of Iraq by US, UK and Australian forces on 20 March 2003. What has been the human cost?
"As of 20 March 2010 post-invasion violent deaths in occupied Iraq total 1.4 million (according to the eminent US Just Foreign Policy).
"Post-invasion under-five infant deaths total 0.8 million and post-invasion non-violent excess deaths (avoidable deaths, deaths that did not have to happen) total 1.1 million (based on 2006 revision data from the UN Population Division), this being identical to an independent estimate from under-five infant deaths.
"Gulf War violent deaths totalled 0.2 million and excess deaths and under-five infant deaths under sanctions (1990-2003) totalled 1.7 million and 1.2 million, respectively.
"In the period 1990-2010 Iraqi violent deaths totalled 1.6 million, non-violent excess deaths from deprivation totalled 2.8 million, under-five infant deaths (90 per cent avoidable and due to US Alliance war crimes in gross violation of the Geneva Conventions) totalled 2.0 million and refugees totalled 5-6 million.
"This is an Iraqi Holocaust and an Iraqi Genocide as per Article 2 of the UN Genocide Convention (cf WW2 Jewish Holocaust, 5-6 million killed, 1 in 6 dying from deprivation)."
So seven years on, the world has been brought to statements such as this, by an academic with a five decade long scientific career.
"Why do they hate us?" has been the US administration's bleat, as they see a "terrorist" in every shadow, behind every computer screen and every Arab sounding name.
In all the deprivations of the embargo years, talking to parents who had lost children as a result, burns victims with near-indescribable injuries from routinely exploding lamps used for lighting (parts for reliable ones embargoed) to the widows, the orphans, I never experienced anything but warmth and hospitality, a gratitude that one had come in friendship and to listen, hear, learn. Except once.
On my last afternoon in Baghdad before the invasion, I walked again down Saadun Street. There was a small local barracks amongst the shops and apartments. On my late night walks over the years, I would practice floundering Arabic with the young conscripts who sat outside on watch, in a country on a war footing for over 30 years. They would laugh, correct me, and repeat for me patiently the soft pronunciation that comes from somewhere deep in the throat that most Westerners find so hard. We would laugh together as I failed in the intonation, and they would laugh again and clap as I finally got it right.
That afternoon, newly called up youths, teenagers, were milling around outside, some squatting down in groups under the trees on the sun- dappled pavement, talking. There was no way through. These were Iraq's future, from university graduates to market workers, their childhoods lost to the embargo, their future to fight yet another war, not of Iraq's making, against odds that were a no-brainer.
Normally, in a crowd, an innate courtesy extends and it parts, people smile, one passes, smiles returned. They fell silent, looked at this Western woman, the embodiment of all they were going to endure, or not survive. After all the years, I finally saw cold hate in those young eyes. And I understood absolutely.
Little after dawn the following morning, I went in search of coffee, before the up to 27-hour road journey to Amman and a flight home (flights still 99 per cent vetoed). The music in the restaurant was quietly playing: "I left my heart in San Francisco."
Ironically, along with a number of others who braved a few hazards over the years (US and UK bombings being high on the list) I am one who has been warned by sound sources that if I return to democratic, liberated, free Iraq, I will be killed. Risk taking has been a way of life. Suicide is not an option.
In spite of an estimated 30 million people marching, worldwide, against the invasion -- five million more than Iraq's population at the time -- the illegal carnage went ahead. But as a correspondent wrote in response to my article cited at the top: "Those 30 million who marched for peace throughout the world need not feel it was worthless. Peace will come when all the world's people wake up and march for an end to conflict [and] unrestrained material acquisitiveness."
On this grim, shameful anniversary, all of the same mind should vow to double their efforts.
* The writer is an activist and veteran and award- winning journalist.