Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘Liberating’ Iraqis, limb by limb

Ten years after the invasion, more evidence has been emerging of the US use of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, writes Felicity Arbuthnot

‘Liberating’ Iraqis, limb by limb
‘Liberating’ Iraqis, limb by limb
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Why should we hear about body bags and deaths… I mean, it’s not relevant, so why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” — Former US first lady Barbara Bush, 18 March 2003


In these days of the 10th anniversary of the illegal US-led invasion and near destruction of Iraq, answers are owed not only to the dead, but also to the cancer-stricken, the deformed, their parents, their siblings and all Iraqis. These people were left with a land poisoned by depleted uranium in 1991, the burden building over 12 more years of (illegal) US and UK bombings and then the enormity of 2003.

The victims in the Iraqi city of Fallujah have rightly come under medical and media scrutiny since the US military onslaught of April and November 2004, but throughout Iraq there have been no reports of areas that have been unaffected.

Activist Dahr Jamail writes from Fallujah that “official Iraqi government statistics show that prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991 the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and by 2005 it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing.”

“As shocking as these statistics are, due to a lack of adequate documentation, research and reporting of cases, the actual rate of cancer and other diseases is likely to be much higher than even these figures suggest.” Jamail also mentions the “dramatic jump in miscarriages and premature births… particularly in areas where heavy US military operations occurred,” like in Fallujah.

Jamail cites a study by Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi entitled “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth-Sex Ratios in Fallujah, Iraq, 2005-2009”, in which the authors say that the Fallujah health crisis represented “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”

There were numerous reports during the 2004 April and November-December US assaults on Fallujah of illegal, experimental chemical weapons and napalm being used in the decimation of this city of about 300,000 people, in addition to the use of depleted uranium (DU), three times designated a weapon of mass destruction by UN sub-committees.

After the second assault, Saleh Hussein of the Fallujah General Hospital told the BBC that “about 60 to 70 per cent of the homes and buildings are completely crushed and damaged, and not ready to inhabit… Of the 30 per cent still left standing, I don’t think there is a single one that has not been exposed to some damage.”

Charred bodies and bodies half eaten by stray dogs littered the streets. One resident, Yasser Sattar, said that “this is the crime of the century. Is this the freedom and democracy that they brought to Fallujah?” What happened in Fallujah was a pogrom. But it was by no means the only one.

People leapt into the Euphrates River to put out their burning flesh, which continued to burn in the water. The dead were described as “caramelised” Other bodies were described as melting, or disintegrating, but their clothing staying intact, by doctors who had seen much that was terrible in Iraq in 1991 and since, but that had never seen anything to compare with this.

“All forms of nature were wiped out,” stated the (pro-American) Iraqi health minister, Ismail Al-Shaykhli.

In December 2004 and January 2005, respectively, UK MPs Alice Mahon and Harry Cohen asked questions of the then UK defence minister Adam Ingram about the use of napalm in Fallujah.

Cohen asked “whether Mark 77 [MK 77] firebombs [napalm] have been used by Coalition forces (a) in Iraq and (b) in or near areas in Iraq where civilians lived; whether this weapon is equivalent to napalm; whether the UK and the US has signed the UN convention banning the use of napalm against civilian targets; and if he will make a statement.”

On 11 January 2005, Ingram replied in writing that “the United States have confirmed to us that they have not used Mark 77 firebombs, which are essentially napalm canisters, in Iraq at any time. No other Coalition member has Mark 77 firebombs in their inventory.”

“The United Kingdom is bound under Protocol III to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons [CCW] not to use incendiary weapons [which would include napalm] against military targets located within concentrations of civilians. US policy in relation to international conventions is a matter for the US government, but all of our allies are aware of their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

Ingram sidestepped the question of whether the US had signed the CCW of 1980. The US is a party to the Convention, but it did not sign the relevant Protocol.

Kim Phuc, a Vietnam napalm survivor pictured in an unforgettable photograph of the use of napalm by the US in his country, said that “water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees F). Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius (1,500-2,200 degrees F).”

Ingram’s faith in the US’s awareness of its “obligations under international humanitarian law” and apparently in its truthfulness was misplaced. Napalm was used in Iraq and in Fallujah.

In June 2005, Ingram wrote to Alice Mahon’s successor as MP for West Halifax in the UK, Linda Riordan, that “in December last year your predecessor asked whether napalm or any similar substance had been used by Coalition forces in Iraq either during or since the war. My officials put specific questions to US personnel in Iraq, and based on the assurances they received, I told her that neither had been used. I regret to say that I have since discovered that this is not the case and must now correct the position.”

“The US destroyed its remaining stock of Vietnam-era napalm in 2001, but according to the reports for First Marine Expeditionary Force serving in Iraq in 2003 they used a total of 30 MK 77 weapons in Iraq between 31 March and 2 April 2003, against military targets away from civilian areas.”

“The MK 77 firebomb does not have the same composition as napalm, although it has similar destructive characteristics. The Pentagon has also told us that owing to the limited accuracy of the MK 77, it is not generally used in urban terrain or in areas where civilians are congregated.”

A quick check shows that in fact the MK 77, weighing 750 pounds, “is the direct successor to napalm… the mixture also contains an oxidising agent, making it more difficult to put out once ignited, as well as white phosphorous.”

“Napalm by another name,” commented the Australian Sydney Morning Herald on 9 August 2003. The director of the military studies group Global Security also stated that “you can call it something other than napalm, but it is still napalm. It has been reformulated in the sense that they now use a different petroleum distillate, but that is it. The US is the only country that has used napalm for a long time.”

The US also admits to dropping 500 of these human-incinerating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 1991.

Also used in Fallujah were white phosphorous shells, which a report by the Israeli Defence Force warns “can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed. Because it is very soluble in fat, it quickly penetrates the skin from the surface or from an embedded fragment. Most of the tissue damage is caused by the heat accompanying the continuing oxidation of the phosphorus, and from the product of the oxidation — phosphoric acid. Systematic poisoning can result.” Less than ten per cent burns can be fatal via their impact on the liver, heart and kidneys.

It was Italy’s RAI TV that cut through the Pentagon’s denials as to the weapons used in Fallujah, with interviews carried out not with residents alone, but also with the US military, confirming that “the US used MK77 ordinance and dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus, indiscriminately killing” those coming into contact with it.

US army Captain Eric Krivda of the First Infantry Division’s Task Force 2-2 Tactical Operations Command Centre told RAI that “usually, we keep the gloves on, for this operation, we took the gloves off.”

A check shows that the First Marine Expeditionary Force, whose use of 33 MK77 in three days has been acknowledged (only 33?), was also involved in both assaults on Fallujah, where “the gloves were off.”

Across Iraq, 365 sites have been identified as contaminated with DU. Children play where DU-damaged tanks and vehicles have been dumped, clambering over them, sitting on them, and pretending to drive in them. The scrap metal is collected by dealers and metal workers to be fashioned into wheels, window frames, car parts and numerous utilities, as has been happening since 1991. The number of sites is certainly an underestimate, given the comprehensive blitzkrieg of the country, presented as “liberation”.

US army manuals warn that personnel should not approach, sit in, or even take “trophy” photographs by such damaged vehicles.

Doctors at the Basra Maternity Hospital in southern Iraq recently told the BBC that they had seen a 60 per cent rise in birth defects since 2003, with Mohsen Sabbak saying that they were certain these were due to the munitions used. Basra’s recorded birth defects after 1991 were the stuff of nightmares, even less than nine months after that first attack. Year after year, there have been new and horrific phenomena.

Just five years later, a doctor talked of a “new problem”. In a ward of the Hospital a beautiful child of two sat on a bed, his face light up, excited to see a new face coming to see him. He looked at me through his one eye in the centre of his forehead. “We are hearing of cases of this sort in other parts of Iraq,” the doctor said.

For Iraq, such cases are now an increasing medical phenomenon. Usually, they are accompanied by limited brain development and pathetic facial distortions. One cause of this condition, known as cyclopia, is exposure to toxins.

In September 2000 in an extensive piece on cancers and congenital deformities in Iraq for the UK publication The Ecologist, I wrote of personally witnessing “babies born without eyes; internal organs adhered to the (outer) stomach and back; foreshortened limbs or no limbs; no genitalia, no brain, no nose, no trachea, or no head.”

The burden of the poisoned legacy left in Iraq is now further devastating the population, its children, their genes, and the country’s fauna, flora, and water in orders of magnitude greater than the obscenity of 1991.

To give just one example, “in 2012, European researchers visited a scrap metal site in Al-Zubayr, an area near southern Basra. A local police officer told them that the site had at one time held military scrap metal from battles waged during the American invasion. A local guard said that children had been seen playing on the scrap during that time, and both adults and children had worked disassembling the military leftovers. At one point, he said, members of an international organisation with equipment and white suits showed up, told guards that the site was very dangerous and ‘quickly ran off’.”

Whilst the scrap was almost certainly contaminated with DU during the US-led invasion, journalists were also reporting US planes dropping “napalm-like weapons” on the border with Kuwait and elsewhere in southern Iraq. The military confirmed using the same on bridges over the Tigris and the “Saddam River” irrigation canal, created so the farmers and agricultural project workers through whose lands it flowed had access to a water source for their livestock and produce.

Of the bridges, US Colonel Randolph Alles said that “we napalmed both those [bridge] approaches… Unfortunately there were people there… you could see them in the [cockpit] video.”

In Najaf — where the gilded Imam Ali Mosque, named after one of Shia Islam’s most revered figures, and adjoining the seventh-century cemetery that is believed to be the largest in the world, for centuries decreed “the Gateway to Heaven” for the Shia community worldwide — death and deformities also stalk the newborn and cancers plague the population and surrounding areas.

In 2004, the US military bombarded the city and outlying villages for three months, driving their tanks through the Wadi-ud-Salaam cemetery. According to a Marines spokesman, they had “pretty much just been patrolling and flying helicopters all over the place, and when we saw something bad, we blew it up.”

There were “bombers, helicopter gunships, field artillery and tanks… unleashed against Iraqi fighters armed only with small arms and grenade launchers that are next to useless against American armoured vehicles.”

“Electricity, water and medical services… ceased to function in the city of 600,000. Thousands of shrines and graves in the revered cemetery have been destroyed or damaged. Much of the historic old city dating back 1,300 years which surrounds the mosque has been reduced to rubble.”

The “ bitter irony in the American military laying waste to the religious and cultural centre of Iraq’s Shiite population [was that the] no-fly zone enforced by the US over southern Iraq from 1991 until the invasion was justified as a measure to protect the Shiite population from repression by Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

Between the 1991 bombings and the 2003 invasion and subsequent post “Mission Accomplished” destructions, an upper estimate of the radioactive and chemically toxic DU alone expended (with a half-life of 4.5 billion years) was nearly 3,000 tons. To quote from the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s “self-initiated” warning on the 1991 bombings, this warned that were 50 tons of depleted uranium dust left “in the region” there would be “half a million cancers by the end of the century” (2000). The figures have proved the Authority to have been tragically correct, except they have been a near-certain underestimate.

The obfuscation continues. This month, a report funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry and conducted by the Dutch peace group IKV Pax Christi downsized the DU load to 400 tons (appalling, but nothing like the seeming reality) and estimated the cost of a contamination “clean up” to be $30 million.

In the real world, things look a little different. As writer Brian Wilson, author of Blood on the Tracks, has written, “in 20 years of DU testing at the Jefferson Proving Grounds in Indiana, roughly 150,000 pounds of uranium were discharged over 500 acres. When the Pentagon assessed the cost of the necessary radioactive cleanup to make the area safe for future use, they were shocked to learn of the $4-5 billion price tag. To date, they have not cleaned the cordoned-off site.”

Furthermore, “a US General Accounting Office report in 2000 put the cost of cleanup at the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky, where DU is processed for use in weapons and nuclear reactors, at $1.3 billion. By December 2003, the cost of cleaning up and closing the plant, estimated to take until 2070, was up to $13 billion.”

Imagine the cost of cleaning up, if a method could be devised, 437,072 sq km (168,753 square miles), which is the size of Iraq. And imagine the time frame.

The examples above are an inadequate microcosm of the plight of communities throughout Iraq.

On 20 March this year, the tenth anniversary of the start of a war crime of historic proportions, US President Barack Obama arrived in Israel to enjoin the option of similar war crimes against Syria and Iran.

The United Nations, responsible for the deaths of over half a million children resulting from its embargo on Iraq in little over the first five years to 1996, and whose then secretary-general, Kofi Annan, took until September 2004 to admit that the invasion was illegal, has designated “20 March 2013 [as] the first ever International Day of Happiness” (UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/281).

“The General Assembly… Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal… Recognising also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples… Decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness.” In the annals of bad timing, this must rate as a sick world first.

The same day is also World Sparrow Day, “designated to raise awareness of the threats to sparrows and other birds”. The UN should start its work in Iraq. While there, perhaps it might also take in meetings with representatives of the relevant United Nations committees and give a thought to raising awareness of the threats to the Iraqi people.


The writer is a freelance journalist specialising in social and environmental issues with a special knowledge of Iraq.

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