"Full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take at least another six months."
-- From a January 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence document titled Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities
Water is essential for life. Destroying a country's water supply is an insidious way of delivering a deathblow. Just last week President George W. Bush signed the $4.8 billion bioterror bill urging increased security for the water systems of American cities, citing the threat of possible terrorist attacks on U.S. water.
Yet, in an effort to ultimately topple Saddam Hussein from power, this is exactly what the United States has been doing to the people of Iraq for the past decade, beginning with the bombing of their infrastructure in 1991. As was exposed last September by The Progressive magazine, Defense Intelligence documents available on the Pentagon's own Web site state that our government was fully aware of the consequences of destroying Iraq's water treatment, sanitation and electrical plants and then coldly monitored the devastating effects on the civilian population.
The phrase "particularly the children" appears repeatedly in the calculations of probable death and disease. UNICEF estimates that 5,000 Iraqi children, under the age of five years old, die every month as a direct result of continuing economic sanctions.
As predicted in the intelligence reports, the greatest killer of children in Iraq is waterborne disease. But the equipment and supplies to repair and maintain water, sanitation and electrical plants have been held up in the complicated maze of UN sanctions and contracts, as well as holds by UN Committee 661. This committee decides which items can or cannot be sent to Iraq. At various times, essential items such as hypodermic needles, blood bags and even pencils have been banned because they could also be used to produce weapons. Tun Myat, former UN Oil for Food Program Coordinator, said, "The United States is 661."
I recently spent two weeks in Iraq as part of a humanitarian delegation sponsored by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Fifteen people from all walks of life made a conscious decision to break the UN economic sanctions against the people of Iraq by carrying a token amount of medical supplies, children's clothing, and school items, such as crayons, pencils and paper. All delegates risk as much as $1 million in fines and 12 years in prison. While the engineers, statisticians and medical personnel had concrete goals to accomplish, my job was simply to take photographs, be a witness, meet Iraqi people and hear their stories. Expecting the rage and hostility that a nation starved of even books and periodicals must feel, I was stunned by their kindness, warmth and open-heartedness.
"You are welcome in our country," was the constant theme. "We love Americans, but we don't love your government."
Many people simply asked, "Why is your government doing this to us?"
I could have given them the rhetoric that I read and hear every day in American media: Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator developing and amassing weapons of mass destruction and we must find a way to diminish his power. But what sense does this make to a mother weeping over a picture of her dead child? How can I justify the bombing of a desperately poor neighborhood, already in the death throes from previous bombings and the effects of polluted water, to advance the cause of regime change in Iraq?
Dr. Abdul Al-Hashimi, Iraqi president of the Organization for Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, spoke to our group in Baghdad. "Who told you that your way of life is better?" he asked. "Who gave Congress the right to issue a law for the liberation of Iraq? Who gave you the right?"
Al-Hashimi spoke passionately about the United States' use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq and elsewhere, and the resulting long-term destruction to the environment and catastrophic increases of cancer and birth defects. It is estimated that during the Gulf War, over 1 million depleted uranium "bullets" were used in the Basrah area in southern Iraq.
I viewed the grim library of snapshots taken by Dr. Janan Hassan at the Basrah Maternity and Pediatric Hospital. They depict congenital deformities too awful to imagine: children born with external organs, no eyes, no orifices, and even one with no head. Other photographs depict before-and-after images of beautiful grade schoolaged children and the results from being denied drugs that could have spared them excruciating deaths.
I, too, wonder why we don't play by the rules that we helped write for the rest of the world, those basic tenets of humanitarian law and simple compassion.
In Amman, the Jordanian Minister of Water, Dr. Munther J. Haddadin, spoke to our delegation. "You wonder why there are terrorists?" he asked. "What do you think these children will be in 10 years? Do you think they'll join the Peace Corps?"
Dr. Haddadin, who was educated at the University of Washington and is married to an American, continued, "The feelings on the streets here are not only confusion but rage at how the greatest power on Earth is viewing the situation here and how unfair it is. We wonder how the 'land of the free' and 'home of the brave' can talk of regime change. It's outrageous. It's not the America that we have known. It's not the country that educated us."
Call me sentimental, but I still want to believe in the land of the free, the home of the brave. I still want to be proud of being American, to say the pledge of allegiance and feel those goose bumps up my back, knowing that I live in the greatest nation on Earth.
But the images of dehydrated babies mewing like weak kittens and the pleas of a despairing father haunt me. Instead of pride, I feel deep sadness that my government's political agenda has hastened the deaths of nearly a half-million Iraqi children who left this Earth thirsty for a little human kindness and a clean drink of water.