ISFAHAN, Iran — His breath was loud and hard, his mouth open wide as he struggled to force air into his lungs. "I am," said Muhammad Moussavi, a "living martyr."
Almost 15 years after Iran's war with Iraq ended, Mr. Moussavi and thousands of others like him are painful reminders of the long-lasting effect of Iraq's use of chemical weapons in that eight-year conflict.
His story is typical of a war generation that fervently believed, after Iraq invaded in 1980, in the need to defend Iran and, later, to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So Mr. Moussavi took time off from his engineering studies for months at a time to serve as a volunteer with martyr brigades. In March 1988, four months before Iran declared a cease-fire, he was badly wounded on the battlefield, not by bombs or bullets but by mustard gas.
Muhammad Moussavi, a volunteer in the war with Iraq, was one of thousands gassed by Iraqi forces. His lungs damaged by mustard agent, Mr. Moussavi is tethered to an oxygen tank at his home in Isfahan, Iran. (NYT Photo/Mehdi Taher)
"We were wearing gas masks because we expected Saddam to use chemical weapons," he recalled. "But there was too much gas. I suddenly felt a bitter taste in my mouth, and then my mouth filled with blood. I put on a new mask but the gas had already affected my body."
Today, at 40, Mr. Moussavi is chained to an oxygen concentrator. His lungs and air passages are permanently scarred, his vision blurred, his skin susceptible to peeling and rashes. When the breathing nearly stops, he chokes and his chest heaves. Two inhalators bring only partial relief. Words come slowly and, when they do, the sounds are brittle and cracked.
"This is a very burdensome illness, both for me and my family," he said. "I never feel I'm getting enough oxygen. The phlegm I cough is filled with blood and hard like bricks." The perennial feeling of being oxygen-deprived, he said, produces headaches, fatigue and body pain.
During the war, about 100,000 people were killed or wounded in chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqis, said Dr. Hamid Sohrabpour, a pulmonary specialist and the director of Iran's chemical treatment program, who studied at New York's Mount Sinai hospital. Iran has compiled records for about 30,000 of them.
One in 10 of these victims died before receiving treatment, he said. About 5,000 to 6,000 still receive regular medical care under government-financed programs.
In building an argument for war against Iraq, President Bush has stressed the need to rid the world of whatever may be left of Iraq's ballistic missile arsenal and its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
The fear that Iraq still might have such weapons drove the Security Council last November to approve unanimously a resolution calling on the Iraqi regime to disarm or face "serious consequences."
But there is deep resentment and anger here that it was Western companies that helped Iraq develop its chemical weapons arsenal in the first place and that the world did nothing to punish Iraq for its use of chemical weapons throughout the war.
"The world knew," Mr. Moussavi said. "Iraq developed these weapons with the help of the United States and the West. No matter how many times Iranians shouted that Iraq was using chemical weapons, they were ignored. I don't know why the United States has suddenly become kinder than a mother for the suffering of us chemical weapons patients."
Dr. Sohrabpour, who has lectured around the world about chemical weapons patients, is equally frustrated. "We took patients to Germany, to Britain, to France, but no one stopped Saddam's regime from using these terrible weapons," he said. "The United States let him develop, stockpile and use these weapons. Now suddenly it's changed. The fact is that the United States is only after its own interests. It doesn't care about what has happened to people."
In the early 1980's, Iranian diplomats visited the United Nations and the capitals of the world armed with disturbing photographs of wounded and dead Iranian soldiers, their bodies swollen, blistered and burned.
By early 1984, Iraq was making no secret of its war tactics. In one broadcast, Baghdad's Voice of the Masses radio gave a hint, speaking of "a certain insecticide for every insect," adding ominously, "We have this insecticide."
After a small group of American and European journalists visiting the war front in February 1984 independently verified the use of chemical weapons, the State Department publicly stated that available evidence suggested that Iraq had used the lethal weapons. It was the first confirmed use of the banned substances since World War I. But the United States, which tilted toward Iraq after it decided that Iran was a more dangerous country, did nothing.
Two years later, Iraq began using chemical weapons as an "integral part" of its battlefield strategy and a "regular and recurring tactic," according to a declassified report by the Central Intelligence Agency. Iranian soldiers often went into battle without gas masks or with masks that did not fit properly. The widespread use of the weapons also overwhelmed Iran's poorly trained and equipped medical personnel, who were themselves sometimes contaminated during rescue efforts. A move led by some Senate Democrats to impose sanctions on Iraq after it used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 went nowhere.
The Iraqis used both liquid and dry forms of mustard agent, which burns body tissue and causes blindness, severe blistering, skin discoloration and lung damage, and nerve agents like sarin and tabun, which paralyze the muscles and cause convulsions and vomiting before death.
Nerve gas victims usually died on the spot unless they were immediately treated with antidotes. But many mustard gas victims survived, developing ailments that worsened over time and often led to death.
The 12,000-page weapons declaration that Iraq delivered to the United Nations in December identifies 31 major foreign suppliers for its chemical weapons program, including 2 companies based in the United States that are now defunct, 14 from Germany, 3 each from the Netherlands and Switzerland and 2 each from France and Austria.
The plight of chemical weapons patients in Iran is complicated by the fact that it has manipulated the legacy of the war for its own purposes. Even now, a number of power centers in Iran use the "blood of the martyrs" as a mechanism to hold on to power, demand sacrifice and impose limits freedom. But a generation born since the war has vowed not to be controlled or terrorized by this ideology or by the voluntary, state-protected militias that continue to try to control the streets.
Although there is deep sympathy for victims of chemical weapons attacks, there is resentment toward the Foundation for the Deprived and the War Disabled, a huge state-affiliated organization that disperses aid to the victims and that has long been accused of corruption and cronyism.
Mr. Moussavi, who was interviewed in the presence of two officials from the foundation, praised the organization for its constant support and said his sacrifice was worthwhile. "I'm very happy for the sacrifices I've made," he said. "I'm happy I defended my religion and my revolution."
Then, anger overtook him. "My anger is not targeted at anyone in particular," he said. "It's because I can't breathe. All those who are suffering from gas exposure have the same anger."
Mr. Moussavi's father, Reza, by contrast, is angry at the foundation. He has been lobbying for years for a special oxygen maker made in the United States that does not need to be refilled. "We've waited such a long time for the new machine," he told a representative of the foundation. "It will make so much difference for my son. You promised us one. You promised."
Other chemical weapons victims have accused the foundation of ignoring them because of their political beliefs.
The sentiment that the government is not doing enough is so deeply felt that it has been explored in films about the war. The 1998 award-winning film "The Glass Agency," for example, deals with the government's abandonment of the volunteer military forces by not sending a dying war veteran abroad for special treatment. But the film also explores the lack of public sympathy for the volunteers and the privileges disabled war veterans enjoy.
For Dr. Sohrabpour, the issue is more complicated. "Some patients agree with whatever the government tells them," he said, "but others feel they were used by the government as a tool and now they have been neglected. Then there are those who believe that because they are war wounded all their demands should be met, even when we know there is no cure or special treatment for them.
"My experience with all these patients is that they're very demanding. They get nervous and depressed. And they have a right to be so."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company