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Caught in the Crossfire
Published on Sunday, October 6, 2002 by the Toronto Star
Caught in the Crossfire
The young people of Iraq have known nothing other than hunger, disease, poverty and isolation
by Lynda Hurst

LOT OF people are going to be killed if, as looks increasingly certain, there is war in Iraq. Maybe one of them will be Saddam Hussein. Maybe not.

"Of the several thousands who have been killed so far in Afghanistan, not one had been named Osama bin Laden," Phyllis Bennis, Middle East specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, points out dryly.

"So let's be very clear about who is going to pay the price in Iraq."

Ordinary people.

An Iraqi woman waits with her child for a check-up Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002, at al-Sindebad hospital in Basra, Iraq, about 600 kilometers south of Baghdad. Basra's water treatment facilities are below standard and many children suffer from diarrhea. (AP Photo/Jassim Mohammed).

Also see:
How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply
by Thomas Nagy/September 2001 issue of The Progressive
Despite reports of Pentagon plans for a quick, clean invasion of 10 days to two weeks aimed solely at "regime targets" and not innocent civilians, no one knows what Iraq's response will be. Weeks on end of bloody ground fighting village by village, even street by street in Baghdad and Basra cannot be ruled out.

Nor can the spectre of Saddam desperately unleashing his much-vaunted stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, especially if, as Washington predicts, his troops capitulate early on. Whether he uses the weapons to harm his enemy or his own people is unlikely to be a consideration: Saddam has done both in the past.

"Assuming he has these weapons," says James Reilly, a University of Toronto Middle East specialist, "it's reasonable to assume that being attacked will be the trigger to use them."

Then, too, as military planners are fully aware, the lethal arsenal of gases and viruses could inadvertently be released by American bombs.

As U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to address the nation tomorrow night, observers say that whatever lies ahead, one thing is sure: It will be innocent Iraqi civilians who suffer.

They have done little else in the past 12 years.

Iraq was once a wealthy, literate, secular state of 24 million with a flourishing middle class, an efficient health-care system and the security of sitting atop the world's second-largest oil reserves. All but the oil is gone today.

Older Iraqis may remember the way life used to be; the young can have no idea. All they have ever known is hunger and disease, poverty and isolation from the rest of the world.

Their existence is harrowing today, and about to become unimaginably worse, says Roger Normand, director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York, which has been tracking the state of Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

"These people have been living on their knees for a long time. The vast majority, 80 per cent, depend on government food rations, but they will come to an end the moment war begins.

"And that's just the tip of the iceberg that's ahead."

Reports that the markets in Baghdad are full of goods are hugely misleading, Normand says vehemently.

What's there is black market and it's only for the "smuggling elite" of regime minions and members of Saddam's extended family who've managed to enrich themselves despite rigorous trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

"The people have no safety net," Normand says. "They can't stockpile food. They have no money. Everyone has sold everything they had long ago."

In the past decade, the continuing plight of ordinary Iraqis has been documented by a phalanx of organizations, from a Harvard University study team and the International Red Cross to, ironically, several of the U.N.'s own affiliates, including UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Food Program.

Their reports all conclude that the effects of the Gulf War and the sanctions the most comprehensive and punitive ever employed by the U.N. have been catastrophic.

As many as 1 million Iraqis have died as a result of them, they say and 400,000 of the victims were babies or young children.

Iraq's bitter eight-year war with Iran had been over only three years when Operation Desert Storm began in January, 1991.

During 43 days of bombing, U.S. and British warplanes strategically targeted and wiped out virtually all of Iraq's civil, not just military, infrastructure, from electricity-generating stations and water-pumping and treatment plants to bridges and transportation lines.

Before the war, 95 per cent of Iraqis had access to safe drinking water. Afterward, with raw sewage pouring into rivers and canals, an epidemic of water-borne diseases, cholera, typhoid and diarrhea raged out of control, killing hundreds of thousands, particularly children.

The infant mortality rate doubled in the ensuing years and now stands at 62.5 deaths per 1,000. (Canada's is 5.5.)

After the Gulf War, a senior U.S. Air Force officer told the Washington Post that most people have the wrong idea about warfare, thinking "of force on force, soldier A against soldier B."

In fact, it is aimed at striking "all those things that allow a nation to sustain itself."

Human collateral damage is unfortunate but unavoidable, U.S. Vice-President Richard Cheney, then secretary of defence, told the Harvard study team (later renamed the Center for Economic and Social Rights).

"We had a significant impact on Iraqi society that we wished we had not had to do."

Nevertheless, every target was "perfectly legitimate," said Cheney. "If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

The chance to do it over again is fast approaching with or without U.N. inspections and the United States will do precisely the same thing, speculates Bennis, who visited Iraq last year.

"The next war is supposed to be quick and fast," she says, "but not necessarily. They'll have more strategic `smart bombs' this time but that doesn't guarantee civilians won't get hit.

"And no, it is not okay to say that it will be Saddam's fault for using people as human shields."

Normand foresees a replay of last time "only more intensive, bigger, with more bombing. And these are people we're supposed to be fighting to liberate. It's going to be like it was in Vietnam: `Kill a village to save a village.' It's going to be a huge tragedy."

And the aftermath, just like last time, will be devastating.

Today, a patched-together electrical system sporadically functions, but now only 60 per cent of Iraqis have access to safe water.

The middle class has ceased to exist, says UofT's Reilly, while Saddam's "parasitic cronies" have remained unaffected.

Fundamentalist Islam is on the rise among the young after Saddam (whom Osama bin Laden once criticized for lack of religious devotion) went on a spate of mosque-building, "mobilizing and using religion for his own purposes," says Reilly.

According to UNICEF, chronic diarrhea, malnutrition and respiratory infections are still killing 4,500 Iraqi children every month.

That fact alone staggered the three U.S. Democratic congressmen who visited last month and described the suffering they saw as "horrific and barbaric."

U.S. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., white hair next to Bonior, talk to Iraqi women holding their sick children at the al-Sindebad hospital for children in Basra, Iraq, some 600 kilometers south of Baghdad, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002. A delegation of U.S. lawmakers is visting Iraq to gain a better understanding to the humanitarian plight faced by Iraqi civilians. (AP Photo/JassimMohammed)
"What worries me and my colleagues is that, if we go to war again, we would simply double or triple the problems we created in 1991," said California representative Jim McDermott.

Hunger and disease are not the only repercussions from the last war. Initially unreported environmental damage also took a grim toll.

As many as 50,000 children are believed to have died of the effects of radioactive dust from the depleted uranium contained in thousands of shells fired or dropped by coalition forces.

In southern Iraq, where huge areas were polluted by the depleted uranium, the rate of cancer, specifically leukemia, is thought to have increased by almost 200 per cent.

The countrywide health service has been severely handicapped by power outages and irregular water supply, let alone a lack of medicines and equipment.

The importation of chlorine to treat water, for example, is still banned by the United Nations because it is a "dual-use" chemical that could be used for nefarious purposes.

Critics charge that the sanctions, which began in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, have amounted to "collective punishment," specifically prohibited by the Geneva Convention of 1949, and may even breach the U.N. convention on genocide.

Most voluble among the critics is Denis Halliday, the former U.N. assistant secretary-general who headed the Iraq humanitarian relief program until he resigned in disgust in 1998, as did his successor, Hans von Sponeck, 18 months later.

"We cannot have the U.N. sustaining a regime of sanctions that impact only on the people, not on the decision-makers, not on the government," Halliday said last year. "It more than impacts; it kills people."

The view isn't shared by Washington decision-makers. They say that, since 1996, when the U.N. allowed Iraq to sell oil again to buy food, medicines and equipment to rebuild its infrastructure, it has sold $55.8 billion (U.S.) worth of reserves more than enough to meet the humanitarian needs of its people.

If they haven't been met, it is because "the regime has little or no concern for the suffering of its own people," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch argued recently.

"It has consciously manipulated and allowed that suffering to take place in order to gain the sympathy of people in the West."

An extensive assessment by a coalition of 14 aid organizations released in August says Iraq may have sold $55.8 billion under the oil-for-food program, but after 33 per cent was subtracted for Gulf War reparations to Kuwait and for U.N. operations, the amount was reduced to $35.8 billion.

As of July, only $23.5 billion worth of goods had actually arrived in Iraq.

The report says a combination of "holds" imposed by the U.N. and the U.S. and Iraq's own obstructiveness and mismanagement accounts for the missing $12.3 billion. The result? A per-capita income of less than $1 a day.

If war comes again to the people of Iraq and Saddam's brutal 23-year regime is finally destroyed, as it is almost certain to be, what happens then?

Post-war reconstruction is an open question, says Reilly.

"Will the U.S. impose a neo-colonial rule? A sustained military occupation won't be popular at home. Or will it just walk away? No one knows what will happen until it happens."

The worst scenario is that Iraq breaks down along ethnic and religious lines Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds which no country in the region wants, each deeply suspicious of how the others would exploit the situation.

One thing is sure, though, says Normand. "What Iraq won't be after the next war is a democracy. It will have a friendly dictator rather than an unfriendly one, but the people will still be oppressed."

And the United States?

"It will be gone," he says. "We don't `do' peace."

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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