Iraqi Sanction’s Gruesome Toll

by Andy Kershaw

I thought I had a strong stomach–toughened by the minefields and foul frontline hospitals of Angola, by the handiwork of the death squads in Haiti and by the wholesale butchery of Rwanda. But I nearly lost my breakfast last week at the Basrah Maternity and Children’s Hospital in southern Iraq.

Dr Amer, the hospital’s director, had invited me into a room in which were displayed colour photographs of what, in cold medical language, are called “congenital anomalies”, but what you and I would better understand as horrific birth deformities. The images of these babies were head-spinningly grotesque–and thank God they didn’t bring out the real thing, pickled in formaldehyde. At one point I had to grab hold of the back of a chair to support my legs.

I won’t spare you the details. You should know because–according to the Iraqis and in all likelihood the World Health Organisation, which is soon to publish its findings on the spiralling birth defects in southern Iraq–we are responsible for these obscenities.

During the Gulf war, Britain and the United States pounded the city and its surroundings with 96,000 depleted-uranium shells. The wretched creatures in the photographs–for they were scarcely human–are the result, Dr Amer said.

He guided me past pictures of children born without eyes, without brains. Another had arrived in the world with only half a head, nothing above the eyes. Then there was a head with legs, babies without genitalia, a little girl born with her brain outside her skull and the whatever-it-was whose eyes were below the level of its nose.

Then the chair-grabbing moment–a photograph of what I can only describe (inadequately) as a pair of buttocks with a face and two amphibian arms. Mercifully, none of these babies survived for long.

Depleted uranium has an incubation period in humans of five years. In the four years from 1991 (the end of the Gulf war) until 1994, the Basrah Maternity Hospital saw 11 congenital anomalies. Last year there were 221.

Then there is the alarming increase in cases of leukaemia among Basrah babies lucky enough to have been born with the full complement of limbs and features in the right place. The hospital treated 15 children with leukemia in 1993. In 2000 it was 60. By the end of this year that figure again will be topped. And so it will go on. Forever.

(Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.1 billion years. Total disintegration occurs after 25 billion years, the age of the earth.)

In any other country, in which the vital drugs are available, 95 per cent of these infant leukaemia cases would be treated successfully. In Basrah, the figure is 20 per cent. Most heartbreakingly, many children on the road to recovery go into relapse part way through treatment when the sporadic and meagre supply of drugs runs out. And then they die.

By the United Nations’ own admission 5,000 Iraqi children die every month because of a shortage of medicines created by sanctions imposed by … the United Nations.

Tony Blair, on numerous occasions, has misled Parliament and the country (perhaps unwittingly) by saying that Saddam Hussein is free to buy all the medicines Iraq needs under the oil-for-food programme. This is not true. Oil for food amounts to just 60 cents (40p) per Iraqi per day and everything–food, education, health care and rebuilding of infrastructure–has to come out of that. There simply is not enough to go around.

And has Mr Blair heard of the UN Security Council 661 Committee? If he has, then he keeps quiet about it. The committee was certainly unknown to me until I toured the shabby hospitals of Basrah.

This committee, which meets in secret in New York and does not publish minutes, supervises sanctions on Iraq. President Saddam is not free to buy Iraq’s non-military needs on the world market. The country’s requirements have to be submitted to 661 and, often after bureaucratic delay, a judgement is handed down on what Iraq can and cannot buy. I have obtained a copy of recent 661 rulings and some of the decisions seem daft if not peevish. “Dual use” is the most common reason to refuse a purchase, meaning the item requested could be put to military use.

So how does the 661 committee expect Saddam Hussein to wage war with “beef extract powder and broth”? Does 661 expect him to turn on the Kurds again by spraying them with “malt extract”? Or to send his presidential guard back into Kuwait armed to the teeth with “pencils”? Pencils, you see, according to 661, contain graphite and therefore could be put to military use. (Tough on the eager schoolchildren of Basrah who have little with which to write).

Across town at the Basrah Teaching Hospital, the whimsical rulings of 661 are not so comical. Dr Jawad Al-Ali, the director of oncology, trained in the UK and a member of the Royal College of Physicians, talked of an “epidemic” of cancers in southern Iraq. “The number of cancer cases is doubling every year. So is the severity of the cancers, and there has been a big increase in cancer among the young,” he said.

Last week he was struggling to treat 20 cancer patients with “a huge shortage of chemotherapy drugs” and just two days supply of morphine. “We are crippled,” he said, “by Committee 661.” The doctor applied for, but was denied, life-saving machinery–deep X-ray equipment, blood component separators, even needles for biopsies. All, said 661, could have military use.

Tell that to Mofidah Sabah, the mother of four-year-old Yahia. The little boy has both leukaemia in relapse and neuroblastoma, a cancer behind the eye that has bulged and twisted his left eyeball in its socket. Ms Sabah travels miles every day to sit and cuddle her son on his grubby bed. If Yahia lived in Birmingham, his chances of survival would not be in much doubt. But not in Basrah. “I’m afraid he will not live very long,” Dr Amer whispered.

Ms Sabah said: “I will leave everything to God, but I want God to revenge those who attacked us.” Yahia’s illness is not her first brush with tragedy. She lost 12 members of her family during an Allied bombing in 1991. Her husband, a soldier, fought in the Gulf war. He is still in the Iraqi army and has just been reposted, to Qurna, 50 miles north of Basra and among the contaminated former battlefields. Qurna, according to legend, was the site of the Garden of Eden.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action