United States occupation forces in Iraq are refusing to treat wounded and sick Iraqis if their injuries are not directly caused by the United States. This shocking behavior is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
On June 30, dozens of Iraqis were killed and scores injured in an explosion at an abandoned ammunition dump at Haditha, 260 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. The victims had apparently been searching for shell casings to sell as scrap.
According to the BBC, a spokesman for US Central Command in Baghdad said that, because the dump was Iraqi, not American, US forces in the area were not taking responsibility for caring for the wounded.
But the United States is responsible at every level. First and foremost, as the occupying power, the US is supposed to provide security for Iraq’s people. The fact that Iraqi civilians can walk into abandoned Iraqi Army stores shows that the US is dismally failing to do that. A few weeks ago, Iraqi villagers became ill after taking radioactive canisters from a known Iraqi nuclear site that US forces had failed to secure.
Second, the US is legally and morally obliged to render assistance to the injured. Article 16 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The wounded and sick, as well as the infirm, and expectant mothers, shall be the object of particular protection and respect.” Article 55 states: “To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the occupying power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.”
Almost three months into the occupation, the US has done little to meet its legal obligation to restore Iraq’s collapsed medical system. Richard Alderslade, a spokesman on health policy for the World Health Organization, told Reuters on June 26 that Iraq’s health system was “extremely fragile,” and running at no more than 30-50 percent capacity at a time when the public health situation is deteriorating, with an increase in child sickness, communicable diseases, and threats from unexploded munitions.
Third, the fact that Iraqis are reduced to searching for scrap ammunition in such a dangerous place to sell for subsistence is a testament not only to the devastation of decades of sanctions and war, but of the utter failure of the occupiers to provide the Iraqi people with the food and work they need.
Horrifying though it is, the apparent US refusal to assist the injured at Haditha is no isolated incident. It appears to be policy. On June 23, the Associated Press reported that, “while on duty at an army air field, Sergeant David J. Borell was approached by an Iraqi who pleaded for help for his three children, burned when they set fire to a bag containing explosive powder left over from war in Iraq. Borell immediately called for assistance. But the two army doctors who arrived about an hour later refused to help the children because their injuries were not life-threatening and had not been inflicted by US troops.”
Borell, of Toledo, Ohio, said of the June 13 incident: “I have never seen in almost 14 years of army experience anything that callous,” and asked: “What would it have cost us to treat these children? A few dollars perhaps. Some investment of time and resources. I cannot imagine the heartlessness required to look into the eyes of a child in horrid pain and suffering and, with medical resources only a brief trip up the road, ignore their plight as though they are insignificant.”
Before the two doctors left, Borell pleaded with one to do something, but “he didn’t show any compassion,” so the sergeant gave the children’s father supplies from his own first aid kit. The next day the father took his extensively burned children, Ahlam, 11, and Budur and Haidar, both 10, to Baghdad to seek treatment.
AP reported that “a US military spokesman said the children’s condition did not fall into a category that requires army physicians to treat them – and that there was no inappropriate response on the part of the doctors.” This is a fancy way of saying “we just don’t care.”
In addition to being unbelievably cruel, callous and illegal, this US policy is politically stupid. Having invaded Iraq and overthrown its government in a few weeks, the United States has proven incapable of providing Iraqis with even the degraded level of basic services they received under Saddam Hussein. As unrest and resistance to the occupation grows, the US badly needs to improve its image and relationship with the people it rules. It’s hard to see how refusing to treat the war injuries of children and Iraqi civilians can do anything but achieve the exact opposite.
This article first appeared in The Daily Star.
ALI ABUNIMAH is co-founder of ElectronicIntifada.net.