Iraqi Children and U.S. Veterans: Victims of U.S. Policy
By Jeff Stack
In July, I traveled to Iraq with four other American citizens in a delegation coordinated by Voices in the Wilderness, a pacifist organization calling for an end to sanctions and for what they see as United States accountability for government actions. We learned much about an issue seldom discussed in the U.S. media: depleted uranium and its dire effects on Iraqis as well as U.S. and other Persian Gulf war veterans. We went there to better understand the human impact of war and the sanctions, policies theoretically meant to undermine the government of Saddam Hussein but which have victimized the Iraqi people.
A 10-year-old girl stood among 140 children to receive her first communion at St. George's Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq. About an hour into the service, the girl, unable to join her peers walking to the altar, slumped onto the church bench. A nun quickly came to her assistance. We later learned the girl had not eaten in two days. She is one of four siblings in a desperately poor family able to provide just a single meal to each child every fourth day. It was not yet her turn to eat.
For so many Iraqis, a time of sustenance never arrives. At least one million Iraqis, most of them children, died between 1990 and 1995 due to a lack of adequate food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies denied through United States-backed, UN-imposed sanctions, according to UNICEF. In April, the agency updated the casualty report, noting 90,000 Iraqis (mostly children) have died annually, with an Iraqi child under the age of five dying every 12 minutes due to the continued embargo. Sanctions, a continually detonating, quiet-killing weapon of mass destruction - monstrous in comparison to Hussein's scrawny war machine - are on a par with other atrocities committed in the post World War II era in Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia/East Timor and Indochina. It is time for United States and UN leaders to end this butchery by neglect.
Hussein indeed is a brutal, ruthless despot, responsible for killing tens of thousands of his own people. Nonetheless, the U.S. government for years considered him an ally of sorts, supplying him, for instance, with reconnaissance information and weapons in their eight-year war with Iran. Uncle Sam sold weapons to both sides for profit, helping each side destabilize and destroy the other - each country lost at least one million people. U.S. corporations, with the blessings of the Commerce and State departments, also sold Iraq most of the biological weapons now referred to by our government officials in their justification of continuing, crushing sanctions.
We saw pre-teenagers selling American cigarettes to earn enough money for food for themselves and their families. Scores of children and elders resorted to begging and combing through trash heaps for food, realities locals insist were unheard of in the 1980s -- when they say oil revenue provided the masses with opportunities for affordable housing, free medical care, free education through college, and relative prosperity. Then came the sanctions begun in 1990, and the Gulf War with its cross-generational effects from weapons like those made from depleted uranium (DU).
Primarily U.S. fighter jets and tanks fired nearly a million DU-tipped armor-piercing artillery shells and missiles upon Iraqi targets, contaminating their own troops, millions of Iraqis and the environment, especially in southern Iraq. In November 1991, the London Independent published a leaked report, prepared by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, which warned the radioactive debris left from the DU-tipped weapons could cause 500,000 deaths. That horrific projection may be a gross underestimation since it was based on the assumption that 40 tons of DU remained in Iraq. Pentagon officials have since suggested more than 300 tons of the debris - radioactive for four and a half billion years - were left across the country after the war.
A UN report, based on Iraqi government figures and leaked to the Reuters News Service in June, notes cancer rates nationwide increased by 52 percent from 1988 to 1994 and more than doubled in Basrah. There have also been dramatic increases in congenital birth defects and spontaneous abortions reported in hospitals since 1991, according to Red Crescent/Red Cross officials we spoke with in Iraq.
More than 90,000 U.S. veterans are affected by the so-called Gulf War Syndrome and its symptoms of chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, memory loss, chronic headache and joint pain. The Pentagon refuses to acknowledge the strong likelihood that many, perhaps most, of those vets, left unprotected and exposed to DU, are suffering from radiation poisoning - apparently to avoid paying out massive combat injury claims and to minimize negative attention to one of their prized weapons.
A 1995 DU report from the Army's Environmental Polecat Institute (AEPI) notes that when a DU projectile strikes a hard surface, like a tank, up to 70% of the penetrator is aerosolized and scattered as small particles in, on and around the target. "These uranium particles can be ingested or inhaled and are toxic," according to a fact sheet issued in 1993 by the Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command (ARMCC)
The military, though well aware of DU's toxicity, still refrained from alerting Coalition forces venturing onto DU-ravaged battlefields. In one survey of more than 10,000 Gulf vets reported in the book, 82% indicated that they had entered Iraqi vehicles after the war. It was not until March 7, 1991, after most of the fighting had subsided, that the ARMCC finally sent a message warning commanders that any system struck by DU penetrators should be assumed contaminated and that any personnel entering such systems should wash any exposed body parts and discard their clothing.
In March 1994, reports on some 250 families of veterans of the Gulf War living in Mississippi were published in the United States. Sixty-seven percent of the children of these families were born with congenital deformities: their eyes, ears or fingers are missing or they are suffering from severe blood diseases and respiratory problems. These are among the same ailments plaguing thousands of Iraqi children. It is imperative that international health agencies examine the affected Iraqis and their contaminated environment and that the United States and other Coalition nations pay for needed medical treatment and environmental clean-up (if it is in fact possible). The Veterans Administration should also begin "in vivo" (internal) monitoring of afflicted Gulf veterans, along with urinalysis, to determine accurately the amount of DU that may have been internalized by their bodies.
There seems to be little physicians can do to treat the hundreds of children we saw suffering in Iraqi hospitals. If hunger doesn't kill them, they often fall victim to once-rare opportunistic diseases contracted by drinking contaminated water. Many towns still have no potable supply of water since chlorine and spare parts to repair purification plants damaged by Coalition bombing are denied by sanctions. Many basic medical items are scarce or unavailable, including medicine, bed sheets (which patient families have to supply), IV tubes, syringes (often reused), soaps and autoclaves for sterilizing equipment, according to hospital administrators and doctors. Only emergency surgeries are performed due to a lack of anesthesia.
Please contact the White House at (202) 456-1111. Urge President Clinton to insist that the Security Council drops the economic sanctions against the Iraqi people and to initiate a comprehensive study determining the impact of DU weapons upon Iraqis and U.S. veterans, along with providing financial compensation to those afflicted.
Jeff Stack is an independent journalist and peace & anti-death penalty activist based in Columbia, Missouri.
For more information on the sanctions:
Voices in the Wilderness
For information on depleted uranium:
National Gulf War Resource Center
"Metal of Dishonor: How Depleted Uranium Penetrates Steel, Radiates People and Contaminates the Environment," by Ramsey Clark, Helen Caldicott, Michio Kaku and Jay Gould (1997, International Action Center)