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See No Evil

U.S. policy results in slow genocide in the cradle of civilization—Iraq

Photos and essay by Jane McBee

“Full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take at least another six months.”

—From a January 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence document titled Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities

Water is essential for life. Destroying a country’s water supply is an insidious way of delivering a deathblow. Just last week President George W. Bush signed the $4.8 billion bioterror bill urging increased security for the water systems of American cities, citing the threat of possible terrorist attacks on U.S. water.

Yet, in an effort to ultimately topple Saddam Hussein from power, this is exactly what the United States has been doing to the people of Iraq for the past decade, beginning with the bombing of their infrastructure in 1991. Defense Intelligence documents available on the Pentagon’s own Web site state that our government was fully aware of the consequences of destroying Iraq’s water treatment, sanitation and electrical plants and then coldly monitored the devastating effects on the civilian population.

The phrase “particularly the children” appears repeatedly in the calculations of probable death and disease.

UNICEF estimates that 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 years old die every month as a direct result of continuing economic sanctions.

As predicted in the intelligence reports, the greatest killer of children in Iraq is waterborne disease. But the equipment and supplies to repair and maintain water, sanitation and electrical plants have been held up in the complicated maze of U.N. sanctions and contracts, as well as holds by U.N. Committee 661. This committee decides which items can or cannot be sent to Iraq. At various times, essential items such as hypodermic needles, blood bags and even pencils have been banned because they could also be used to produce weapons. Tun Myat, former coordinator of the U.N. Oil for Food Program, said, “The United States is 661.”

I recently spent two weeks in Iraq as part of a humanitarian delegation sponsored by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Fifteen people from all walks of life made a conscious decision to break the U.N. economic sanctions against the people of Iraq by carrying a token amount of medical supplies, children’s clothing and school items, such as crayons, pencils and paper. All delegates risk as much as $1 million in fines and 12 years in prison. While the engineers, statisticians and medical personnel had concrete goals to accomplish, my job was simply to take photographs, be a witness, meet Iraqi people and hear their stories. Expecting the rage and hostility that a nation starved of even books and periodicals must feel, I was stunned by their kindness, warmth and open-heartedness.

“You are welcome in our country,” was the constant theme. “We love Americans, but we don’t love your government.”

Many people simply asked, “Why is your government doing this to us?”

I could have given them the rhetoric that I read and hear every day in American media: Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator developing and amassing weapons of mass destruction, and we must find a way to diminish his power. But what sense does this make to a mother weeping over a picture of her dead child? How could I justify the bombing of a desperately poor neighborhood, already in the death throes from previous bombings and the effects of polluted water, to advance the cause of regime change in Iraq?

Dr. Abdul Al-Hashimi, Iraqi president of the Organization for Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, spoke to our group in Baghdad. “Who told you that your way of life is better?” he asked. “Who gave Congress the right to issue a law for the liberation of Iraq? Who gave you the right?”

Al-Hashimi spoke passionately about the United States’ use of depleted-uranium weapons in Iraq and elsewhere, and the resulting long-term destruction to the environment and catastrophic increases of cancer and birth defects. It is estimated that during the Gulf War, over 1 million depleted uranium “bullets” were used in the Basrah area in southern Iraq.

I viewed the grim library of snapshots taken by Dr. Janan Hassan at the Basrah Maternity and Pediatric Hospital. They depict congenital deformities too awful to imagine: children born with external organs, no eyes, no orifices, and even one with no head. Other photographs depict before-and-after images of beautiful grade-school-aged children and the results from being denied drugs that could have spared them excruciating deaths.

I, too, wonder why we don’t play by the rules that we helped write for the rest of the world, those basic tenets of humanitarian law and simple compassion.

In Amman, the Jordanian Minister of Water, Dr. Munther J. Haddadin, spoke to our delegation. “You wonder why there are terrorists?” he asked. “What do you think these children will be in 10 years? Do you think they’ll join the Peace Corps?”

Dr. Haddadin, who was educated at the University of Washington and is married to an American, continued, “The feelings on the streets here are not only confusion, but rage at how the greatest power on Earth is viewing the situation here and how unfair it is. We wonder how the ‘land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave’ can talk of regime change. It’s outrageous. It’s not the America that we have known. It’s not the country that educated us.”

Call me sentimental, but I still want to believe in the land of the free, the home of the brave. I still want to be proud of being American, to say the pledge of allegiance and feel those goose bumps up my back, knowing that I live in the greatest nation on Earth.

But the images of dehydrated babies mewing like weak kittens and the pleas of a despairing father haunt me. Instead of pride, I feel deep sadness that my government’s political agenda has hastened the deaths of nearly a half-million Iraqi children who left this Earth thirsty for a little human kindness and a clean drink of water.

A dehydrated child is comforted by her mother and grandmother at the Diarrhea Clinic in Basrah. Due to the U.S. bombing of Iraq’s water-treatment facilities, waterborne illness is one of the leading causes of death.
Toufek Muhammad Ali was the 1954 Bodybuilding Champion of the whole Persian Gulf Region.
Ali Ab Magd is a woodcarver in the Suadon district of Baghdad. He proudly shows off his work while a friend runs upstairs to get coffee and cookies.
An enthusiastic invitation follows for dinner with the woodcarver’s extended family that lives in the apartments above the shop.
Children roam the streets of Baghdad, many caring for younger siblings or working to help support the family. In Basrah, I saw a 4-year-old trudging down to the hotel around 6 AM to sell little packets of seeds. She was still there when I turned in at midnight.
Children play in the trash and wastewater that trickles through the streets of Jumeirah. I asked an engineer in our delegation why the neighbors don’t do something about the situation. He replied that there is no trash pickup, no personal vehicles for hauling it away, and a whole lot of despair.
The children of Jumeriya were born into a precarious life. Their neighborhood was bombed during the Gulf War and again in 1999, killing 25 people and wounding many others. There are documented reports of bombings on shepherds, farmers, hospitals and schools.
Even though most Iraqis subsist on the meager food basket provided by the Iraqi government, I was invariably offered tea, coffee, a homemade cookie—or sadly, cups of water too toxic to drink.
This congenial woman in the Al Alowie market asked me to take her picture. This happened so frequently in Iraq that I asked the head of our delegation, a bereavement counselor, to explain it. She said it’s simple—no one wants to be forgotten.
This Basrah couple fishes in oily, polluted waters to supplement their food rations. Basrah sits at the end of the water chain, where the Tigris and Euphrates join after traveling through Turkey, Syria and the rest of Iraq, picking up waste and chemicals on their journey to the Persian Gulf. These rivers are the main water source for much of Iraq.
Bread sellers in the peasant market in the Al Alowie district of Baghdad.
We arrived early, but the courtyard at the Diarrhea Clinic was already filled with anxious mothers and crying children, many already in advanced stages of dehydration. “Water and sanitation are the biggest killers of children in this country. Not all the food and medicine in the world will improve the condition or the livelihood of these people till water and sanitation are improved,” says Tun Myat.
Wisam, a young patient at the Basrah Maternity and Pediatric Hospital, has a stomach tumor that has returned after surgery, and there are no drugs available to stop the growth. The doctor hasn’t told Malek, the father, that his son is dying. He begs, “Please bring medicine to save my son. Please.” I asked Wisam if he could do anything he wanted, what would he do? “I’d play with the animals at my father’s farm,” he said. His second choice was to play marbles. A friend and I ventured into the black market to find marbles—a pathetically small gesture, but it was all we could do for him.
On Feb. 13, 1991, a U.S. smart bomb bored through two meters of steel and concrete into the center of a bomb shelter in Ameriya, a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad. Moments later, a second million-dollar bomb struck, sending 750-degree flames through the ventilation system, incinerating more than 400 women, children and a handful of elderly men. The Pentagon apologized for the “mistake.”

Jane McBee is a photographer living in Colorado Springs, Colo. This story first appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

• To read more about economic sanctions in Iraq, visit the Global Policy Forum Web site at:

• For an overview of the Pentagon’s policy to intentionally destroy the Iraqi water supply, read Thomas J. Nagy’s exposé published in The Progressive magazine in Sept. 2001:

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