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Dear Friends: Reflections on Iraq


I am a public health physician. I have just returned from a 10-day emergency mission to Iraq to assess the vulnerability of the civilian population to another war. I'm also a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Vietnam veteran, so I have some sense of the potential consequences of the air war we are about to unleash on Iraq.

The people of Iraq have yet to recover from the Gulf War and with more than ten years of sanctions they have been reduced to the conditions of refugees. UNICEF estimates that 500,000 more children have died than would normally be expected in the last decade. These deaths were not included in the estimates of the so-called "collateral damage" from the Gulf War.

Today 60% of the population depends entirely upon a government ration of approximately 2200 calories per day, barely the minimum required for human sustenance. Malnutrition is widespread. To prevent Iraqi armed forces from movement or re-supply, the U.S. will cut roads and bridges. Food distribution will cease to function.

While in Iraq I saw 40 year old generating plants held together with bailing wire, because they have been unable to obtain spare parts under sanctions. The electrical system is essential to the public health infrastructure. U.S. aircraft will spread millions of graphite filaments to paralyze the Iraq's electrical grids.

The water treatment system, too, has been degraded by sanctions. Unable to import the chemicals necessary to purify water, there has been 1000% increase in the incidence of some diseases such as typhoid.

While in Baghdad I walked gingerly in sewage filled streets of neighborhoods where ailing pumps had failed. Less than 10% of the sewage lift stations have back-up generators. Without electricity sewage pumping will come to an abrupt halt. Pregnant women, malnourished children, and the elderly will be the first to succumb to epidemics of water borne diseases.

The health care system in Iraq cannot handle an emergency of this nature. Hospitals are already overcrowded. There will be thousands of civilian victims during the initial air assault as the Pentagon has promised to deliver a cruise missile every five minutes for the first 48 hours. Military analysts say the first targets will be intelligence and security forces such as the Republican Guards. Those units are mostly based in cities. Not even so-called 'smart weapons' can avoid widespread casualties in such circumstances.

While visiting a children's hospital, our delegation was told about diseases that are now re-emerging, because there are insufficient pesticides to control them. I met a mother and daughter who traveled 200 km seeking treatment for a disease called leschmaniasis. There was no medicine. The embittered pediatrician turned to me and said in English, "It would be kinder to shoot her rather send her home to the lingering death that awaits her." When the mother heard these words translated into Arabic her eyes filled with tears.

Saddam Hussein has built huge mosques and strengthened his army with funds that could have purchased medicines. He has murdered thousands of his own people. There is no doubt he is a monster. Many Iraqis want him removed but not by a U.S. war. His neighbors neither fear his army nor its aging equipment. Many former United Nations weapons inspectors feel Iraq has been largely been disarmed and the United Nations can insure that process continues.

If the U.S. pursues this war without the backing of the U.N. Security Council, it will undermine a half century of efforts by the world community to establish humanitarian and human rights law. Such an act would also violate the United Nations Charter. It would make a mockery of the very institution we helped create with the hope it would prevent crimes against humanity.

I have worked in war zones before and I have been with civilians as they were bombed by U.S. supplied aircraft. However, I have never witnessed anything on the magnitude of this looming catastrophe.

Just as Iraqi civilians largely paid the consequences for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, it is they who will be forced to pay again. Only this time there are no spare parts for the electrical generators, no spare chemicals for the water purification plants, no spare body fat for the malnourished children, no spare iron stores for the anemic pregnant mothers, and no spare food in anyone's pantry. Nor did I sense that the Iraqi people have any spare emotional capacity to cope with more trauma.

I have seen the faces of Iraqi civilians and I will never accept the Pentagon's description of their deaths as "collateral damage."

-- Charlie

Charlie Clements was the co-founder of the International Medical Relief Fund and was its president for fifteen years. He is the past President of Physicians for Human Rights and has served on their board for fifteen years. He is a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Washington School of Public Health as well as a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is currently President and CEO of WaterWorks, a Santa Fe-based not-for-profit that helps American communities without running water and sewer systems. He also teaches part-time at the Bartos Institute for the Constructive Engagement of Conflict at the United World College in Montezuma, NM. The emergency public health mission to Iraq, in which he participated, was sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, 162 Montague St., 2nd Floor,Brooklyn, NY 11201, Tel: (718) 237-9145.

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