June article 2013

Reflections – June 2013

Friends:Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

In my March posting, I wrote that I had been planning to take a break from writing. I wasn’t sure how long a break it would be. But I added that I’d likely be back if I find I have something new to say. I do now!

Some days ago I was pointed to an article in the Pacific Standard magazine (psmag.com).  The title was “The Iraq Sanctions Myth” – and it claimed that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children “almost certainly never happened.” Following the article you can find my first two comments (the lower one is earlier and most relevant).

The author of the article, Professor Michael Spagat, is a professor of economics at Royal Holloway College, University of London.  A few days ago he replied to my comment and then I wrote my reply to him.  I paste my reply below (to make it more readable, with better formatting than on the Pacific Standard website).

I am sending this out to invite your thoughts and any additional information you might have.


Thank you Professor Spagat for your response to my comments.

I am glad we can agree that the independence and methodology of the New England Journal of Medicine survey makes its data and conclusions credible for both of us. (I’ll continue to refer to the NEJM survey, rather than the “International Study Team” report.) The basic point of disagreement, as I see it, is that you interpret the data as a “brief spike” in child mortality, while I find, in the report itself, compelling evidence of a continuing and much longer period of excess Iraqi children’s deaths.

The September 1992 NEJM survey stated, “The destruction of the supply of electric power at the beginning of the war, with the subsequent disruption of the electricity-dependent water and sewage systems, was probably responsible for the reported epidemics of gastrointestinal and other infections. Five years later, in April 1997, an editorial appeared in the NEJM and referred to the 1992 survey:

Iraq is an even more disastrous example of war against the public health. … The destruction of the country’s power plants had brought its entire system of water purification and distribution to a halt, leading to epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, and gastroenteritis, particularly among children. Mortality rates doubled or tripled among children admitted to hospitals in Baghdad and Basra. Cases of marasmus appeared for the first time in decades. The team observed “suffering of tragic proportions…. [with children] dying of preventable diseases and starvation.” Although the allied bombing had caused few civilian casualties, the destruction of the infrastructure resulted in devastating long-term effects on health. … The deaths resulted from infectious diseases, the decreased quality and availability of food and water, and an enfeebled medical care system hampered by the lack of drugs and supplies. (my emphasis)

Until the major causes of children’s deaths in Iraq are removed, children will continue to die; that is a simple unavoidable conclusion. To this day the national electrical system has not been brought back to anything close to the condition of 9,000-plus Mwatts of capacity prior to 1991. After the 2003 U.S. invasion, USAID promised to improve it to 50% of that capacity but never came close.

It is hard to grasp the consequences of electrical outages when we do not live in a country with 120 degree summer temperatures (49 degree C) and cold winter nights. It is hard to imagine a surgeon operating when the electricity goes out (as has been described to me) or babies dying in incubators because there was no electricity to heat them (unless, as one doctor told me, he jury-rigged a portable generator to save their lives). Can we imagine how awful not to have safe drinking water for children?

Why did the U.S. destroy Iraq’s electrical system? From the Washington Post, June 23, 1991:

Now nearly four months after the war’s end, Iraq’s electrical generation has reached only 20 to 25 percent of its prewar capacity of 9,000 to 9,500 megawatts. Pentagon analysts calculate that the country has roughly the generating capacity it had in 1920 — before reliance on refrigeration and sewage treatment became widespread.

People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage,’” said the planning officer. “Well, what were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions — help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions.” (my emphasis)

My purpose here is not to argue how many Iraqi children died, only that a great many did. My point is that until adequate electricity, sewage processing, and safe drinking water are fully restored, Iraqi children (and many others) continued to die from the same conditions as prevailed in 1991. If the excess death rate cited in the September 1992 New England Journal of Medicine had continued through 1992, then 140,700 Iraqi children under five would have died who otherwise would not have perished.

As to your thought that the war and uprisings might have been a major cause of Iraqi children’s deaths, the NEJM statistics argue otherwise. My calculations (based on the survey’s paragraph discussing diarrhea versus injury) shows that out of 100 deaths from either cause, 84 of them were from diarrhea. What is more, even with the violence of 1991 deaths from diarrhea increased more than from injury.

In the year 2000 U.S. Congressional Representative Tony Hall visited Iraq and issued this news release:

In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hall said, “I share UNICEF’s concerns about the profound effects of increasing deterioration of Iraq’s water supply and sanitation systems on its children’s health. The prime killer of children under five years of age – diarrhoeal diseases – has reached epidemic proportions and they now strike four times more often than they did in 1990.”

Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death,” Hall wrote. Of the 18 contracts, all but one hold was placed by the U.S. Government. The contracts are for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment.

Which brings me to the general issue of economic sanctions on Iraq. The sanctions made repair of Iraq’s major infrastructure components (electricity, water and sewage) impossible, and did so in two ways: 1) insufficient funds due to sanctions, and 2) the UN sanctions committee, dominated by a U.S. veto, blocked many of the needed purchases.

Two excellent books on this subject are Hans C. von Sponeck’s A Different Kind of War (you’ll remember that he was the UN Assistant Secretary General who resigned his 30-year UN career in order to protest after serving as head of the Oil-for-Food Program); and Professor Joy Gordon’s book Invisible War which describes in detail just how the sanctions regime worked, concluding with chapters on International Law and morality.

Many people traveled to Iraq during the sanctions period, including my own U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, MD. They went to visit hospitals, talk with doctors, teachers, workers, humanitarian workers. It may be convenient to assert that Saddam Hussein arranged for all of them to hear what he wanted, but that is simply not possible.

One of the most frequent and observant visitors is the highly-honored British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk. His book The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East provides many details such as the paragraph below. This shortened link presents several pages of his book: tinyurl.com/FiskOnIraq. See especially pp 706-709.

The evidence of massive human suffering was now overwhelming.  A UN humanitarian panel on sanctions reported in 1999 that “the gravity of the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people is indisputable and cannot he overstated.  Irrespective of alleged attempts by the Iraq authorities to exaggerate the significance of certain facts for political propaganda purposes, the data from different sources as well as qualitative assessments of bona fide observers and sheer common sense analysis of economic variables converge and corroborate this evaluation.”

In 1998 a reporter for The Independent described the way in which the Tigris River had changed colour to “a rich café au lait brown” from raw sewage. I have personally seen raw sewage flowing from a large pipe directly into the Tigris, and seen where overflow from Baghdad’s non-functioning treatment plant flows into the river. (This was shown in a 1991 Frontline program and the overflow was revisited by Sixty Minutes in 1996.)

In short, I find it impossible to reconcile what I’ve seen with the claim of the surveys you cite that child mortality continued to improve during this time below pre-war levels. Either I need to question the evidence of my own eyes or the data from these surveys!

I wonder if you are aware of the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence? Or the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird? These are two instances of the U.S. government’s efforts to control the stories that we get to hear and believe. They have included planting false stories which are called psychological operations (psyops).

Of course other government’s do this, including Iraq’s. But possibly no government can do this with the means and skills that the American government has at its disposal. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous dictum “Governments lie.” But some lie better and more than others. What reason would the U.S. government have to falsify health data?

I have no question in my mind that the U.S. committed major war crimes – arguably including the crime of genocide – in its 1991 Gulf War targeting of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, in the imposition of deadly economic sanctions as a means to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and in its intent to stop any ending of sanctions until he is overthrown. (Cf. tinyurl.com/BertsDeclaration & IraqiKids.org/archives/april-article-2012 for more.)

I know that others have looked at the facts and agree with this assessment. There is nothing that the U.S. can do to hide its early actions. But creating or manipulating health surveys to show that no Iraqi children died as a result would be very ‘useful’: it would eliminate a crime from the history books it wishes written. Simply put, the only conclusion that makes sense to me is that some party covertly falsified survey health data. The party with the greatest interest and ability seems to be the U.S.

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