War Still Pounds Iraqis

The conflict's effects remain: public health problems, environmental hazards, destruction of water supplies, and reduced crop yields

By , Ross B. Mirkarimi of San Francisco's Arms Control Research Center recently returned from his second investigation inside Iraq.

IT'S well over a year since Operation Desert Storm ceased. Iraq is no longer in the spotlight and for good reason. A number of the parties involved in the war are anxious to put its conflict behind them. Baghdad - the barometer for the Western media - appears to be rapidly recovering. A return to "normalcy" is within sight.

Yet there is much more work to be done to alleviate the human suffering and environmental damage in the region. The Gulf war and the stiff United Nations embargo that followed have pushed Iraq - once a rapidly developing nation - back by decades.

Studies conducted by international missions indicate that the public health crisis in Iraq continues. The most comprehensive examination to date, by the International Study Team (the second Harvard Study Team), documents that over 70,000 children under the age of five died in 1991 because of the effects of the Gulf war and sanctions.

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Subsequent studies indicate that nearly 30,000 children have died in the first four months of 1992. The main cause of death is malnutrition and dehydration. Infant mortality has risen 310 percent compared to pre-Gulf war Iraq.

Foreign physicians visiting Iraq are frustrated by the number of children dying from previously minor ailments like flu or diarrhea. Now as temperatures rise with the arrival of summer, the problem will get worse. In southern Iraq, doctors are bracing for an increase in cholera and typhoid fever.

The ability of UN relief agencies and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate restoration projects or distribute food and medicine in Iraq is shaky. Given the tensions between Iraq and the United States-led coalition, relief groups are forced to pirouette around the sanctions issue.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was scheduled to have pulled most of its several hundred staffers out of northern Iraq by the end of May. Their mandate now goes to the already overworked UNICEF staff in Iraq.

While the UNHCR recedes from the north, questions arise about who will fill the role as the buffer between the Kurds and Saddam Hussein's military. No one seems to have an answer.

Military historians are likely to remember the Gulf war as a modern day blitzkrieg, a triumph of "smart bombs" and other high-tech wizardry. While the fighting was brought to a swift conclusion, however, the onslaught against the environment and human health continues.

A recent report by the GAO on US weapon efficacy in the Gulf war estimates that 70 percent of the conventional bombs dropped missed their targets; 20 percent of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq didn't explode.

Iraq's electrical system, the backbone of the country, was thoroughly bombed. It now operates at a precarious 60 percent. Because of the embargo, the country is forced to cannibalize spare parts for makeshift repairs.

Iraq's agriculture has been devastated. The lack of electricity has crippled most of the irrigation network. There is a severe shortage of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and veterinary medicines. The Arms Control Research Center provided environmental analysis for to the September International Study Team mission. Its pessimistic forecast for the June 1992 harvest has been affirmed by UN relief agencies.

Most of the population outside of Baghdad is susceptible to a high incidence of waterborne diseases. While some northern cities have stabilized their potable water supply, Iraq's southern half is feverishly trying to restore its water system.

The Basra Petro-Chemical Plant, built by Loomis-USA, was the largest producer of chlorine in Iraq - 45,000 tons per year, 90 percent of it used for water purification. The plant was destroyed in three separate Allied attacks. Loomis employees were working there until two weeks before the bombing; they knew that a plant like that couldn't be converted into a chemical weapons station in two weeks. Iraq was a major exporter of chlorine prior to the Gulf war.

From my experience in Iraq, it's clear that the environmental effects of the Gulf war will continue to harm people for years to come.

Most scientists are looking only at the environmental degradation in Kuwait and ignoring the tragedy next door in Iraq.

Before scientists provide an optimistic regional forecast on the Gulf environment, they'd better complete their work and consider factors like these: intense pollution from the bombed factories, imperiling Iraq's flora and fauna; unexploded ordnance; and the depleted uranium from Allied armor-piercing bullets that cover southern Iraq.

The UN Environmental Program has yet to include Iraq in the assessments of the UN Gulf Task Force.

Iraq is paying the price of war. The UN Security Council is not expected to lift economic sanctions until well into 1993. Meanwhile, the Bush administration believes that sanctions may erode stability inside Iraq and lead to the overthrow of Saddam. This conventional wisdom will only result in countless more deaths.

If the international community is to have any hope of rehabilitating Iraq, the people and the environment must be saved at the same time that weapons are being destroyed. The fate of Iraqi civilians, especially children, must not be sacrificed because of the behavior of their government.

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