Eco-lateral Damage

Like the first Gulf War, this one is sure to be an environmental disaster

Ross Mirkarimi

We felt a sense of impending catastrophe, difficult to define at first, as we crossed the Jordanian border into Iraq and sped toward Baghdad. As we drove down the desert highway, the fault lines of a military conflagration started to reveal the pockmarks of the war’s chaos. We arrived. My focus turned to an ancient nation, once advanced, now engulfed in the onslaught of the war’s aftermath.

Baghdad, the barometer for the western media, stood resolute but seriously wounded. I knew that a return to normalcy there, the center of Saddam Hussein’s realm, was key to his remaining in power. Yet outside the city, any impressions of efficiency were merely delusions. That was 1991.

Shortly after the Gulf War, I was part of a nonpartisan public health and scientific team organized by Harvard University and others to chronicle the impact of the war and U.N. sanctions on the Iraqi civilian infrastructure. The International Study Team, the first to detail the comprehensive damage to Iraq’s populace and environment, established the baseline data that are still used today by non-governmental organizations in assessing infant mortality, economic instability, ecological damage and environmentally borne diseases. The team’s findings were reported worldwide. The study was scientific. The toll was horrific.

The data spoke volumes: “Surgical” strikes lacked precision, and the aftermath of combat claimed much more than the reported collateral damage to innocent bystanders and their support systems. The United Nations was supposed to convene a special session in November 1991 to receive our report. But under Security Council protocol, any permanent member nation was allowed to reject such a hearing. The United States requested that the hearing not take place. Despite fanfare abroad, our study team’s findings were relegated to the fringe here at home.

Instantly, academics and scientists became activists. I was on the road for more than two years, speaking about the need to lift economic sanctions against Iraq’s civilians and to implement an honorable peace so that future war with Iraq would be staved off. Unfortunately, U.S. diplomacy misjudged Saddam’s tyrannical resilience after extricating Iraq from Kuwait. Saddam would not let Washington dictate a political outcome following the war, and a new script for a future war was put forward by Republican Party architects.

A cold war with Iraq emerged, but the impacts of the 1991 war and ensuing U.N. sanctions endured far beyond the battlefield, blurring the distinction between combatants and victims who have had no say over its course. Surpassing 800,000 in 2002, far more Iraqi civilians, especially children, have died from the lingering consequences of the first Gulf War than died during the war itself.

As the public health crisis has raged on, relief organizations like UNICEF and Oxfam have been forced to pirouette around the political red tape of U.N. sanctions. In triage mode, the environmental health impacts that have engulfed Iraq have been treated in terms of its symptoms rather than as a complex pattern. A bombed-out paint factory, the altered chemistry of a river, a defoliated tree grove and a shattered economy have combined to foster disease, genetic mutations and slow, torturous deaths.

Once a modern nation, Iraq is now a country of waterborne diseases induced by improper sanitation and deficient supplies of potable water; imperiled flora and fauna due to uncontrolled pollution and habitat displacement; contaminated ecosystems peppered by depleted uranium bullets; soil and agricultural erosion caused by reduced photosynthesis and poor irrigation; and depleted livestock due to disease and the interruption of food chains.

To force Saddam out of Iraq, President Bush, like his father before him, is willing to risk untold catastrophe as an acceptable price of victory. As the war unfolds, sanitized and conflicting reports on the escalating damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure and environment remain murky at best. Since U.S. and British forces have secured a majority of Iraq’s oil fields, the dramatic images of raging fires and oil-soaked birds seem less likely to be replayed. While visually less ferocious, the insidious effects of destroying Iraq’s electrical infrastructure and serpentine water-delivery system are having a profound impact in plunging Iraq into a deeper humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations and U.S. government are rushing cargo ships of humanitarian relief to the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr and Basra, but the international community has yet to fathom the magnitude of what it will take to rehabilitate the immense toll of Iraq’s ecological health catastrophe, which has lingered for nearly a generation. Environmental health organizations from around the globe are banding together in opposition to this war and to the energy polices that drove us toward it.

Ross Mirkarimi works for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. He coordinated the environmental impact investigation in Iraq on behalf of ARC Ecology and the Harvard Study Team in 1991. He returned to Iraq in 1992 on a follow-up mission. Visit www​.Envi​rosAgainst​War​.org for more information.
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