We Say Liberation, You Say War Crimes

"Whether I hate Saddam or not, and I'm not saying I do," one man told me quietly during my recent trip to Iraq, "I hate America -- the government, not the people -- for what it did and is going to do to our children."

His is not a lone voice. The vast majority of the Iraqi people I spoke to believe the United States committed war crimes during the last Gulf war in 1991 by using depleted uranium (DU) weapons deliberately to cause cancer and inflict birth defects for generations to come.

Propaganda? Perhaps. But when so many people believe it in a country the United States hopes to "liberate" from oppression, it cannot be lightly dismissed. With war seemingly unstoppable, there is a gaping disconnect -- in Iraq and many other parts of the world -- between how the United States sees its history and future with Iraq and how others see it.

In 1991, American gunners fired a million rounds of DU projectiles to destroy Iraqi armored vehicles. DU rounds are far more effective than regular ammunition at penetrating armor: They are denser and generate intense heat on impact, and literally burn their way through. The heat also causes the radioactive DU to disintegrate into fine particles that contaminate soil, water, air and people.

The Pentagon does not deny that DU carries risks. Washington tightly regulates its creation and use, and mandates disposal into low-level radioactive waste dumps. But in Iraq, DU blows in the desert wind across its still-radioactive battlefields; it clings to old tank bodies; it contaminates the environment.

The Pentagon insists that the health effects are insignificant and are an accidental by-product of a useful technology. Be that as it may, Iraqis believe that DU is intended to cause long-term health consequences. The fact that there is no way to prove the extent of harm -- much less U.S. intent -- is beside the point for Iraqis. It is the perception that counts.

From Baghdad to Basra, and from government officials to foreign-trained doctors and impoverished mothers, the Iraqis I talked to all believe that DU is causing an epidemic of cancer and birth defects. According to Jawad Khudim al-Ali, director of the cancer ward at Saddam Teaching Hospital in Basra -- the area most exposed to DU -- cancer rates are now 11 times what they were before the last war. Doctors at the hospital wheeled out for me an elderly woman, who they said was dying of cancer caused by DU. The gravity of her situation was clear, even though the cause was not.

A few days later in Baghdad, I wandered without a minder for hours through Saddam City, a sprawling slum that houses many of Iraq's internally displaced people. In a tiny grocery store, I talked through a Jordanian translator to the proprietor about daily life and preparations for the war. She was "more than 60 years old," and 35 people lived in her tiny house. Soon family members joined the conversation, and neighbours leaned in through a paneless window.

A woman arrived holding a baby. She gently peeled back the infant's clothes to show me a red tumor, convoluted and fist-sized, on the infant's back. "DU did this to my baby," she said. "The doctors told me that if the tumor is removed, he will probably die. Tell that to Bush, please, and ask him why his father did this to my child." Others told of birth defects they believed were caused by DU, or of a child with leukaemia who could not get medication because of the embargo. "I am afraid to get pregnant," said one woman, as others nodded. And each was convinced that DU was deliberately intended to inflict this long-term damage; this was not "collateral damage."

They "knew" this just as surely as Americans "knew" in 1991 that Iraqi soldiers had thrown Kuwaiti babies out of incubators to die on hospital floors. After the incubator story had successfully demonized the Iraqi military and ennobled the cause of liberating Kuwait, it emerged that it had been concocted by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the UN, who wept as she told Congress about the horror of the dying infants. She had been put forward to the hearing by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. Then as now, Iraqis and Americans alike have demonized the enemy with a toxic stew of fact, half truth and utter nonsense. The subtlety of the seasoning varies, but the effects are always poisonous.

In the impending war, the Pentagon will again use DU weapons, and again controversy will flare in the United States over just how dangerous they are to American troops and Iraqi civilians. But in Iraq, there is no debate. And if the United States succeeds in taking over the country, it may come to understand another "side effect" of DU: the widespread belief that the "liberators" committed heinous war crimes. In such a climate, American prospects for nation building in Iraq are hardly bright.

Terry Allen has just visited Iraq as part of a medical and human rights research team sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York.

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