letter from iraq

text and photos by thorne anderson

I am writing to let friends and family know that I am home in Belgrade after spending a month in Iraq. Kael was in Belgrade with me last week. She just returned from 10 days in Albania with the NY Times. Before that, she was in Bosnia with US News. We were lucky we could both be home at the same time. She’s back in Bosnia with the NY Times this weekend. I don't plan to return to Iraq until late December or early January -- perhaps earlier if it appears that there will be an attack. I'm really committed to the Iraq issue, and I can't even think about other work in other places until there is some kind of resolution to the crisis in Iraq. Some of you have written to me with concerns for my safety in Iraq, but this was easily one of the safest assignments I have taken. In all my time in Iraq, in spite of an intense awareness of the threat of an impending attack by the United States, I never met a single Iraqi who had a harsh word for me. Iraqis are very good at distinguishing between the U.S. government and a U.S. citizen. Some friends and family are also already wondering why I would want to go back to Iraq, as I am committed and already anxious to do. It just seems to me that as a photojournalist, Iraq is where I might best play a role in making a small difference.

Ameriyya bomb shelter in Baghdad, hit by two American bombs killing 408 civilians including nearly 100 children. The shelter is now open to the public and preserved as a memorial.

I did some work for Newsweek and Time magazines while in Iraq, but that kind of work has really become secondary for me. I do what I can to influence (in admittedly small ways) what kinds of stories those big magazines do, but ultimately their stories are nearly worthless at confronting the inhumanity of American foreign policy in the Middle East. I will continue to work with Time and Newsweek (and with other corporate media) on stories that I don't find offensive, but the bulk of my efforts are now going into reaching alternative media and in supporting anti-war groups in the states. I hope I can find some time soon to come to the states for a speaking tour of sorts. There's a lot of talk about whether or not the U.S. will go to war with Iraq. What many people don't realize is that the U.S. is already at war in Iraq. I made two trips last month into the "no-fly zone" created by the U.S. with Britain and France in southern Iraq. Actually it would be better named the "only we fly" zone or the "we bomb" zone. "We" refers to the United States who does almost all of the flying and bombing (France pulled out years ago, and Britain is largely a nominal participant). There is another no-fly zone in the north, which the U.S. says it maintains to protect the Kurds, but while the U.S. prevents Iraqi aircraft from entering the region, it does nothing to prevent or even to criticize Turkey (a U.S. ally) from flying into northern Iraq on numerous occasions to bomb Kurdish communities there.

Jumariya neighborhood in Basra where raw sewage floods the streets - the U.S. bombed the sanitation facilities for Basra.

Tukey’s bombing in Iraq is dwarfed by that of the U.S. The U.S. has been bombing Iraq on a weekly and sometimes daily basis for the past 12 years. There were seven civilians killed in these bombings about two weeks ago, and I’m told of more civilians last week, but I'm sure that didn't get much or perhaps any press in the U.S. It is estimated that U.S. bombing has killed 500 Iraqis just since 1999. Actually I believe that number to be higher if you take into account the effects of the massive use of depleted uranium (DU) in the bombing. The U.S. has dropped well in excess of 300 tons of this radioactive material in Iraq (30 times the amount dropped in Kosovo) since 1991. Some of the DU is further contaminated with other radioactive particles including Neptunium and Plutonium 239, perhaps the most carcinogenic of all radioactive materials, and these particles are now beginning to show up in ground water samples.

I spent a lot of time in overcrowded cancer wards in Iraqi hospitals. Since U.S. bombing began in Iraq, cancer rates have increased nearly six fold in the south, where U.S. bombing and consequent levels of DU are most severe. The most pronounced increases are in leukaemia and lung, kidney, and thyroid cancers associated with poisoning by heavy metals (such as DU). But the most lethal weapon in Iraq is the intense sanctions regime. The toll of the sanctions is one of the most under-reported stories of the past decade in the U.S. press. I have seen a few references to the sanctions recently in the U.S. press, but invariably they will subtly discredit humanitarian concerns by relying on Iraqi government statements rather than on the statistics of international agencies. My careless colleague at Time magazine, for example, recently reported that "the Iraqi government blames the sanctions for the deaths of thousands of children under the age of five." That's simply not true. The Iraqi government, in fact, blames the sanctions for the deaths of *more than a million* children under the age of five. But lets put that figure aside, for there's no need to rely solely on the Iraqi government, and let's refer instead to UNICEF and WHO reports which blame the sanctions directly for the excess deaths of approximately 500,000 children under the age of five, and nearly a million Iraqis of all ages. We all have an idea of the grief borne by the United States after the September 11 attacks. Employing the crude mathematics of casualty figures, multiply that grief by 300 and place it on the hearts of a country with one tenth the population of the United States and perhaps we can get a crude idea of what kind of suffering has already been inflicted on the Iraqi people in the past decade.

Ticket-taker for an American movie in a Baghdad movie theater.

The greatest killer of young children in Iraq is dehydration from diarrhoea caused by water-borne illnesses which are amplified by the intentional destruction of water treatment and sanitation facilities by the United States. The U.S. plan for destroying water treatment facilities and suppressing their rehabilitation was outlined just before the American entry into the 1991 Gulf War. The January, 1991, Dept. of Defense document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities," goes into great detail about how the destruction of water treatment facilities and their subsequent impairment by the sanctions regime will lead to “increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." I can report from my time in Iraq that all is going to plan. Cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid (previously almost unheard of in Iraq) are now quite common. Malaria and, of course, dysentery are rampant, and immunities to all types of disease are extremely low. Even those lucky children who manage to get a sufficient daily caloric intake risk losing it all to diarrhoea. Around 4,000 children die every month from starvation and preventable disease in Iraq -- a six-fold increase since pre-sanctions measurements.

Treatment of illnesses in Iraq is complicated by the inability of hospitals to get the drugs they need through the wall of sanctions. In a hospital in Baghdad I encountered a mother with a very sick one-year-old child. After the boy’s circumcision ceremony, the child was found to have a congenital disease which inhibits his blood’s ability to clot, which results in excessive bleeding. The child encountered further complications when he took a fall and sustained a head injury which was slowly drowning his brain in his own blood. In any other country the boy would simply take regular doses of a drug called Factor 8, and he could then lead a relatively normal life. But an order for Factor 8 was put “on hold” by the United States (prohibited for import), so the doctor, the mother, and I could only watch the child die.

Much is made of Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, but it is the sanctions, the use of depleted uranium, and the destruction of Iraq's health and sanitation infrastructure that are the weapons of greatest mass destruction in Iraq. The situation is so bad that Dennis Halliday, the former Humanitarian Coordinator for the UN in Iraq, took the dramatic step of resigning his position in protest at the sanctions. “We are in the process of destroying an entire society,” Halliday wrote. “It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” And Halliday isn’t alone. His successor, Hans Von Sponeck, also resigned in protest and went so far as to describe the sanctions as genocide. These are not left-wing radicals. These are career bureaucrats who chose to throw away their careers at the UN rather than give tacit support to unethical policies driven by the United States. Being in Iraq showed me the utter devastation U.S. policy (war and sanctions) has wrought there and has given me a vision of what horror a new war would bring. And, of course, an attack on Iraq would be just the beginning of a terrifying chain of reactions throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. Having worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine in the past year, I am intensely aware of how the fragile politics and powers outside Iraq can be dramatically unsettled by a U.S. invasion within Iraq.

Wedding party in Baghdad.

It’s easy to imagine an impending tragedy of enormous proportion before us, and I ask myself who must step up and take responsibility for stopping it. Clearly the U.S. government is the most powerful actor, but it is equally clear that we cannot turn aside and realistically expect the U.S. government to suddenly reverse the momentum it has created for war. So I feel the weight of responsibility on me, on U.S. citizens, to do whatever we can with our individually small but collectively powerful means to change the course of our government's policy. I try to picture myself 10 or 20 years in the future, and I don't want to be in the position where I reflect on the enormous tragedies of the beginning of the 21st century and admit that I did nothing at all to recognize or prevent them. I don't know how this letter will sound to my friends and family who are living in the U.S., in a media environment which does very little to effectively question U.S. policy and almost nothing to encourage ordinary people to participate in making a change. I imagine this letter may sound like the political rant of some kind of extremist or anti-American dissident. But that's not how it feels to me. This doesn't feel like a political issue to me so much as it feels like a personal issue. I am appalled on a very human level at the suffering which U.S. policy is already inflicting and I am terrified by the prospects for an even more chaotic and violent future.

And let’s be honest about U.S. policy aims. Those in the U.S. government pushing for war say they are doing so to promote democracy, to protect the rights of minorities, and to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction. But is the U.S. threatening to attack Saudi Arabia or a host of other U.S. allies which have similarly un-democratic regimes? How many of us would advocate going to war with Turkey over the brutal repression of its Kurdish minority and of the Kurds in Iraq? And do we expect the U.S. to bomb Israel or Pakistan which each have hundreds of nuclear weapons? Let’s remember that leaders in the previous weapons inspection team in Iraq had declared that 95% of Iraqs weapons of mass destruction capabilities were destroyed. And let’s not forget that in the 1980s, when Iraq was actually using chemical weapons against the Kurds and the Iranian army, the U.S. had nothing to say about it. On the contrary, at that time President Reagan sent a U.S. envoy to Iraq to normalize diplomatic relations, to support its war with Iran, and to offer subsidies for preferential trade with Iraq. That envoy arrived in Baghdad on the very day that the UN confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, and he said absolutely nothing about it. That envoy, by the way, was Donald Rumsfeld.

Bus tout hanging out the door as the bus speeds through the streets of
Baghdad at night.

While Iraq probably has very little weaponry to actually threaten the United States, they do have oil. According to a recent survey of the West Qurna and Majnoon oil fields in southern Iraq, they may even have the world’s largest oil reserves, surpassing those of Saudi Arabia. Let’s be honest about U.S. policy aims and ask ourselves if we can, in good conscience, support continued destruction of Iraq in order to control its oil. I believe that most Americans -- Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Purples or whatever -- would be similarly horrified by the effects of sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq if they could simply see the place, as I have, up close in its human dimensions; if they could see Iraq as a nation of 22 million mothers, sons, daughters, teachers, doctors, mechanics, and window washers, and not simply as a single cartoonish villain. I genuinely believe that my view of Iraq is a view that would sit comfortably in mainstream America if most Americans could see Iraq with their own eyes and not simply through the eyes of a media establishment which has simply gotten used to ignoring the death and destruction which perpetuates American foreign policy aims. While the American media fixates on the evils of the “repressive regime of Saddam Hussein,” both real and wildly exaggerated, how often are we reminded of the horrors of the last Gulf War, when more than 150,000 were killed (former U.S. Navy Secretary, John Lehman, estimated 200,000). I simply don’t believe that most Americans could come face-to-face with the Iraqi people and say from their hearts that they deserve another war. I believe in the fundamental values of democracy -- the protection of the most powerless among us from the whims of the most powerful. I believe in the ideals of the United Nations as a forum for solving international conflicts non-violently. These are mainstream values, and they are exactly the values that are most imperilled by present U.S. policy. That's why, as a citizen of the United States and as a member of humanity, I can't rest easily so long as I think there is something, anything, that I can do to make a difference.


Editor's note: Since receiving this letter from Thorne, he has returned to Baghdad--more of his work can be found at www.iraqjournal.org.
all text and photos are copyright 2003 thorne anderson.