The Humanitarian Impacts of the Iraq Wars

by Peter Phillips

excerpted from the book

Censored 2004

by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

Seven Stories Press, 2003, paper


In 1998, Project Censored gave a top ten rating to a story about how U.S. weapons of mass destruction were linked to the death of a half-million children in Iraq. By then it was clear that the U.N. sanctions advanced by the United States against Iraq had taken the lives of more Iraqi citizens than did the military actions of the first Gulf War itself. The sanctions imposed on Iraq are causing shortages of food, medical supplies, and medicine.

In May 1996, then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright acknowledged on 60 Minutes that more than half a million children under the age of five had died since the war ended. UNICEF reported in 1998 that child mortality continued at 150 per day. The United States, up to Gulf War II, held the position that sanctions against Iraq must continue until it can be proven that the country is unable to build biological or chemical weapons. Of these deaths, many are attributed to depleted uranium (DU) weapons. Additionally, severe birth defects are known to be caused by radiation exposure. The rate of cancer in Iraqi children has increased dramatically.

Few Americans were ever fully aware of the enormous human toll caused by the continuing war on Iraq. The corporate media characterized the deaths, disease, and hardships of Iraq as 'claims,' while misunderstanding and grossly understating the damage and potential health hazards caused by the sanctions and the use of depleted uranium.

The historical context of the U.S. being the original supplier of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was rarely mentioned in corporate media. Little media attention was paid to 1994 Senate panel reports that between 1985 and 1989, U.S. firms supplied microorganisms needed for the production of Iraq's chemical and biological warfare. U.N. inspectors found and removed chemical and biological components identical to those previously furnished by the United States to Iraq. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles reported that in 1990 more than 207 companies from 21 Western countries, including at least 18 from the United States, contributed to the buildup of Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical arsenal.

By the year 2000, over one million Iraqi children had either starved to death from U.N.-imposed sanctions or become the victims of cancer and other maladies from exposure to chemical and biological weapons. In the San Francisco Chronicle on September 19, 1999, UNICEF was reported to have claimed that an average 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five die each month and that the number of Iraqi children with cancer has increased sevenfold. When asked about the effects of the sanctions on the plight of Iraq's children, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it." The Houston Chronicle expounded on Albright's position, stating that Washington refuses to take responsibility for the human toll from economic sanctions

Denis Halliday, a former U.N. assistant secretary general and coordinator of the U.N.'s humanitarian program in Iraq, resigned his post in protest in 1998. Halliday stated he no longer wanted to be a part of the devastating effects of the sanctions on the children: "Sanctions are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis, and turning a whole generation against the West," Halliday stated. Halliday's successor, Dr. Hans Von Sponeck, also resigned rather than carry out what he called "information cleansing." Von Sponeck described in December of 2002 how the Iraqi people were expected to live on only $174 per person per year under the embargo. "Infant mortality has risen 150 percent since 1990," he stated.


A postwar survey of hospitals by the Los Angeles Times disclosed that during Gulf War II over 1,700 civilians died and more than 8,000 were injured in Baghdad alone. Nationwide, the number probably reached tens of thousands, but these are numbers that the Pentagon chooses not to collect. Undocumented burials were common during the war, making it impossible to get accurate data on total civilian deaths. Given that the estimates are that some 3,500 Iraqi civilians died in Gulf War I, almost all by air attacks, it seams likely that the numbers for 2003 are much higher.

Rohan Pearce, writing in the Green Left Weekly on April 16, 2003, stated:

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, on April 7, the A1 Kindi hospital in Baghdad-the only hospital ICRC representatives could visit because of continuing clashes between U.S. troops and Iraqi resistance forces-was admitting around 10 patients per hour. Hospital staff had already been working nonstop for three days.

An April 7 report by the BBC put the average number of admissions to the hospital at 100 per hour. It noted that even before the first incursion of U.S. troops in Baghdad on April 5, all five major hospitals in the city were overflowing with wounded-so many that the ICRC has given up trying to calculate the number.

Journalists from the British Independent reported that stocks of anesthetics at A1 Kindi had run so low that when surgery was performed patients were being provided with 800 mg of ibuprofen-"the equivalent of two headache pills"-and even the ICRC has only been able to provide medical supplies for 100 operations, falling short of enough for even one day's injured. "Clean towels cannot be supplied because the hospital washing machines overload the emergency generators," The Independent reported.

In Umm Qasr, under British occupation, the situation is much the same. Its clinic is overflowing, reported Radio Free Europe on April 7: "The helpless staff includes two doctors and 25 nurses, all working 12-hour shifts, who have long ago run out of medicines, including simple antibiotics."

UNICEF has warned that 100,000 Iraqi children under the age of five are in danger of serious illness after the war. On April 2, the head of the U.N. agency's Iraq operations, Carel de Rooy, said that more Iraqi children had died from drinking unsanitary water than any other cause last year. Marc Vergara, a UNICEF worker trying to ensure a sanitary water supply to the country, told the April 9 Baltimore Sun: "What we're doing is symbolic. It does not even come close to meeting the need." Iraq's humanitarian crisis is exacerbated by the fact that 41 percent of the population is 14 years old or younger. An April 6 press statement by UNICEF noted that even for those children who are saved from death, "there are other profound and debilitating consequences that last for years to come." The statement added: "The scars of war do not easily fade. Physical and psychological trauma, fear and the loss of loved ones continue to plague the lives of those who have endured such horrors."


Gregory Elich reported in Global Outlook (Winter 2003) of the impacts depleted uranium (DU) munitions from the first Gulf War were having on the people of Iraq. DU munitions (800 tons used during Gulf War I) leave thousands of alpha radioactive particles in the environment with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. People or animals ingesting even a single particle of DU suffer grave consequences to their health. Leukemia and other cancers have soared in Iraq in the past decade.

DU dust, when inhaled or ingested, creates flu-like symptoms within a few days. Severe exposure may result in respiratory problems vomiting and internal bleeding. The Royal Society (2002) reported that DU contamination may lead to death within a few days because of its toxic effects on the renal system. Long-term impacts include cancer and compromised immune systems.

Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson visited four randomly chosen sites hit by depleted uranium shell in Baghdad and reports that local people haven't been warned of the radiation danger, but U.S. troops have orders to avoid the sites.

The May 15, 2003 Christian Science Monitor reported:

At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks. But Ms. Hamid's stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by -and contaminated with-controversial American depleted uranium bullets. Local children play throughout the day on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven't been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.

Alex Kirby reported on BBC News on April 15 that the U.S. rejected proposals for cleanup of DU sites in Iraq-even though both U.N. and U.S. reports acknowledge the dust can be dangerous if inhaled.


In addition to the impact on the families of U.S. solders who are killed or wounded in the Iraq war, Jon Elliston and Catherine Lutz reported in the Spring 2003 issue of Southern Exposure that after war, there are sharp increases in domestic violence when the solders come home. "We could literally tell what units were being deployed from where, based on the volume of calls we received from given bases," says Christine Hansen, executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which has assisted more than 10,000 victims of military-related domestic violence since 1997. The calls were from women who were facing threats and physical abuse from their partners-the same men who were supposedly being deployed on a mission to make America safer. "Then the same thing happened on the other end, when they came back," Hansen adds.

Elliston and Lutz wrote:

It took the rapid-fire deaths of four women to turn national attention to this oft-overlooked form of domestic terror. The problem forced its way into the headlines last July [2002], following a spate of murders by soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In the space of just five weeks, four women married to soldiers were killed by their spouses, according to the authorities. Marilyn Griffin was stabbed 70 times and her trailer set on fire, Teresa Nieves and Andrea Floyd were shot in the head, and Jennifer Wright was strangled. All four couples had children, several now orphaned as two of the men shot themselves after killing their wives.

The murders garnered wide attention because they were clustered over such a short period and because three of the soldiers had served in special operations units that fought in Afghanistan.

The murders have raised a host of questions-about the effects of war on the people who wage it, the spillover on civilians from training military personnel to kill, the role of military institutional values, and even the possible psychiatric side effects of an antimalarial drug the army gives its soldiers. On the epidemic of violence against women throughout the United States and on the role of gender in both military and civilian domestic violence, however, there has been a deafening silence."

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