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Documents show U.S. intended to degrade Iraq water supply


Pentagon documents show that the United States used sanctions against Iraq to degrade that country’s water supply following the 1991 Gulf War, knowing that the consequences would be increased illness and disease, particularly among children, according to an article in the September issue of The Progressive magazine.

According to the cover story, “The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply,” author Thomas J. Nagy says the documents, reaching back to 1991, show that the United States knew it had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. “It knew what the consequences would be: increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. And it was more concerned about the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis.”

Nagy writes that the documents of the Defense Intelligence Agency that he discovered during the past two years show that the United States violated provisions of the Geneva Convention. The Defense Intelligence Agency, according to a government Web site, furnishes foreign intelligence to the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense and other “authorized recipients.”

The documents also seem to bear out the persistent criticisms by many groups that oppose sanctions because they affect the most vulnerable in Iraqi society -- children and the elderly -- and have little effect in dislodging Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The United Nations Children’s Fund, in an August 1999 report, concluded that the deaths of 500,000 children under the age of 5 were directly related to the U.S.-backed economic sanctions. The report also said that the death rate among Iraqi children under age 5 had risen to more than twice the rate prior to the sanctions.

One of the documents cited by Nagy, titled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” and dated Jan. 22, 1991, acknowledged that Iraq “depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals” to keep its water supply pure. It predicted that Iraq, which had no domestic source for spare parts or chemicals, would attempt to circumvent the sanctions, which banned import of the needed parts and chemicals. The documents also speculated that Iraq would try to convince the United Nations to exempt water treatment supplies from sanctions or to “purchase supplies by using some sympathetic countries as fronts. If such attempts fail, Iraqi alternatives are not adequate for their national requirements.”

“Failing to secure supplies,” the document said, “will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”

Another document, titled “Disease Information” and also dated Jan. 22, 1991, analyzed the “effects of bombing on disease occurrence” in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital city. “Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks.” Among the diseases it predicts would result from the bombings’ effects were acute diarrhea brought on by bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and others affecting “particularly children.”

In a March 1991 document, the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that communicable diseases in Baghdad were more widespread than usual and linked that condition to the poor sanitary conditions resulting from the war. It further cites a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)/World Health Organization report that said that “children particularly have been affected” by diseases resulting from the lack of operational water and sewage treatment plants.

A document dated June 1991, still heavily censored according to Nagy, assesses health conditions in Iraq at that time and noted that the “Iraqi medical system was in considerable disarray, medical facilities have been extensively looted and almost all medicines were in critically short supply.”

The document reported that at least 80 percent of the population in one refugee camp had diarrhea and that cholera, hepatitis type B and measles had broken out at the camp.

Kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency disease, was observed in Iraq for the first time, according to the document, which added, “Gastroenteritis was killing children … in the South, 80 percent of the deaths were children (with the exception of Al amarah, where 60 percent of the deaths were children.)”

“The Geneva Convention is absolutely clear,” writes Nagy in The Progressive. “In a 1979 protocol relating to the ‘protection of victims of international armed conflicts,’ Article 54, it states: ‘It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001