GRAVESITES: Environmental Ruin in Iraq

Barbara Nimri Aziz

It was a sunny spring afternoon in North Iraq in 1996. I stood on a gentling sloping verge overlooking meadows of what was supposed to be young wheat. A cover of green tinged with a soft yellow extended as far as one could see in all directions and, from a distance, it appeared to be an undisturbed pastoral setting. On the surface , it looked serene.

Had I traveled 400 kilometers just to escape the ugliness of Baghdad and the constant sight of beggars there? Did I come to this green landscape to shut out those endless complaints about food prices, and the now tedious questions put to me as a visiting journalist about when the UN sanctions might end? As much as I could, I had addressed those issues.

Now I was pursuing my own agenda-- to investigate agricultural production. Why should the UN economic sanctions, imposed 6 years ago and still strictly enforced, affect local food production?

I wanted to know. So I traveled to the northern wheat growing area around Mosul, as well as to small family farms both north and south of Baghdad. With me on that tour in the north were agronomists from the agricultural office in Mosul.

This was the administrative center for the entire northern governate. This region was Iraq's breadbasket-a grain growing center for the country of 19 million people. The Iraqis were to show me the farms, and when we pulled off the road and walked up the slope, I waited for them to lead me to fields where wheat grew. Yet the men did not move beyond where we stood when I asked to see the wheat. "This is it," said the officer quietly, looking at the ground. "This is the crop." I looked down at the growth at my feet, then around the hill, and finally at my Iraqi hosts. I was confused. "I do not believe this is a wheat field." I was stunned that I had blurted this out; I felt embarrassed. It was as if I had accused the men of deception. Mohammed Sheet is chief plant protection officer, a trained agronomist. Neither he nor his assistants responded to my observation. What were they to reply? I broke into the awful silence and asked if we could move deeper into the field, as if our proximity to the road somehow was responsible for the sickly growth around us. They obliged and we walked 500 meters deeper into the field. It was the same. I said nothing. "Yes, this is also wheat," said the official. It was no different than what grew at the first site. Now all of us were silent, gazing at the ground, as if standing on a grave. Recovering from the shock, I apologized. I knew what ripe, healthy grain fields look like and I could recognize young stands of wheat. Elsewhere in the world, I had witnessed bad crops too, places where seventy percent was lost due to drought, and I had observed thin fields planted with bad seed or crops eaten back by pests. But I had never seen anything as bad as this.

I asked Mr. Sheet to point out which was the wheat plant. He bent down and touched some of the grass shoots visible among the growth. Hardly more than shreds had reached the surface. The grass was just no more than four inches high, whereas a normal crop should be eighteen inches by this time of the year. Low yield is one thing. But this wheat was so badly infested, it was virtually destroyed. Moreover, this tragedy seemed to be no accident. The growth at our feet was largely mustard weed and another thick plant I found very ugly. Both were weeds. Together they almost obliterated the wheat. Wide, prickly leaves of the second weed covered most of the ground. There was no possibility of separating these from the food crop. Not now, nor when the fields are harvested. Moreover, these weeds had also consumed most of the precious, limited which farmers had applied here. Weeds of course are a threat everywhere. If not controlled, they destroy. They cannot be cut out by hand or machine; today only chemicals can control them. Herbicides and pesticides could have saved some of that wheat. But they were unavailable. Why? They are embargoed by the UN along with other agricultural products and machinery. For years they have been almost absent from Iraq so that the current level of infestation is a result of accumulated neglect. And only with permission from the UN Sanctions Committee in New York can those essential chemicals be obtained. But permits are not forthcoming.

This year, as in the past, the critical time for spraying had passed before the Food and Agricultural office in Baghdad received UN approval to import the essential chemicals. The crop was lost. And the farmers knew it. Indeed, before leaving Mr. Sheet's Mosul office for these fields, I had personally witnessed dozens of farmers, anxious and angry, pleading with the government bureaucrats for some pesticide. The Really Scary Part} The chain of death created by the Gulf War is a scary thing. I'm not talking about black skies under the blazing oil wells of Kuwait, or charred remains of soldiers on the sand or the incinerated families who had sought protection in a bomb shelter. Those are familiar images of death, recognizable, and however painful, they are finite. With the end of hostilities, they disappear. The really scary part comes later --now-- when we find that things which looked alive, are really dead, or doomed. I refer to a chain of deadly pollution, the kind that creeps up on us, first with vague complaints, then with the persistence of strange illnesses, then with more testimonials of similar symptoms. We slowly recognize that disparate reports which first appear unrelated are, in fact, connected. We have the sickening sense of something spreading, without limits, of something embedded so deep within the system that it's unreachable.

Our inquiries are met with denials. So, to begin, all we seek to do is confront it. We just want to stand on the gravesite as if it were a known, finite place. This is our feeling, I think, as we hear more and more documentation regarding Gulf War Syndrome and its link to the use, by the Pentagon, of depleted uranium weaponry during the 1991 war.

Evidence is mounting, and those soldiers who find themselves stricken are growing in number, networking and uniting in a swelling movement of people who refuse to accept government disclaimers that these soldiers might be the victims of some new dangerous materials the Pentagon used.

While a public movement to ban depleted uranium grows and attracts more media attention in the U.S., in Iraq there is barely a whisper about what the human effects of exposure to depleted uranium might be. Of course many Iraqis were killed outright by the weapons that blew apart their vehicles and their bunkers. Those who survived the onslaught and fled must have ingested and carried with them the fumes and dust created by the bombardments. There is also the uranium waste --300 tons of it, according to reports-- left on the battlefield. Today the entire population of Iraq is besieged by diseases. We know that waterborne parasites and bacteria and malnutrition in Iraq is responsible for many recognizable diseases, and for wasting and death. But what about reports of a sharp rise in spont aneous abortions, cancers, and other "new diseases?" The Iraqi Ministry of Health is systematically documenting some of these health problems.

However, as far as I am aware, only Dr. Siegwart Gunther of the Austrian Yellow Cross International, is systematically studying evidence of possible Gulf War Syndrome inside Iraq and the high incidence across the country of abnormal births. It is possible that the Iraqi government is also assembling facts in this area but I withholding information so as not to create even greater panic than already exists among its public. It also lacks adequate diagnostic instruments to undertake the needed research. Or, like the Pentagon, it may seek to play down the inexplicable illnesses of its soldiers.

Iraqi Scientists Most Concerned About Radiation} Nevertheless, those most concerned about radiation and other kinds of pollution are probably Iraqis. Their entire population is probably afflicted. And essential comparative studies of strange illnesses in the Iraqi population would best be gathered by their own scientists. Iraq has, or had, a highly trained community of biologists, environmentalists, energy specialists, cancer researchers, etc., most of whom earned advanced degrees from the US or UK. With access to the entire country, they are capable of conducting the needed research.

Until the embargo and war, these scholars were in the international scientific community; they published widely and they took part in international scientific gatherings. Because of the embargo however, their work and their findings are unknown to us. These men and women are now denied professional contact with their peers overseas. Their government can no longer afford to sponsor their travel; but more importantly, the international embargo effectively extends into this area of scientific exchange.

Today Iraqis find they can neither obtain invitations to consult with others abroad nor visas to attend conferences. (See Aziz, "Scientists Outside History", {\i\ul Natural History} Sept. 1996 pp. 14-17.) This is happening at a time when health and environmental conditions inside Iraq are deteriorating, and bad conditions generated by the war are spreading, creating a catastrophe of accelerating proportions and unknown ramifications. This is the time when data from within the country are essential, and when Iraqis are well placed to offer first hand data and important comparative material.

The Pentagon, which has been trying so hard to suppress information about the extent, occurrence and possible source of Gulf War Syndrome among its own personnel, would doubtless want to keep any Ira qi source silent on the matter as well. Even a scientist researching the hazardous effects of the war finds herself or himself effectively blocked from reporting important, relevant findings.

Dr. Huda Ammash is one of those Iraqi scientists who should be speaking to her international colleagues. She is presently an environmental biologist and professor at Baghdad University; but she studied in the US and obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Working with governmental departments of agriculture, health, and environment, Ammash is now undertaking research in Iraq. When I met her in 1995, she kindly shared her report with me. She is most concerned with the enormous energy emission and light energy from the massive bombing in the forty days of war on 1991 and the resulting radiation. " We know that ionization causes radiation," she said. " It is now diffused throughout the entire airspace of Iraq and has likely spread to our neighbors as well, possibly as far north as the southern border of Russia."

Dr. Ammash calculates that "the prolonged effect of this ionization is, over a period of more than ten years, equal to one hundred Chernobyls. Dr. Ammash and others note that "an outbreak of meningitis in children, concentrated in one Baghdad locality is highly unusual and may be a manifestation of high ionization levels. It has never been seen in Iraq before and, under the circumstances of the embargo, Iraq can provide no immunization against it." She notes the alarm among doctors she interviewed who report that "ninety-nine percent of the victims of this disease are children." Ammash accumulated reports that show cancer increasing at rapid and abnormal rates; child leukemia is especially rampant with some areas of South Iraq showing a four-fold rise in these few years. Breast cancer in young women (age 30) is also many times higher than in 1990, in certain parts of Iraq."

In addition, the Iraqi environment is subject to a mass of other chemical and microbial pollutants released into the atmosphere be cause of indirect results of the war. Ammash points out, for example, how "damage to bombed and crippled industrial plants resulted in the leakage of millions of liters of chemical pollutants --black oil, fuel oil, liquid sulfur, concentrated sulfuric acid, ammonia, and insecticides-- into the atmosphere. Fumes created by the bombardment of more than 380 oil wells produced toxic gases and acid rain.\rdblquote Bombardment of chemical factories damaged their gas purification units and thus created tremendous air poll ution as well. If these filters can't function, dangerous gasses are allowed to escape from cement factories. Up to the present, the imposition of sanctions prevent the repair of these industrial filters.

Untreated heavy water from industrial centers are the media for growth of microbes, mainly typhoid, malta fever, and other pathogenic bacteria. Ammash also reports fourteen crop diseases \endash including covered smut, sazamia moth, yellow crust, spickulated drought disease, gladosporium disease, and epical bent --which were never before recorded in Iraq's history. These are now infecting date trees and citrus trees." Nothing, nothing is immune to these toxins." Now let's return to those fields. When I arrived back in Baghdad, I followed up my research in Mosul with discussions with agriculture officials and with visits to small, local farms engaged in mixed agriculture.

I spoke with experts at Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a UN agency in Baghdad since before the Gulf War. Their mandate is to assist any nation to increase its food production and they are trying to help Iraq in this area. Now, more than ever, with food unobtainable from abroad, Iraq is obliged to reverse its rather neglected agricultural policy with active food production schemes. Since the imposition of the embargo, Iraq had been trying to do so, bringing more land under grain production and improving irrigation. Iraq Could Be Self-sufficient} FAO officials were unequivocal about prospects. "Iraq could be self sufficient in grain," said director Amir Khalil. "It has the water; it has the land; it has the expertise." Yet, despite efforts and the growing food crisis, production was declining. Why? For agriculture experts and farmers alike, the explanation is simple: "No herbicides, no pesticides, no fertilizer, no improved seed." The animal husbandry and poultry situation is as severe as the grain crisis. Without vaccines and other medicines, all of which Iraq cannot furnish itself, animals-- like people and plants-- cannot survive. According to an FAO report, since 1990, dairy herds were down forty percent.

Before the war, dairy cows numbered 1,512,000; by 1995, their number fell to only one million. Water buffaloes suffered an even worse fate, and goat herds declined from 1.3 million to less than a quarter of a million. Iraq's poultry system with 106 million hatching hens was virtually wiped out overnight by the bombing when electrically run poultry sheds across the country-- 8, 400 units-- shut down. Without vaccines and specialized, treated food, moreover, hens cannot survive long. Why this devastation? Largely because agricultural imports, all essential in food production in any modern state today, are unavailable. Like plant diseases, animal diseases too are completely uncontrolled. All of this is documented in the 1995 FAO Survey, itself commissioned by the UN. This is the same organization--the UN-- whose Sanctions Committee, either outright refuses to allow those imports (requested by the FAO), or simply (somehow) cannot manage to facilitate approval at the critical time. If we are to believe FAO's own reports, it seems that another weapon in this cowardly secret war is the denial of agricultural essentials-- a kind of sabotage-- to ensure Iraq cannot become food self-sufficient.

Meanwhile unchecked infestations are spreading beyond Iraq's borders. Those wind-borne diseases are expected to infect every part of the region--crossing to the neighboring nations that encircle Iraq. Iraqi officials hope that Turkey, Jordan, I ran and others will become sufficiently alarmed to call for international action. But thus far, Ammash and others say, "We do not know of any efforts outside Iraq to control these developments." This Iraqi biologist does not know what related research is being carried out in Jordan. "We are totally disconnected," Ammash says with distress. "We have no means of communication with others." It is ominous that it was also during my research in the farming community that I found the first shocking evidence of a plague little discussed in the human population. I

went to small family farms around Baghdad to observe crop production there. I found myself annoyed to see fields again overrun with weeds. Even orchards were untended. This time I stopped myself saying anything foolish. I could see the tractors were broken. I knew shortage of fertilizer had reduced yields of apple and grain as well as vegetables to half of what they were. I could see the plant spraying machine was idle; it was broken, explained the farmer. Anyway, even if it worked, where was he to get chemical sprays? In the course of our long conversation in their home after my inspection of the fields, we spoke about social life. One farmer remarked that marriages were fewer now. "Why?", I asked. The answer was straightforward. "Young people fear the birth of malformed fetuses and still births. "How was this? "We look around our village," they said. "Everyone knows couples in the village who had such babies in the last four years." With the help of several farmers and the local schoolteacher, I took an ad hoc survey. They had 160 houses here, and among these, they counted twenty where malformed babies had been born. My hosts noted that most of the fathers of these still born and abnormal births in their village are men who served in the army during the Gulf War. They noted many spontaneous abortions but did not include these. I had heard in Baghdad that more spontaneous abortions are reported across the country as many times more than before 1990

The Iraqi Ministry of Health could not provide me with any statistics about this development. But my inquiries at five hospitals (in Mosul, Baghdad and Kerbala) revealed that the number of abnormal births recorded in hospitals had dramatically increased. Re calling their personal experience, all doctors with whom I spoke estimate they see ten times more such births today than five years ago. One doctor in Mosul said she saw two cases a year before 1991; she now sees four to five cases a month.

The symptoms? "Babies born without ears, without eyes, without limbs or with foreshortened limbs, without formed genitalia, with cleft palate, club foot, enlarged heads." One doctor reported her first knowledge of a case of congenital leukemia. " How can I have any plans? " A professor of poultry science had accompanied us to the fields in Mosul. From seeing how he walked and stood, I already suspected he himself was unwell. Nevertheless, I inquired about his plans for further research. I still remember the bewildered look on his face when I asked him this. "Plans? Madam," he said softly. "I am trying to feed my family; I am looking for a medicine for my ill father. How can I have plans?" I asked Dr. Ammash the same question. "It is difficult for anyone to have a plan," she quietly explained. "You have a plan when you have a settled situation-- known circumstances. We don't have that anywhere in Iraq. My immediate plan is to provide tomorrow's means for life for my children, to help my students into another successful day. After that, I don't know." As for her research, the professor says one major study is complete. She wants to enlarge the study concentrating on electromagnetic fields. But that research requires instruments and expertise from outside; because of sanctions, this cannot proceed. She calls on other scientists from outside Iraq to join Iraqis in demanding that those powers imposing sanctions allow this research to be undertaken and experts in neighboring countries to begin collaborative work with her. ********************

The Bulletin and Al-Bushra website thanks Barbara Nimri Aziz for granting us the right to reproduce and prints her articles.

Sincerely Ibrahim Ebeid