- Over the last two years, I've discovered documents of
the Defense Intelligence Agency proving beyond a doubt that, contrary to
the Geneva Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions
against Iraq to degrade the country's water supply after the Gulf War.
The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children,
would pay, and it went ahead anyway.
- The primary document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,"
is dated January 22, 1991. It spells out how sanctions will prevent Iraq
from supplying clean water to its citizens.
- "Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment
and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily
mineralized and frequently brackish to saline," the document states.
"With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts
and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent
United Nations Sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to
secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much
of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics,
- The document goes into great technical detail about the
sources and quality of Iraq's water supply. The quality of untreated water
"generally is poor," and drinking such water "could result
in diarrhea," the document says. It notes that Iraq's rivers "contain
biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the
water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera,
hepatitis, and typhoid could occur."
- The document notes that the importation of chlorine "has
been embargoed" by sanctions. "Recent reports indicate the chlorine
supply is critically low."
- Food and medicine will also be affected, the document
states. "Food processing, electronic, and, particularly, pharmaceutical
plants require extremely pure water that is free from biological contaminants,"
- The document addresses possible Iraqi countermeasures
to obtain drinkable water despite sanctions.
- "Iraq conceivably could truck water from the mountain
reservoirs to urban areas. But the capability to gain significant quantities
is extremely limited," the document states. "The amount of pipe
on hand and the lack of pumping stations would limit laying pipelines to
these reservoirs. Moreover, without chlorine purification, the water still
would contain biological pollutants. Some affluent Iraqis could obtain
their own minimally adequate supply of good quality water from Northern
Iraqi sources. If boiled, the water could be safely consumed. Poorer Iraqis
and industries requiring large quantities of pure water would not be able
to meet their needs."
- The document also discounted the possibility of Iraqis
using rainwater. "Precipitation occurs in Iraq during the winter and
spring, but it falls primarily in the northern mountains," it says.
"Sporadic rains, sometimes heavy, fall over the lower plains. But
Iraq could not rely on rain to provide adequate pure water."
- As an alternative, "Iraq could try convincing the
United Nations or individual countries to exempt water treatment supplies
from sanctions for humanitarian reasons," the document says. "It
probably also is attempting to purchase supplies by using some sympathetic
countries as fronts. If such attempts fail, Iraqi alternatives are not
adequate for their national requirements."
- In cold language, the document spells out what is in
store: "Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because
of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences
of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable unless the
population were careful to boil water."
- The document gives a timetable for the destruction of
Iraq's water supplies. "Iraq's overall water treatment capability
will suffer a slow decline, rather than a precipitous halt," it says.
"Although Iraq is already experiencing a loss of water treatment capability,
it probably will take at least six months (to June 1991) before the system
is fully degraded."
- This document, which was partially declassified but unpublicized
in 1995, can be found on the Pentagon's web site at www.gulflink.osd.mil.
(I disclosed this document last fall. But the news media showed little
interest in it. The only reporters I know of who wrote lengthy stories
on it were Felicity Arbuthnot in the Sunday Herald of Scotland, who broke
the story, and Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinel, who did a follow-up.)
- Recently, I have come across other DIA documents that
confirm the Pentagon's monitoring of the degradation of Iraq's water supply.
These documents have not been publicized until now.
- The first one in this batch is called "Disease Information,"
and is also dated January 22, 1991. At the top, it says, "Subject:
Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad." The analysis
is blunt: "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. Any urban
area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar
- The document proceeds to itemize the likely outbreaks.
It mentions "acute diarrhea" brought on by bacteria such as E.
coli, shigella, and salmonella, or by protozoa such as giardia, which will
affect "particularly children," or by rotavirus, which will also
affect "particularly children," a phrase it puts in parentheses.
And it cites the possibilities of typhoid and cholera outbreaks.
- The document warns that the Iraqi government may "blame
the United States for public health problems created by the military conflict."
- The second DIA document, "Disease Outbreaks in Iraq,"
is dated February 21, 1990, but the year is clearly a typo and should be
1991. It states: "Conditions are favorable for communicable disease
outbreaks, particularly in major urban areas affected by coalition bombing."
It adds: "Infectious disease prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas
targeted by coalition bombing (Baghdad, Basrah) undoubtedly has increased
since the beginning of Desert Storm. . . . Current public health problems
are attributable to the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste
disposal, water purification and distribution, electricity, and the decreased
ability to control disease outbreaks."
- This document lists the "most likely diseases during
next sixty-ninety days (descending order): diarrheal diseases (particularly
children); acute respiratory illnesses (colds and influenza); typhoid;
hepatitis A (particularly children); measles, diphtheria, and pertussis
(particularly children); meningitis, including meningococcal (particularly
children); cholera (possible, but less likely)."
- Like the previous document, this one warns that the Iraqi
government might "propagandize increases of endemic diseases."
- The third document in this series, "Medical Problems
in Iraq," is dated March 15, 1991. It says: "Communicable diseases
in Baghdad are more widespread than usually observed during this time of
the year and are linked to the poor sanitary conditions (contaminated water
supplies and improper sewage disposal) resulting from the war. According
to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)/World Health Organization
report, the quantity of potable water is less than 5 percent of the original
supply, there are no operational water and sewage treatment plants, and
the reported incidence of diarrhea is four times above normal levels. Additionally,
respiratory infections are on the rise. Children particularly have been
affected by these diseases."
- Perhaps to put a gloss on things, the document states,
"There are indications that the situation is improving and that the
population is coping with the degraded conditions." But it adds: "Conditions
in Baghdad remain favorable for communicable disease outbreaks."
- The fourth document, "Status of Disease at Refugee
Camps," is dated May 1991. The summary says, "Cholera and measles
have emerged at refugee camps. Further infectious diseases will spread
due to inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation."
- The reason for this outbreak is clearly stated again.
"The main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhea, dysentery,
and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water.
These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children."
- The fifth document, "Health Conditions in Iraq,
June 1991," is still heavily censored. All I can make out is that
the DIA sent a source "to assess health conditions and determine the
most critical medical needs of Iraq. Source observed that Iraqi medical
system was in considerable disarray, medical facilities had been extensively
looted, and almost all medicines were in critically short supply."
- In one refugee camp, the document says, "at least
80 percent of the population" has diarrhea. At this same camp, named
Cukurca, "cholera, hepatitis type B, and measles have broken out."
- The protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor was observed
in Iraq "for the first time," the document adds. "Gastroenteritis
was killing children. . . . In the south, 80 percent of the deaths were
children (with the exception of Al Amarah, where 60 percent of deaths were
- The final document is "Iraq: Assessment of Current
Health Threats and Capabilities," and it is dated November 15, 1991.
This one has a distinct damage-control feel to it. Here is how it begins:
"Restoration of Iraq's public health services and shortages of major
medical materiel remain dominant international concerns. Both issues apparently
are being exploited by Saddam Hussein in an effort to keep public opinion
firmly against the U.S. and its Coalition allies and to direct blame away
from the Iraqi government."
- It minimizes the extent of the damage. "Although
current countrywide infectious disease incidence in Iraq is higher than
it was before the Gulf War, it is not at the catastrophic levels that some
groups predicted. The Iraqi regime will continue to exploit disease incidence
data for its own political purposes."
- And it places the blame squarely on Saddam Hussein. "Iraq's
medical supply shortages are the result of the central government's stockpiling,
selective distribution, and exploitation of domestic and international
relief medical resources." It adds: "Resumption of public health
programs . . . depends completely on the Iraqi government."
- As these documents illustrate, the United States knew
sanctions 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.
- The Geneva Convention is absolutely clear. 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."
- But that is precisely what the U.S. government did, with
malice aforethought. It "destroyed, removed, or rendered useless"
Iraq's "drinking water installations and supplies." The sanctions,
imposed for a decade largely at the insistence of the United States, constitute
a violation of the Geneva Convention. They amount to a systematic effort
to, in the DIA's own words, "fully degrade" Iraq's water sources.
- At a House hearing on June 7, Representative Cynthia
McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, referred to the document "Iraq Water
Treatment Vulnerabilities" and said: "Attacking the Iraqi public
drinking water supply flagrantly targets civilians and is a violation of
the Geneva Convention and of the fundamental laws of civilized nations."
- Over the last decade, Washington extended the toll by
continuing to withhold approval for Iraq to import the few chemicals and
items of equipment it needed in order to clean up its water supply.
- Last summer, Representative Tony Hall, Democrat of Ohio,
wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "about the profound
effects of the increasing deterioration of Iraq's water supply and sanitation
systems on its children's health." Hall wrote, "The prime killer
of children under five years of age--diarrheal diseases--has reached epidemic
proportions, and they now strike four times more often than they did in
1990. . . . Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are
a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death. Of the eighteen
contracts, all but one hold was placed by the U.S. government. The contracts
are for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water
tankers, and other equipment. . . . I urge you to weigh your decision against
the disease and death that are the unavoidable result of not having safe
drinking water and minimum levels of sanitation."
- For more than ten years, the United States has deliberately
pursued a policy of destroying the water treatment system of Iraq, knowing
full well the cost in Iraqi lives. The United Nations has estimated that
more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions, and
that 5,000 Iraqi children continue to die every month for this reason.
- No one can say that the United States didn't know what
it was doing.
- See for Yourself
- All the DIA documents mentioned in this article were
found at the Department of Defense's Gulflink site.
- To read or print documents:
- 1.go to www.gulflink.osd.mil
- 2.click on "Declassified Documents" on the
left side of the front page
- 3.the next page is entitled "Browse Recently Declassified
- 4.click on "search" under "Declassifed
Documents" on the left side of that page
- 5.the next page is entitled "Search Recently Declassified
- 6.enter search terms such as "disease information
effects of bombing"
- 7.click on the search button
- 8.the next page is entitled "Data Sources"
- 9.click on DIA
- 10.click on one of the titles
- It's not the easiest, best-organized site on the Internet,
but I have found the folks at Gulflink to be helpful and responsive. -Thomas
- Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School of Business and
Public Management at George Washington University. http://www.progressive.org/0901/nagy0901.html