Baghdad: a first-hand view

This is a report from a group of NGO representatives and former United Nations officials who, during the first week of January, met with Iraqi cabinet ministers -- Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Foreign Minister Nagi Sabri and Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rashid -- as well as with doctors, teachers, scientists, and ordinary citizens. They also visited sites that had recently been inspected for weapons of mass destruction.

The aim was to contribute to efforts to prevent war and to gather information not available in the western press, particularly with regard to the human situation.

Signing their names to this report are Margarita Papandreou, former First Lady of Greece; Scilla Elworthy, Director, Oxford Research Group, UK; Denis Halliday, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq; Christian Harleman, The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, Sweden; Jan Oberg, Director of The Transnational Foundation, Sweden; Zeynep Oral, Winpeace and Peace Initiative, Turkey; Omaima Rawas, peace activist and Vice-president of the Syrian Arabic League, Syria; and Fotini Sianou, President, Women‚s Committee, European Trade Union Confederation.

Attitudes of Iraqis Today

We experienced an extraordinary mixture of fatalism, faith and defiance in the El-zahrawi tea room. Watching Saddam Hussein‚s Army Day speech on television, we talked with people at random, many of whom spoke English. They said that twice now, world opinion has predicted that Iraq would collapse -- after the Gulf War in 1991, and in 1998 when 350 cruise missiles hit the country -- and once again, they will survive.

Yes, their children are afraid. Yes, the teenagers do not know if it is worth studying seriously or not. No, they will not go to the shelters.

They do not talk so much of U.S. or U.K. aggression, but rather of Bush and Blair. Until now, they have not resented the people of the countries about to bomb them, nor the civilizations, but the leaders. However, that trend seems to be changing, with the Iraqis increasingly holding the people of the U.K. and the U.S. responsible for their countries‚ policies.

In the words of Dr. Hoda Ammash, "People here bear every respect for western people and western civiliation. We respect your technological advancement, and your values. We know that westerners are being given the opportunity to learn about Arabic civilizations. Yet hatred is being manufactured, by some to engineer a clash of civilizations."

Food Reserves

Iraqi households have been given three months' (and now a further two months') food rations in order to get it out of the main storage sites, to prevent warehouses being bombed.

The food distribution programme, according to Denis Halliday, is one of the most efficient in history, involving 49,000 food distribution agents and minimizing corruption through a system whereby, if 100 people complain about an agent, he or she is removed.

Iraqis are also stockpiling water but have no suitable large containers. People with gardens are being asked to dig wells.

Under the U.N Oil-for-Food Programme, only about half the oil revenues can be used for buying food and other necessities for the population of the centre and south of the country. The rest is being used for compensation to Kuwait, food for the Iraqi Kurds in the north, and the costs of the U.N. programme, including the UNMOVIC weapons inspections.

Halliday concludes: "The 12-year sanctions regime has become a weapon of mass destruction, built on the massive damage to civilian infrastructure by U.S. bombing and resulting in the deaths of over one million people since 1991, over half of whom are children."

According to UNICEF, 25 per cent of Iraqi babies are born weighing 2 kgs. or less, a key indicator of famine. One million children under 5 suffer acute or chronic malnutrition.

Shelters

Everyone we spoke to said they would not use the 34 shelters provided for civilians in Baghdad because of the 1991 bombing of the Al-Amarya shelter, when 408 of 422 women and children in the shelter were burned to death.

Weapons Inspectors

Dr. Sami Al-Araji, a nuclear engineer and Director General of Planning at the Ministry of Industry, is facilitating the work of the UNMOVIC inspectors. Everywhere we went, we saw a remarkable willingness to co-operate with the inspections, but patience is being tested.

During our visit, there was a routine inspection near the University of Baghdad where there are six science centres. The inspectors wanted to investigate one of these, but froze the entire complex, meaning that nearly 3,000 people could not move for six hours -- even though their place of work was not under inspection. This meant that toddlers were left uncollected at nursery schools. Not even the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, there for a visit, was allowed to leave.

A professor of microbiology at the university told us that during 1991-98, inspectors re-examined the university every three weeks, wearching minutely, even entering exam halls where students were doing their finals and searching under their chairs.

The Iraqi people thought the inspections would last two or three years, after which they could go back to normal life. It is now 12 years since the inspections started, they are more intense than ever, and there is no end in sight.

We visited the al-Dawrah Foot and Mouth Vaccine Institute which was high on the list in the U.K. Government dossier (published Sept. 2002) of biological weapons sites. Since 1994, the site has been inspected 60 times. It has been closed since 1995, when all the equipment was destroyed or removed and there were cameras everywhere, connected to the former UNSCOM Monitoring Centre in Baghdad.

The place was wrecked.

Civil and Political Rights.

Since October 2002, laws and regulations have been, or are being revised as follows:

Oil

Current Iraqi production is about 3 million barrels per day (current world production is about 77 million), but it has the second largest reserves in the world. If controls were lifted, and with infrastructure investment, with its immense reserves of easily extractable oil, Iraq has the potential to supply 10 per cent of the world‚s oil needs -- and to continue to do so for at least a century, since less than 1 per cent of reserves are being used up each year.

Iraqis are very conscious of the energy needs of the western economies (the U.S. has to import 60 per cent of its oil needs) and they know that the main reason for military invasion is to gain control of its vast reserves of oil.

Iraqi ministers fear that if the U.S. were to control Iraq‚s oil production, it would manipulate the economies, not only of the Far East, but also of Europe. Iraq takes a long-term view, wants a stable oil price, and would like to adopt normal trading relations, rather than be subject to crises, threats and manipulation.

Depleted Uranium (DU)

Water-borne and airborne dust from DU shells, used by the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1991 Gulf War, is spreading over vast areas of Iraq. But the government has no way of detecting the direction of the spread because airborne radiation sensing equipment is prohibited.

People are developing cancers by consuming meat and milk from animals grazing in polluted areas. Cancers of all kinds are increasing dramatically in Iraq, particularly amongst women with breast cancer and leukaemia. Members of our delegation have visited hospitals in Iraq since 1991 and have observed that current conditions in the hospitals have worsened.

Equipment needed for treatment lies idle because the computerized controls have been removed due to sanctions. There is one nurse for every 16 beds, where previously there was one for every two beds. Every child has a mother or grandmother giving full-time care.

Three-year-old Omar has a plastino plastoma (phonetic spelling) which attacks kidneys and then destroys the brain and nervous system. His head is enlarged to twice its normal size, his face swollen unrecognizably out of shape and his eyes blind. His mother sits with him, waiting for her child to die.

Tiny Aia (meaning "miracle") was born with a second head, a brain sack attached to the back of her own head -- a condition known as meningoceal (phonetic spelling) and not seen in Iraq before the mid-1990s.

Dr. Ahmed Fadeh of the Baghdad Children‚s Hospital said there are unlimited cases he simply cannot treat because his equipment is worn out or lacks spares, and he has not got the drugs, or even the suture thread he needs, because of sanctions.

Implications for the Future

This visit was a shock treatment in learning what it feels like to be an Iraqi.

This is an ancient people, with a civilization 7,000 years old (Iraqis point out the the United States is barely 300 years old), an eonomy that, until the 1980s, was a model for the entire Middle East, and with a free health service that was ahead of the National Health Service in the U.K.

The streets are now rubble-strewn,most of the middle class have left, and people are selling their household goods on street corners in order to survive.

The currency has devalued 6,000 per cent in 20 years: in 1981, one dinar bought three U.S. dollars; today one U.S. dollar buys about 2,000 dinars. To pay a modest hotel bill for six days, you need a pile of dinar notes two meters high.

Twelve years of sanctions, intended to make the Iraqi people revolt against their leadership, have had the opposite effect, giving Saddam Hussein total control over his people through food rationing. Sanctions have simply disabled Iraqi people through hunger and the wholesale disintegration of their infrastructure. Rather than rebel against Saddam Hussein, they feel defiance towards Bush and Blair, which their leader can constantly reinforce, since their sense of honour is continuously provoked.

The humiliation is very deep and very dangerous. In these circumstances, a war and subsequent occupation of Iraq will no doubt fuel the fires of hatred and terror, consequently risking attacks on the West.

For more information, visit websites: www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk and www.transnational.org .