Fifteen years ago this month, the United States spearheaded a fantastically bloody war on Iraq as part of its ongoing effort to ensure the Iraqi nation’s perpetual misery.
Straight-up carnage aside, there were some other more trivial yet still “spectacularly unsavoury” results of the invasion, as veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn recalls: “Soon after US occupation officials took over Saddam Hussein’s palace complex in central Baghdad as their headquarters … the lavatories in the palaces all became blocked and began to overflow. Mobile toilets were rapidly shipped into the country and installed in the palace gardens.”
Increasing rates of cancer and birth defects
As it turned out, the Americans had failed to read up on bathroom traditions in the Middle East, or to realise that in many parts of the world, defecation is not accompanied by massive quantities of toilet paper.
While such visuals were no doubt also metaphorically relevant, given the excrement that passes for US policy in the region, the fallout of the war on Iraq has been toxic in far more extraordinarily pernicious ways.
Consider, for instance, Cockburn’s 2010 article for The Independent, headlined “Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah ‘worse than Hiroshima'”. In it, he outlined the results of a study by British scientist Chris Busby and colleagues Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi on the increase in reports of cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and other forms of suffering in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the focus of a particularly vicious US assault.
To be sure, as one of the top polluters on the entire planet, the US military has never been thrilled about acknowledging what would appear to be obvious: that saturating the environment with toxic materials will have repercussions on both environmental and human health, including the health of the United States’ own warriors, as underlined by the afflictions affecting veterans of the Vietnam War and first Gulf War, among other imperial escapades.
According to Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an award-winning toxicologist based in Michigan, “around six billion bullets were expended into the Iraqi environment” between 2002 and 2005 alone – which, along with bombs, have led to “public contamination with … toxic metals”.
Depleted uranium: a long-term hazard
But the US military arsenal extends far beyond traditional guns and bombs. In 2012, Robert Fisk wrote about a 14-month-old Iraqi named Sayef who had a severely enlarged head, was blind, paralysed and unable to swallow. Noting that much blame for the rise in congenital birth defects in Fallujah had been directed at the United States’ use of white phosphorus there, Fisk was nonetheless forced to include the caveat: “No one, of course, can produce cast-iron evidence that American munitions have caused the tragedy of Fallujah’s children.”
Yet the possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship becomes more and more difficult to deny. Already in 2009, the Guardian had reported that doctors in Fallujah were “dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants” as the previous year, such as a baby born with two heads.
In 2013, Al Jazeera quoted Sharif al-Alwachi of the Babil Cancer Centre in southern Iraq, who attributed escalating cancer rates since 2003 on the US military’s use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons. Al Jazeera also threw in the following uplifting note: “The remaining traces of DU in Iraq represent a formidable long-term environmental hazard, as they will remain radioactive for more than 4.5 billion years.”