Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, March 1, 2001

Meeting the 'enemy' in a brutalized Iraq

ROD DRIVER First of two parts

For 10 years, Americans have traveled by car or bus to Iraq in defiance of U.S. government prohibitions. But the trip I joined in January, organized by Dr. James Jennings of Conscience International, was the first "airlift" of Americans carrying humanitarian supplies.

Customs inspectors at the Baghdad airport paid little attention to our luggage – except for those of us with video cameras. We each had to fill out a declaration form listing our camcorders and the number of videotapes we were carrying. (I can’t explain why, because I videotaped freely for the next six days; and when we left the country no one asked about the camcorder, the videotapes or the declaration form.)

Visiting Iraq carries risks. You might get seriously ill from drinking contaminated water from Iraq’s bomb-damaged, water-treatment plants. You might be killed by American bombs or missiles still falling on Iraq several times per week. You might even die in the crazy Baghdad traffic. Or you could be hassled by Washington for traveling to Iraq without US permission.

What Americans don’t have to worry about is the reception of the Iraqi people. The Iraqis welcomed us warmly. They seem to believe that the American people are not responsible for the actions of the American government. Maybe their naďve concept of democracy arises from their own lack of voice in their government. This warm reception was typified in a tiny rural village called Toq Al-Ghazalat, about 120 miles south of Baghdad. We had gone there to express our regrets to the family of Omran Jawair, the 13-year-old who, last May 17, had been in a field 200 yards from his home, tending his family’s sheep, when an American missile landed and exploded in the field. It tore off Omran’s head, maimed his four companions and killed several sheep.

The houses in Toq Al-Ghazat are built of mud bricks, and no modern facilities are seen for miles around. It is difficult to guess what could have justified the attack that killed Omran. Suddenly, while we were in the village, American (or possibly British) planes flew overhead. They could be heard, but were too high to see. It was the first time I had heard the sounds of air raid sirens and hostile planes overhead since I lived in London as a child under Hitler’s bombardment in the 1940s.

Yet the villagers welcomed us Americans without apparent animosity for Omran’s death or for the planes overhead that might bomb them at any moment. No bombs or missiles fell on southern Iraq that day. But four days later they did; and six more civilians were killed.

In Baghdad itself we visited the Amariya bomb shelter. That shelter had been filled with women and children on the night of Feb. 12, 1991, when two American missiles tore through the reinforced-concrete roof. The tragedy of 10 years ago is evidenced by the inch-thick reinforcing rods still twisted like spaghetti where the missiles entered the structure, plus photos of some of the 400 who died that night.

As frightening and deadly as the bombs and missiles are, the greatest suffering is caused by the sanctions which deny Iraq many basic essentials of modern society. In 1996, to ease the civilian suffering,the U.N. began allowing Iraq to sell some of its oil to get money for food, medicine and other necessities.

But here’s the way it works. Under the "oil-for-food" program, all the money from these oil sales goes to the U.N., which skims off about a third for "reparations" and "administration." The rest is supposed to buy humanitarian supplies for Iraq. Iraq can negotiate contracts with suppliers of these items. But no contract can be implemented without approval from the U.N. Sanctions Committee. And on this committee the United States and the United Kingdon have veto power. More than $3 billion worth of material including medical supplies, ambulances and repair parts for pumps and generators, are "on hold" because of U.S. and U.K. objections. Some of the requests date back to January 1998.

Iraq had excellent schools before 1991. But today, schools from elementary through college level lack modern books, computers and other supplies. Even medical books and journals are denied via the U.S. ban on commerce with Iraq. Before the war, Iraqis had perhaps the best medical care in the Arab world, and it was free. Whatever equipment and drugs they needed, they had. But today the hospitals are at the mercy of the Sanctions Committee. When repair parts for vital equipment are denied, hospital personnel do the best they can with makeshift repairs.

At Al Mansour Hospital – one of Iraq’s best – the administrator gratefully accepted the meager medical supplies we had brought. Children in that hospital are dying of respiratory diseases because Iraq’s bombed oxygen factories cannot meet the needs for oxygen. Other children are succumbing to gastrointestinal disease, malnutrition and even measles. The hospital lacks chemotherapy supplies, antibiotics and even pain killers. Mothers stay in the hospital day and night with their children. The hospital lacks sufficient staff to care for patients without help from the families. We saw one mother connecting a new drip bag to a vein in her daughter’s foot.

In the corridor, a man carried the body of his daughter, who had died earlier that morning. He was going from place to place to satisfy the red tape to get a death certificate so that, in the Muslim tradition, he could bury her the same day. Outside the hospital a woman was led away wailing in distress. Her seven-year-old daughter had just died of a congenital heart defect because the hospital lacked facilities for surgery to correct it.

Anyone who believes that Arabs don’t value human life should see the parents in hospitals day and night caring for their sick children. Parents are totally devastated, as you or I would be, when their children die.

Not all Iraqis are Moslems. On Sunday in Baghdad, several in our group attended the evening service of a large Presbyterian Church. Without understanding Arabic, we could appreciate the upbeat music. And once again we were greeted with warmth and friendship.

Rod Driver is a retired professor of mathematics at the University of Rhode Island and a former Rhode Island state representative. He ran as an independent in last November's election for Congress, finishing second in a four-way race.