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The article in Sept.'s Progressive: "The Secret behind the Sanctions"

Dear Colleagues,

    The copy of the article which I sent directly from the Progressive's site, evidently did not make it to the CASI discussion list so 
I'm sending again by  the tried and true cut 'n paste method.


                     The PROGRESSIVE
                     September, 2001

The Secret Behind the Sanctions
How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply
by Thomas J. Nagy

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, of disease."

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," it says.

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 (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 problems."

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 

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 children)."

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 

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 

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 on "Declassified Documents" on the left side of the front page

3.the next page is entitled "Browse Recently Declassified Documents" on "search" under "Declassifed Documents" on the left side of that 

5.the next page is entitled "Search Recently Declassified Documents"

6.enter search terms such as "disease information effects of bombing" on the search button

8.the next page is entitled "Data Sources" on DIA 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 J. Nagy


Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School of Business and Public Management at 
George Washington University.

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