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[casi] Inside Iraq: Gulf War left water supply compromised

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Inside Iraq: Gulf War left water supply compromised
By Jon Sawyer
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief
05/27/2002 09:08 PM

Retired Rolla computer science professor Tom Sager at the Hamdamjissir
water treatment plant near Basra, Iraq, that he helped repair last year.
(Jon Sawyer/P-D)

HIBHIB, Iraq - The health of 7,000 people who live in the farming region of
Hibhib, 50 miles north of Baghdad, depends on the one good eye of Abdul
Rahman Hussein.

Several times a day he climbs up the bamboo ladder perched precariously
against one of the rusted storage tanks of the Mansouria al-Shatt water
treatment plant.

If the water pumped in from the tributary of the Tigris River looks
reasonably clear, Hussein says, he pours in a tin bucket full of liquid
chlorine. If it's unusually clouded, he'll goose up the dose with two or
three buckets more.

Hussein has been the custodian here for 25 years. Over the cot in his room
below, you see the electric switch box and the gauges for measuring
chlorine content and other tools of water purification.

The gauges don't work anymore - not since U.S.-led attacks in the 1991 Gulf
War knocked out most of Iraq's electrical grid and with it most of the
motors, gauges and pumps that drove the country's 1,400 water treatment

U.S. insistence on the letter of United Nations sanctions against Iraq have
stymied efforts to rebuild the water treatment plants. Gas chlorinators
have often been banned, for example; they might be diverted to chemical
weapons programs.

Earlier this month, thanks to an eclectic group of American military
veterans and like-minded supporters, repairs began at the Hibhib plant.

As Hussein climbed atop the tanks and eyeballed the water, he took in as
well an unusual sight: half a dozen Americans shoveling dirt, taking notes
and drawing up a list of parts, everything from filters to pumps,
chlorinators and a new intake line out to the river's main channel.

One of the Americans pitching in to clear a drainage ditch that morning was
Art Dorland, 59, a Vietnam War vet who now works construction in Cleveland.
He was making his second trip in two years to rebuild damaged water
treatment plants in Iraq.

Dorland says that raising questions about U.S. policy toward Iraq at a
moment of unprecedented support for President George W. Bush's war on
terror brings to mind a memory from his days in the Navy - that "in the
snappiest, smartest, most robotic military review, there's always some damn
fool out on the parade ground who just can't make his step follow the

"If the newspapers are telling it right, we are a united country," Dorland
adds. "The American war eagle is high aloft, swooping on prey, scarcely
ruffling a handsome pinion, and we're all loving it."

Except, that is, for Veterans for Peace - Dorland's outfit - which marches
to the beat of a distinctly different drum.

Let others talk of war, Dorland said. "We just want to fix water pipes."

Marching out of step

Nearly four out of five Americans support the decisions Bush has so far
made in the campaign against terrorism, according to recent surveys. Those
polls also suggest that 60 percent or more would support deploying military
troops to back up Bush's call for removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from

Among the minority of Americans who take a different view, and the even
smaller minority willing to put their views on the line, is Veterans for

The group has its national headquarters in St. Louis, in the World
Community Center building on North Skinker Boulevard that houses a
collection of like-minded activist groups. Its national administrator is
St. Louisan Woody Powell, a Korean War veteran who has accompanied Veterans
for Peace delegations to Colombia, Mexico and North Korea.

"We feel the more people know about the conditions we address with our
projects overseas the less likely they will be able to ignore them," Powell
said. "Perhaps we can help activate the generosity most Americans would
like to think is part of our culture."

The trip this month was the third to Iraq in the past two years, each
focused on rebuilding specific plants. The targets this time were the
treatment plant in Hibhib and another in Fallujah, on the Euphrates River
50 miles west of Baghdad. Total cost to make the two plants fully operable
is estimated at $60,000; the veterans had raised about three-quarters of
that before the trip.

Not your average tour

The half dozen members of the veterans group who crossed the desert from
Jordan into Iraq, traveling in GMC vans, were breaking U.S. law. Travel or
business in Iraq without express prior authorization is banned. (The law
exempts journalists.) Potential penalties run as high as 12 years in jail
and $1 million in fines, although prosecution has been rare.

What sort of people would take such a risk, not to mention the hassles of
low-budget travel through a country with no credit cards, no Pizza Huts and
a leader who is clearly No. 1 on Bush's axis of evil?

Unusual people.

Besides Dorland, the other military veteran on this delegation was Trish
Kanous, 44, a former member of the Army National Guard in Idaho. She's a
pharmacist in St. Paul, Minn., recently returned from a year teaching
English in Yemen. She's also a convert to Islam, someone who keeps her head
covered but is pressing to win greater equality for Muslim women.

Co-leader with Dorland was Tom Sager, 59, a retired professor of computer
science at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Sager has been to Iraq
twice in the past two years and has traveled to Cuba to protest the U.S.
embargo there. His work on peace causes goes back more than four decades,
he says; his initiation was marching in ban-the-bomb demonstrations in

Michael Lessard, 30, joined the group from Quebec City, Canada, where he is
a graduate student in international relations.

Robin Wagar is a real estate broker from Dallas and an active Presbyterian.
She was making her first trip to Iraq but has been to Israel and the West
Bank several times. She showed up for the trip with hand-stenciled
T-shirts, black with bold white letters proclaiming "Stop the occupation -
Peace and Justice for Palestinians."

Dorland has been a wanderer, professionally and intellectually, for most of
his life. He dropped out of college to join the Navy, did a tour in
Vietnam, came home to a variety of jobs - telephone lineman, church
custodian and, for several years in West Virginia, "a groundhog farmer -
because that's about all I grew." He's traveled throughout the former
Yugoslavia, to Cuba and in the Middle East, with previous veterans trips
and also with the group Pastors for Peace.

The group's responses to the contradictory realities of Iraq - part victim,
part police state - varied.

When it was suggested at various meetings that Iraq would be a swell place
if only the United States left it alone, Kanous and Dorland were generally
more skeptical, Sager and Lessard more accepting. On an evening at the
theater, Wagar was the only person in the group - or in the audience - to
give a standing ovation to a play based on Saddam Hussein's novel "Zabibah
and the King."

Iraqi on board

Also traveling with the group was Amira Matsuda, 44. She lives in Dallas
now but grew up in Hilla, a city southwest of Baghdad adjacent to the ruins
of ancient Babylon. She married a Japanese engineer and took Japanese
citizenship after leaving Iraq in the late 1980s. One of this trip's more
memorable moments was a visit with her family.

The family has suffered much. One son, a soldier fighting in the Iran-Iraq
war, has been missing for 17 years. Hilla was hit hard during the Gulf War
and completely cut off; Matsuda had no word from her family at all until
six months later. She has been unable since to obtain U.S. visas so that
her family might visit Dallas.

Schools and clinics in Hilla were heavily damaged by allied bombing,
Matsuda says, as was the town's power grid. Matsuda rejects Pentagon
assertions that the targets in Hilla had military value. "People from Hilla
know that's not the case," she says.

Yet there's no hint of resentment as Matsuda's family lays out a feast of
homemade buffalo cream cheese, date preserves and tea.

Her mother, Noria Ahmed Arra, 85, sets the tone. The daughter of a Turkish
provincial governor, she came to Hilla in the dying days of the Ottoman
Empire. She is nothing if not a survivor.

Arra casts a teasing glance on Tom Sager, the ex-professor from the
University of Missouri, saying she has her eye on him as a potential

"The problem is that you've still got your teeth," she laughs. "You might
bite me - and I couldn't bite back."

A "small" present

It was that combination - of suffering, generosity and a willingness to
look beyond the deep divisions between two countries - that left the
strongest impression on members of the veterans delegation.

Art Dorland said he was especially struck by a visit to a water treatment
plant not far from the Mansouria al-Shatt site.

This facility was on a small canal, its shabby tanks set against a lush
backdrop of date palms, figs and pomegranate.

The manager here was Adnan Fadhil Tarhur, who said he also owned the
surrounding farm. He retired from the army three years ago, after 31 years
that included service throughout the Iran-Iraq war and in the 1991 Gulf War
against the United States.

Tarhur said that he was part of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He still doesn't
understand why it triggered such a fierce response. "Kuwait is part of the
Arab area," he said. "Whether we entered Kuwait or not - that was an Arab
matter. It had nothing to do with America."

The sanctions regime has crippled not just water services but also farming,
Tarhur said. The spare parts he needs to keep his tractor and plow running
are either blocked or overpriced.

Tarhur lives in a one-room mud-brick hut adjacent to the water tanks. The
room is mostly bare: a cot, some pots in the open-fire cooking area, a
couple of magazine photos tacked to the wall. The exception is the
intricately crafted bamboo cage that holds what Tarhur calls a date palm

As the veterans group prepares to leave, Tarhur says he'd like to give them
a small gift. He ducks into the darkened hut and comes back out, clutching
the bird and cage.

Dorland says no, that of course they won't take the bird. But the offer
leaves him deeply moved, he says later - touched by a gesture that he
called characteristic of an Iraqi people that too few Americans have had
the chance to know.

"It's the only thing of value he had," Dorland says. "He offered it to us."

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