IN THIS YEAR'S State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared, "the Iraq war is coming to end"--at least for Americans, leaving "with their heads held high" because "our commitment has been kept."
For millions of Iraqis, however, the war is far from over--in fact, for a growing number of families in cities that were nearly destroyed during the years of insurgency and counter-insurgency, the crisis is only beginning. Whether we take responsibility for our role in it will determine whether we can hold our "heads high" in foreign policy ever again. As one Iraqi-American told TAC, "just because we don't pay attention, doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't paying attention."
According to studies and eyewitness accounts over the last few years, Fallujah, an Iraqi city that was practically obliterated by U.S. heavy artillery in two major offensives in 2004, is experiencing a staggering rate of birth defects among its local population. The situation echoes similar reports from Basra that began to circulate after the first Gulf War in 1991.
The litany of horrors is gut-wrenching: babies born with two heads, one eye in the middle of the face, missing limbs, too many limbs, brain damage, cardiac defects, abnormally large heads, eyeless, missing genitalia, riddled with tumors. Upon touring a clinic in Fallujah in March of last year, the BBC's John Simpson reported, "we were given details of dozens upon dozens of cases of children with serious birth defects ... one photograph I saw showed a newborn baby with three heads." Later, at the main U.S.-funded hospital in the city, "a stream of parents arrived" with children who had limb defects, spinal conditions, and "other problems." Authorities in Fallujah reportedly warned women to hold off on having babies at all.
Dr. Ayman Qais, the director of Fallujah's general hospital, told The Guardian that he was seeing two affected babies a day, compared to two a fortnight in 2008. "Most [deformities] are in the head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower limbs," he said. "There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of [children] less than two years with brain tumours. This is now a focus area of multiple tumours."
The pictures and video available with a quick Google search are simply shocking.
But there is nothing simple about this issue. On one hand, it is widely accepted among scientists, doctors, and aid workers that war is to blame. The presence of so much expended weaponry, waste and rubble, massive burn pits on U.S. bases, and oil fires has left a toxic legacy that is poisoning the air, the water, and the soil in Iraq. Add highly controversial armaments that the U.S. has only hinted at using in this war--such as depleted uranium--and you get a potentially radioactive landscape giving rise to doomed children and stillborn babies.
"I think we have destroyed Iraq," says Dr. Adil Shamoo, a biochemist at the University of Maryland who specializes in medical ethics and foreign policy. Shamoo, an Iraqi-American, believes it's "just common sense" to link Iraq's troubled health situation to the relentless bombing of its towns and cities and the polluted aftermath of fighting and occupation.
The Department of Defense disagrees, rejecting claims that the military is to blame for chronic illnesses, birth defects, and high rates of cancer among the local population and its own service members exposed to the same elements in theater. (DoD officials did not return calls and e-mails to respond to the specific charges made in this story.)
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has done little to address the public-health crisis in Fallujah and elsewhere. Authorities cannot afford, and seemingly lack the will, to clean up the festering pollution around the country's population centers while many Iraqis still clamor for clean drinking water and basic medical supplies.
"It's not even on their radar," offered Geoff Millard, an Iraq War vet who was about to embark this winter on an aid mission with Iraqi Health Now, which raises money for hospitals, clinics, and refugee camps. …