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.
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.
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."
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."
document notes that the importation of chlorine "has been embargoed" by
sanctions. "Recent reports indicate the chlorine supply is critically
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
document, which was partially declassified but unpublicized in 1995,
can be found on the Pentagon's web site at www.gulflink.osd.mil. (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.)
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.
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."
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.
document warns that the Iraqi government may "blame the United States
for public health problems created by the military conflict."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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 sanitation."
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."
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."
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."
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)."
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."
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."
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."
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 Iraqis.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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 www.gulflink.osd.mil
2.click on "Declassified Documents" on the left side of the front page
3.the next page is entitled "Browse Recently Declassified Documents"
4.click on "search" under "Declassifed Documents" on the left side of that page
5.the next page is entitled "Search Recently Declassified Documents"
6.enter search terms such as "disease information effects of bombing"
7.click on the search button
8.the next page is entitled "Data Sources"
9.click on DIA
10.click 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.