Fault Line

by The New Republic | March 10, 2003

Nadum Hassan shuffles in barefoot and sniffling, folds his tiny body into a ball, and stares down relentlessly. He will not look at strangers, and I find it difficult to look at him. Nadum is ten, and his face seems to be falling off. His skin is mottled and blackened, pieces flaking as if he had just emerged from a fire. Nadum rarely leaves his room, as sunlight causes him intense pain. "He can't go into the sunlight. He's losing his sight," Nadum's father, Mashun Hassan, explained as he glanced at his son huddled in the corner.For as long as Nadum has been sick, Iraq has told his family the United States is to blame. The depleted uranium (D.U.) in U.S. munitions used during the Gulf war, Baghdad says, affected his father, resulting in Nadum's cancer. Indeed, Iraq claims the detritus of D.U. munitions have led to an explosion of cancer, birth defects, and liver disease across the country. The United States says that no evidence has linked D.U. to these illnesses reported in Iraq. And outside doctors find it implausible that D.U. is responsible for the boy's condition. But, on the eve of another possible war, science matters less than belief in places like Safwan, the dusty town on Iraq's southern border where Norman Schwarzkopf brokered the cease-fire ending the Gulf war. Whether or not Iraqis' bodies have been poisoned, their minds have been. Saddam Hussein's government has wasted no effort promoting stories of the horrors. "It was they who brought cancer through, ... their depleted uranium, which they used against us," Saddam fulminated in a speech last year. Baghdad regularly sends complaints about D.U. to international agencies and has even issued a postage stamp with a picture of a deformed child purportedly afflicted by uranium. The state-run Iraqi News Agency maintains on its Internet site a link to "Another DU Victim" that takes viewers to a picture of a grossly misshapen child. Foreign diplomats and peace activists are regularly taken on tours of cancer wards to highlight the issue. And, after more than a decade of propaganda, it has become an article of faith among Iraqis that the Americans have poisoned the civilian population. "This is terrorism," Nadum's father, a farmer who has sold many of his belongings to pay for the boy's cancer treatments, told me. "He's a victim of American aggression." If American soldiers expect ticker-tape parades once they conquer Iraq, my visit to Safwan suggests that might be overly optimistic. Saddam's army may crumble, but the bitterness among many ordinary Iraqis will remain. Mashun Hassan certainly will not provide U.S. forces with a warm welcome. "At night, I don't sleep because I stay with [my son]," he told me. "I even sold the roof of this house to spend the money on him. I was forced to borrow from friends and ask them to help. I sold my car. I only sleep during the day." Mashun Hassan's mind is made up about the American soldiers who may cross into Iraq a few miles from his house. "They're killing women and old men and children, and we expect that America will certainly make more war." It is not just D.U. that seems to have soured America's reputation within Iraq. While they may have been eager to see American troops in 1991, today many Iraqis blame the United States as much as Saddam for their woes. The Kurds and the Shia remember being abandoned by the first Bush administration. And economic sanctions have transformed Iraq into a beggar state. Medicine, spare parts, and even tires are hard to find. Doctors have reported patients dying because hospital vehicles were broken and could not retrieve oxygen from across town. With water-treatment facilities still in woeful condition, disease has spread virtually unchecked. Malnutrition remains a major problem, and the Iraqi government blames sanctions for the deaths of 1.7 million children over the last decade. For most of those children, there is a resentful family. Predicting how Iraqis really feel about anything, of course, remains a hazardous affair. Official minders carefully monitor most interviews by journalists in Iraq, though I managed to conduct several interviews without government guides. Away from the minders, some Iraqis clearly hold Saddam responsible for bringing misery on their country. "Believe me, I hate my government," one Iraqi confided to me. "Saddam is a crazy man. Not only me, a lot of Iraqis think so, but we can't say it." But animosity toward Saddam should not be interpreted as automatic goodwill toward the United States. Struggling to make ends meet and influenced by propaganda like the uranium stories, many Iraqis buy the government line that the United States is threatening war either to punish Muslims or to gain access to oil. "The American hostility was not revealed until just recently," complained one Iraqi businessman. "They're saying they're advocates of human rights, but they're the ones violating our human rights." Iraqi hostility comes through particularly strongly in the south, where U.S. and British warplanes bomb targets in response to provocative actions by the Iraqi military in the "no-fly" zone. Many Iraqis in the southern no-fly zone have grown angry as U.S. and British warplanes have increasingly bombed targets, sometimes hitting civilians by mistake. Although there are no reliable numbers of civilian casualties, Iraqis claim that there have been hundreds over the years. While American pilots studiously try to avoid nonmilitary targets, it's clear that at least some civilians have been hurt. "It's normal that we get bombs from Americans," said Mesa Ali, 25, a young mother who lives near an oil company in Basra that was bombed in December, possibly because radar or anti- aircraft systems were illegally parked in the compound. Her young son was covered by shards of glass when her front window blew in. Iraqis who have been wounded by these bombings narrow their eyes suspiciously at American journalists. Watheka Raheen Feyad, 25, was working at this Basra oil company when an explosion ripped her body, leaving shrapnel in her head and her leg badly shredded. When I offered sympathy for her plight, she snapped, "What can I do with your sorrow?" The danger for American troops is that other Iraqis will greet them the same way.

By Peter Baker

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