In 1973, my father, his parents, and his siblings fled Iraq and settled in California. Between my father’s stories of the Ba’athist regime and the propaganda that fueled the “war on terror” during the 2000s, I came to think of Iraq as a terrifying place during my youth. Significantly, however, I’d never seen media coverage of the irrevocable damage the U.S. has waged on Iraq’s environment.
This dearth of coverage doesn’t negate reality: by using its military to deploy chemically toxic weapons, incinerate hazardous military waste, and impose incredibly cruel sanctions, the U.S. has acted as little other than an environmental terrorist against Iraq.
The Effects of the U.S.' Use of Chemical Warfare During the Gulf War Persist Today
If you follow Western media coverage of international affairs, you might think that the U.S. government is unequivocally against the use of chemical warfare—particularly given that it has accused countries like North Korea, Russia, and Syria of using it. Interestingly, however, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on Iraqi civilians in 1988, the U.S. urged the United Nations not to impose sanctions on Iraq for doing so.
By the time the Gulf War of 1991 rolled around, however, the U.S. had recanted its support of Iraq. It was during this war that the U.S. deployed depleted uranium (DU) for the first time. Although the U.S. imposes strict restrictions on its use of DU domestically, it does not regulate its own use of the chemical toxin “overseas in civilian areas with nearly the same caution.”
According to U.S. Department of Defense documents, the U.S. military deployed 14,000 shells in Iraq during the Gulf War. However, United Nations estimates show that a dismal 10% of the DU shells used by the U.S. have been recovered, while the vast majority have remained buried within the soil of the approximately 300 sites in which they were deployed. That the shells are buried does not render them harmless, as DU is highly radioactive.
A 2011 Stanford University study revealed that prolonged exposure to DU can result in, among other grave health conditions, skin and bone cancer, kidney disease, and, in some cases, death. While researchers are unable to pinpoint the precise number of people affected by the U.S.’s use of DU in Iraq, it is likely far larger than any that are to be offered by the U.S. military.
U.S. Military Burn Pits Resulted in Ongoing Air Pollution and Lead Poisoning in Iraq
Of course, residents whose locales are contaminated by depleted uranium are not the only ones at risk of environmental illnesses. In 2016, researchers revealed that Iraqi folks who merely lived near U.S. military bases had significantly higher levels of lead in their systems. The culprit? Military burn pits. Although doing so is against regulations stipulated by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pentagon, the U.S. military has established numerous, large-scale pits throughout Iraq in order to incinerate its own military waste.
Throughout the course of the ongoing “war on terror” in Iraq, U.S. military personnel have reportedly created approximately two hundred and seventy burn pits throughout the country. Some span up to ten acres and burn up to fifty tons of waste per day, many of which are comprised of ammunition, explosives, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and toxic heavy metals.
The researchers found that, among the Iraqi population, there is indeed a correlation between the disturbingly high levels of lead and the increased rates in premature births and miscarriages. For example, in a study of deciduous teeth, a sample taken from an Iraqi child with birth defects had fifty times the amount of lead of those donated from Iran and Lebanon.
Prior to the 2003 invasion, Iraq passed several pieces of regulatory legislation in response to air pollution that had been caused by earlier U.S. invasions. However, because the most recent invasion forced the Iraqi government to allocate the majority of its funding to military defense—rather than environmental—spending, such laws proved ineffective.
It is worth noting, however, that even if the Iraqi government had invested in environmental legislation, there is likely very little it could have done to prevent the grave outcomes of the U.S.’s intentionally lethal attacks.
The U.S. Pushed for Sanctions that Led to a Large-Scale Shortage of Drinkable Water in Iraq
Perhaps the cruelest of the U.S.’s attacks against Iraq is its knowing facilitation of water contamination throughout the country. According to an article published in The Progressive, partially declassified documents from the Pentagon show that, after the Gulf War, the U.S. pushed sanctions against the importation of water treatment chemicals to Iraq.
These sanctions directly led to the hyper-degradation of the country’s water supply and were in direct violation of the 1979 protocol to the Geneva Convention, which states, in part:
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.
The report’s original author, Professor Thomas J. Nagy, cites a Defense Intelligence Agency document entitled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities.” The document acknowledges that Pentagon officials were aware of the litany of diseases—such as cholera, diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, meningitis, and typhoid—that would likely result from the U.S.-led sanctions. The document, dated January 22, 1991, states, in part:
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 ongoing internal displacement caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion has only made drinkable water more inaccessible within Iraq. Those who have been displaced are left to stay with host families or in camps, which has in turn led to infrastructural chaos. Although 31,000 tons of waste are produced in Iraq per day, only 4,000 are collected by waste management. As a result, Iraqi civilians are forced to dispose of their sewage and waste into streets and natural waterways. Currently, approximately half of the households in Iraq lack access to drinkable water.
To be sure, the U.S. (and the U.N.) would likely have a difficult time arguing that depriving the Iraqi people of drinkable water was essential to combating “terrorism.” Such acts of warfare are imbued with such cruelty that it almost appears as though the U.S. military commits them arbitrarily. In fact, it is precisely this unrivaled cruelty that might found arguments made by proponents of U.S.-waged wars: why else would the U.S. do violence to those in the Global South if not to defend against a greater threat of violence? The answer is simple: these acts of cruelty are indeed tactics in the U.S.’s larger strategy to maintain its imperialist empire across the globe.
The U.S. Doesn’t Relegate Its Environmental Terrorism to Iraq
If you’re wondering why the U.S. would go to all the trouble it has in Iraq—and spend trillions of taxpayers’ dollars—to cause literal millions of people such great suffering for so many years, read Dr. Nafeez Ahmed’s piece for The Guardian entitled “Iraq invasion was about oil.” Much of the environmental terror the U.S. has wrought and continues to wreak upon Iraq is part of its historical, imperialist playbook.
For example, during the Vietnam War, U.S. military planes sprayed Vietnam with 5.1 million gallons of Agent Orange. To this day, thousands of Vietnamese citizens live with the chemical toxin’s effects, including birth defects and shortened life spans. The U.S. has yet to take adequate responsibility for the harm it has done to the people living in Vietnam by way of destroying their environment. In 2010, Congress allocated $13.3 billion to a V.A. compensation fund to cover three new diseases related to Agent Orange, while only providing $12 million to folks living in Vietnam.
Likely a lesser known fact is that during the mid-twentieth century, the U.S.—in pursuit of its own nuclear arsenal—recruited Native Americans to work in its uranium mines. Government officials intentionally failed to inform the workers of the detrimental effects working in the mines would have on them (such as the development of aggressive lung cancer) so as to not discourage them from engaging in the work, which was low-paying. Currently, Navajo people live near one third of the U.S.’s uranium mines. Of course, the U.S. military’s dizzying track record of violent, environmental racism does not end there.
For over a century, it has been stationed in Hawai‘i, contaminating its water and seafood supplies while placing a stranglehold on its agricultural production and economy. Its naval air base in San Diego County produces hazardous waste whose chemical toxins adversely affect the health of surrounding communities of color. And for six decades, it used Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a training site and bombing range—which included its deployment of Agent Orange and depleted uranium. The list goes on, and ultimately, the fact is that the U.S. military has spared very few populations within the Global South in its pursuit of maintaining its imperialist supremacy.
U.S. Imperialism is Not the Endgame
A quick Google search of the U.S.’s environmental exploits throughout the Global South will demonstrate that it has an impressive track record of instigating one-sided “wars”—and that it doesn’t plan on stopping. Like my father, his parents, and his siblings, my extended family members were long ago forced to abruptly leave their homes in Iraq due to the country’s tumultuous political climate. As such, I have no concrete familial connections to the place we are from. If and when the people of Iraq do manage to forge political and infrastructural healing for their country, I doubt the presence of the United States—once it no longer exists there, if that ever happens—will ever be forgotten: the environmental damage it has wrought within the country has now become part of Iraq’s cultural and historical fabric.
I’ve never visited Iraq, and I don’t know if I ever will—both because it has been made unsafe and for personal reasons. Because my connection to Iraq feels tenuous, so too does my ability to counteract the U.S.’s violence against it. However, I know I do not have to feel this way. In writing this piece, I was able to create a more complete picture for myself of Iraq’s “relationship” with the U.S. My hope is that this article will do the same for readers. Ultimately, it is imperative that we keep in mind that we are never powerless against the seemingly impenetrable forces of imperialism.
Keeping ourselves and others informed, as well as participating in grassroots community-building efforts, are formidable tools in counteracting it. And as we move out from beneath the shadow of the 2003 invasion’s 15th anniversary, perhaps one of the most effective ways to do this is by working together to rebuild our pasts while looking forward to claim our futures.
For those interested in supporting the residents of Iraq as they work towards recreating sustainability for themselves, here are some great organizations worth looking into:
A Demand for Action: Initiated in 2014, A Demand for Action relies primarily on a global network of volunteers to elevate the rights of minority groups throughout the Middle East as they combat persecution.
Assyrian Aid Society of America: Founded in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991, the Assyrian Aid Society has since developed numerous U.S. chapters. Made up almost exclusively of volunteers, the AAS works to support the preservation of the Assyrian people in their homeland.
IraQueer: Founded in 2015, IraQueer is an organization made up of queer, Iraq-based activists aged 18-25 seeking to promote the rights of LGBT+ rights within the country.