Published in the Ventura County Star

Before we talk about a new war with Iraq, we must recognize that the “old war” never ended. Last month, an airstrike by the United States killed one Iraqi and injured 17 others — and we should not miss the significance of this fact. More than a thousand Iraqis have been killed and many more wounded since the illegal no-fly zones were imposed in 1991 — areas that we purportedly patrol to keep Iraqis safe.

In spite of the slanted testimony of the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the potential for a renewed war with Iraq, where no dissenters were allowed to speak, the entire world seems to be sending a message to the United States that invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein is an unequivocally bad idea.

Nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Germany have demonstrated outright disapproval and nonsupport for a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Not invited to testify were Scott Ritter, the ex-U.S. Marine who led the UNSCOM weapons inspection team until December 1998 when the United Nations withdrew the group prior to a heavy bombing raid on Baghdad, and Dennis Halliday and Hans Graf von Sponeck, two career United Nations officials who resigned their posts as chief humanitarian coordinators in Iraq in protest of the devastating effects of the sanctions. These three would have provided vital information regarding the status of the Iraqi population, the deaths of more than half a million children due to preventable illnesses and malnutrition, and more than a million total people in Iraq since the Gulf War of 1991.

“I bear personal witness through seven years as a chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of the U.N. weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them. While we were never able to provide 100 percent certainty regarding the disposition of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry, we did ascertain a 90 to 95 percent level of verified disarmament. This figure takes into account the destruction or dismantling of every major factory associated with prohibited weapons manufacture, all significant items of production equipment, and the majority of the weapons and agent produced by Iraq,” wrote Ritter July 20 for the Boston Globe.

Noticeably absent from the dialogue about Iraq is the impact a “new” war would have on the civilian population. A Los Angeles Times report states that much of the fighting this time around would be centered in cities and urban areas, increasing the likelihood of high numbers of civilian casualties.

Also unmentioned is the impact the war preparation is having on the children of Iraq whose lives are suspended in wait of more bombings. In a letter to American students in reference to the December 1998 bombing, “Please send us gifts and not bombs from Father Christmas.” We must consider the psychological toll that even the preparation for war takes on the children.

The following stories attempt to humanize the lives of average Iraqis as I encountered them last summer. Not much has changed since then.

Scenes of war

Iraq is the cradle of civilization, home to the famed Garden of Eden, to Babylon, to the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Fertile Crescent. It houses the birthplace of Abraham, the mosque of Imam Ali and the most widely accepted evidence of the Great Flood — seashells atop a 4,000-year-old ziggurat in the middle of the desert. Yet, since the Gulf War, the sanctity of this historically significant land has been desecrated and its people demoralized, as I learned while visiting Iraq July and August 2001.

Daily calls to prayer broadcast throughout the city awakened me to the impact of the sanctions and the residual effects of the Gulf War. The call begins with “God is greater than all.” I quickly learned that since Aug. 6, 1990, the effects of war are even more far-reaching than God.


Omran was a 12-year-old shepherd boy walking through his family’s field in May 2000 when a stray bomb fell from a U.S. plane patrolling the illegal no-fly zones over the southern portion of Iraq. This bomb instantly killed him — and ripped apart the social fabric of his tiny village near Najaf.

I visited Omran’s family last summer. I tried my best to explain to Omran’s mother, father, brothers and entire village that the memory of their son is not forgotten. Omran’s story has been told hundreds of times to high school students, to colleges, to peace and justice and religious groups across the United States as part of a nationwide project to remember Omran.

I listened as Omran’s father told of his inexplicable loss, of the pain of losing a child, of no apology from anyone, save the five American pacifists sitting before him hot and dusty in the dry Iraq desert. Omran’s mother, who has scarcely spoken since he was killed and who is suffering from a serious heart condition, embraced me and we shed tears together over the helplessness of the situation.

Cancer ward

It is 140 degrees inside the hospital at Amara. The air conditioning does not work because the electrical facilities were bombed during the Gulf War and spare parts are routinely denied as dual-use items by the Sanctions Committee at the United Nations.

A mother sits cross-legged on her son’s bare hospital bed, a piece of torn cardboard in one hand, fanning her child. She is sobbing uncontrollably, rocking back and forth. Her son is unconscious, dying of cancer; he has no IV bag, no medicine, no painkillers. She has no tissue, so I ask for a handful and give them to her; she glances at me with tired appreciation.

She places the cardboard fan on the bed and begins to knead at her son’s body — his torso, his legs — in a desperate attempt to rouse him. He does not move. I sit helpless on the sheetless bed next to her, watching, invading this private moment, glued to this scene, futile tears rolling down my cheeks. I think, “This is my fault.” The guilt endures.

Across the room, the doctor escorting our group through the hospital pokes and prods at sleeping, sick babies causing them to wake up screaming in pain to demonstrate the malignancies, tumors and gross deformities that have mysteriously appeared since the Gulf War. All the children are crying now; all their mothers try to comfort them and not look annoyed that the gawking Americans have disturbed their lives.

The car accident

We fasted for a day across from the United Nations on Aug. 6, 2001, in the oppressive heat. At the end of the day, a blowout on the road a few feet from us caused a car to spin out of control and crash into our Iraqi friend’s car — our 70-year-old friend who is a taxi driver and who relies on his car for income. Both cars are totally wrecked, blood everywhere. Spare car parts and new tires are expensive. The transfer rate for the Iraqi dinar to U.S. dollars has been devalued from 3:1 to 2000:1, meaning average Iraqis have virtually no purchasing power.

I call out for our friend who miraculously emerges from the back seat of his smashed vehicle, banged, bruised and filled with glass in his eyes. He is dazed, then suddenly realizes that his livelihood has been instantaneously taken from him. He starts to cry. I try to negotiate with Kalashnikov-toting soldiers to let our friend get examined by a United Nations doctor for internal injuries before they take him to the police station. We ask another Iraqi how much to junk the car and buy a new one. He looks surprised. “Junk the car? In Iraq, we fix everything.”

While we in the United States live out foreign wars vicariously through our movies, through the news and through the threats of nuclear force made by those in power, I recall the people I met in Iraq whose lives are considerably less glamorous than the remote Hollywood versions we see and hear about. I often wonder if the case of Iraq is an example of the best our foreign policy can be.

Iraq is more than its one leader. It is a country of 23 million people who all have stories, hopes and fears.

Basketball and books

When 58-year-old Zuhair Matti moved to Los Angeles from Baghdad, Iraq, in March 1977, he hardly figured that returning to his homeland would be an intangible goal.

A member of the 1973 Iraqi Olympic basketball team, Matti played against athletes from all over the world in the games that symbolize internationalism, peace and sportsmanship. Held in Tehran, Iran, just a few years prior to the Iran-Iraq war, the 1973 Olympics were a chance for Matti to shine as a national celebrity for Iraq. His athletic ability and love of his country and people made him a national superhero with fame and status.

In 1977, Matti moved to Los Angeles at the behest of his wife, whose family lived here. Now an American citizen with two American-born sons, ages 23 and 14, Matti makes ends meet by working at Home Depot, still pining for a family half a globe away whom he has not seen for 24 years.

When Matti fled Iraq, he was an officer in the army; he took a vacation and never returned. That, compiled with travel made more difficult by the U.N.-imposed and U.S./U.K.-upheld economic sanctions, which disallow travel to and from Iraq, dims hopes that Zuhair will return to his native country soon. He explains: “Travel is so expensive and I don’t want to return with only a few dollars in my pocket. I want to be able to treat everyone very well when I go back. Iraqis are the most generous people on Earth. They are magnanimous people.”

Al-Mutannabi Street in Baghdad is a well-known book market there, which offers evidence to the academic and intellectual impact of embargo. Half a mile long, lined on both sides of the street with books ranging from 1980s computer manuals to linguistics textbooks to copies of the Qu’ran, the book market demonstrates the impact on the educated class through a persistent starvation of minds and deprivation of information.

The street is lined with children peddling comic books and middle-aged men selling novels, manuals and movie posters. The children ought to be in school and the men ought to be working in their professional capacities. Fifty-year-old shoe shiners were at one time physics professors. Taxi drivers were electrical engineers.

Since it is illegal to send anything weighing more than 12 ounces to Iraq through the U.S. Postal Service, medical textbooks and other professional journals cannot be sent. None of the books I saw was published later than 1989.

That hot day on Aug. 3, 2001, I met Matti’s brother Gassan selling books on Al-Mutannabi Street. Through a translator, he asked where I live. When I replied that I live near Los Angeles, his face lit up. “Please call my brother when you get back home,” he implored. “Tell him I am well! Tell him our mother is well! Tell him how I look; you see I look well, right? I have not seen him in more than 20 years!”

One of the few promises I can make to the Iraqis I met last summer is that upon my return, I will tell their stories to as many people as will listen. Upon returning to the United States, I called and subsequently met Zuhair Matti, fulfilling Gassan’s wish.

“You are a nice young woman, Leah,” Matti tells me. “Thank you for what you are doing for my people.” His gratitude surprises me, yet marks a quintessentially Arab sentiment that for however good you are to someone, the goodness will be returned tenfold to you.

Perhaps Zuhair Matti will be able to travel to Iraq, whether or not he violates the inhumane sanctions that divide families and isolate the Fertile Crescent from the rest of civilization. Perhaps he will see his aging mother before she passes away. He says that the most important thing is “to judge a person based on how nice he is,” and how important it is to have diverse friends. He believes that people are good, regardless of race and ethnicity.

Perhaps if more Americans knew Iraqis like Zuhair Matti, we would not be so quick to condemn all Iraqis to a slow death via sanctions or an even more expedient death in a new war.

Precarious situation

Prior to 1990, Iraq was deemed an emerging first-world country by the United Nations. The oil empire had brought Iraqi citizens great wealth and a prosperous society that boasted free medical care for every citizen as well as free education up through university. In many ways, the standard of living in Iraq once was comparable to middle-class American life.

Because of the sanctions, no currency flows in or out of Iraq. Any financial transactions must be approved by the Sanctions Committee 661 at the United Nations in New York. It is illegal to wire money from the United States — or anywhere else — to family inside Iraq’s borders. All goods and funds entering or leaving Iraq must have the approval of the five permanent members of the Security Council whose representatives sit on the 661 Committee. The economy has been at a standstill for 11 years, targeting the civilian population while a powerful few score illegal contracts to smuggle oil out of the country.

Yet for most Iraqis in 2002, many of the basic health and household amenities are far out of reach. Prior to the Gulf War in 1991, the transfer rate of dinar:dollars was 3:1. Now the transfer rate soars at nearly 2,000 dinar to $1, effectively stripping the average, middle-class Iraqis of any meaningful purchasing power.

During a visit to a pharmacy in Baghdad, I learned that only the wealthiest private sector can afford higher-quality toothpaste, costing 1,250 dinar (71 cents). The rest of the population buys lower-quality toothpaste at 250 dinar (14 cents). Prior to 1990, diapers cost 18 dinar and were widely used throughout Iraq. A box of 10 diapers in August 2001 cost between 2,000 to 4,000 dinar ($1.14 to $2.29). One bottle of shampoo costs 1,500 dinar, or $1.86.

An average salary in Iraq is roughly 5,000 dinar per month. The Iraqi government, dominated by the Ba’ath party, employs many people — doctors, teachers, engineers and other civil servants. Prior to the Gulf War, teachers in Iraq earned the equivalent of $300 to $400 per month. They now earn the equivalent of $3 to $4 per month.

Health care has gained a price tag as well in Iraq. Once-affordable medicines like aspirin are too expensive for people to buy now. Ibuprofen and vitamins cost 200 dinar each (11 cents) for 10 tablets. Twelve capsules of Erythromyacin, an antibiotic, cost 500 dinar (29 cents). Some health-care and household items are available in Iraq and to a certain extent are available to the general public. But, families must spend their money only on necessities such as rent and food rather than on aspirin and cough syrup or trips to the hospital.

Iraqi families finding themselves in financially precarious situations often take their children out of school and send them to beg, steal, peddle candy or cigarettes or shine shoes. I spent a great deal of time with Achmed and Saif, 13 and 12, respectively, who shined our shoes every day for 750 dinar, less than 50 cents. They arrived at our hotel long before we awoke and stayed until late at night.

Because of the devaluation of the dinar, often only one child per family will be able to attend school due to the cost of supplies such as books, shoes and clothes. A remarkable increase in both depression and juvenile delinquency has occurred in Iraq in the past 11 years. One 10-year-old boy had been sent by his father to sell cigarettes on the street to increase the family’s income rather than attend school. Many customers took advantage of his naivete, taking cigarettes and promising to return with payment later. At the end of the day, when the boy had no cigarettes and no money to show, his father scolded him and sent him to bed with no dinner. This young boy went to his room, wrapped himself in towels and set himself on fire.

Once-rare crimes like theft and vandalism are now more commonplace among the young, and because the onset of social problems only began within the last 11 years, state-supported social services have only a feeble infrastructure to deal with the ever-expanding magnitude of these issues.

Desperation and poverty have contributed to a breakdown in family structure and support. The hopelessness for a better future pervades the culture of Iraq, especially among the youth. Their scholastic apathy shows a scary trend signifying their awareness of their dim future. Regardless of how hard they study in school, they know they do not have promising prospects.

We must not allow Iraqis to take steps backward toward enforced child labor, divestment from quality education and further poverty. Justice and peace for Iraqis mean that they must have a sense of economic mobility and stability in their society.
*Leah C. Wells of Santa Paula serves as peace education coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. She also teaches at local high schools.