Hidden Wounds of the Occupation of Iraq

The Roman historian Tacitus denounced Roman imperialism for its plunder and destruction of its colonies, declaring, “They make a desert and call it peace.” No phrase is more apt in describing what the U.S. has done in Iraq.

Two new studies released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Oxfam reveal the devastating toll on Iraq’s surviving population in the wake of the U.S. war and occupation.

The U.S. has besieged Iraq, a country of some 27 million people, for the last 20 years. The 1991 Gulf War killed hundreds of thousands. Sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the deaths of over 1 million people. The 2003 invasion and occupation caused another 1 million deaths, drove in excess of 4 million from their homes and caused a civil war that tore apart the society. In sum, the U.S. has killed or displaced nearly a quarter of Iraq’s population.

According to the WHO’s Iraqi Mental Health Study, a survey of 4,332 Iraqis over the age of 18, about 17 percent of Iraqis admitted to suffering from some kind of mental disorder, the most common being depression, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

The Associated Press described this horrific number as a “surprisingly low rate of mental disorders.” But as Dr. Saleh Al Hassnawi, who was involved in the study, stated, “In Iraq, there is considerable stigma attached to having a mental illness.” So while already high, the real numbers are no doubt greater.

Of course, given the horrors of the last 30 years of U.S. attacks on Iraq, Iraqis have developed nearly super-human coping mechanisms to survive. As Dr. Abdul al-Monaf al-Jadiry remarked, “Gradually, people seem to have become accustomed to enduring hard experiences.”

Of those who reported suffering mental illnesses, 70 percent considered committing suicide. If extrapolated to the entire population, over 3 million Iraqis have considered suicide as a result of their disorders.

Given the combination of social stigma and the destruction of the Iraqi health care system, only 2 percent of those suffering mental problems sought out treatment. Most hid their conditions, self-medicated with various drugs, or asked for Valium and sleeping pills from pharmacists.

The study released from Oxfam is even more devastating. A survey of 1,700 women from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces, it portrays the impact of the occupation on women since 2003. “Now that the overall security situation, although still very fragile, begins to stabilize,” Oxfam stated, “countless mothers, wives, widows and daughters of Iraq remain caught in the grip of a silent emergency.”

The scale of the crisis in Iraqi women’s lives is mind-boggling. Oxfam reported that 55 percent of the women they surveyed reported they had been the victims of violence since 2003. Researchers also found that 55 percent of women had been displaced or forced to abandon their homes.

Despite the media celebrations of growing security in Iraq, 40 percent of those surveyed stated that their security situation was worse in 2008 over 2007. Close to 60 percent of women said that security and safety remained their most pressing concern.

As result of displacement and violence, over a third of the respondents had now become the effective head of their households. There are an estimated 740,000 widows in Iraq, and the actual number could be far higher.

The U.S. attempt to dismantle the central government’s traditional role as the hub of the economy and principal provider of social services has devastated these women. Seventy-six percent of widows said they did not receive their husband’s pensions from the government. While 76 percent said that they relied government food rations, 45 percent reported receiving it intermittently. Thirty-three percent had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003, and a majority stated that their income was lower in 2008 than in 2007 and 2006.

Oxfam reported, “Beyond security, the overwhelming concern women voiced was extreme difficulty accessing basic services such as clean water, electricity and adequate shelter . . . Availability of essentials such as water, sanitation, and health care is far below national averages.”

A quarter of women stated that they did not have access to drinking water on a daily basis and nearly half declared that the water they get is not even potable. Nearly two-thirds reported that they had less than six hours of electricity each day.

Access to education for women and their children is, unsurprisingly, no better. Oxfam reported that, “a staggering 40 percent of mothers surveyed said that their children not attending school. This is not only because of economic hardship, discrimination against girls and insecurity; it is also a result of the destruction and deterioration of education facilities.”

While the media trumpets this horror as success, those who opposed the war and occupation must not fall under their siren song. The U.S. government has committed one of the great crimes against humanity in Iraq and owes its people an enormous debt. The antiwar movement must continue to demand the complete and immediate withdrawal of all occupying troops and we must compel the U.S. government to pay reparations to the people of Iraq so that they can rebuild their society.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at ashley05401@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Ashley.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. John S. Hatch said on March 18th, 2009 at 2:51pm #

    As ex Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously said of Iraq sanctions, the deaths of 500,000 children was ‘worth it’.

    For many Americans, the deaths and dislocation of millions of Iraqis is ‘worth it’ because Saddam was behind 9/11, had weapons of mass destruction, was going to nuke the US and used poison gas against his OWN PEOPLE! (Of course he got the poison courtesy of the USA.)

    And they think that the US is spreading freedom & democracy. Not even organized religion speaks out against these vile crimes against humanity. But then there’s no Christ in Christianity, is there?

  2. Moz said on March 19th, 2009 at 6:16am #

    Of course it was worth it, companies from all over Iraq could have got into Iraqis oil market if sanctions had been lifted, which they inevitably would have been.

    Now the US has sway over where the contracts go, and brand new bases to replace those lost in Saud, bang in hydrocarbon heartland.

    What would the world do without US primacy? Run it’s own affairs?
    Imagine if the Russians had have got all the contracts, I mean, I can hardly see Saddam selling oil to the US without compulsion.

    Ps. Just for clarity, my tongue is firmly in cheek. What has been done to Iraq is APALLING!

  3. Jesse C. Anderson said on March 19th, 2009 at 8:09am #

    Yes it was worth it, now all we get to do is sat back and watch how the peoples of the world undersstand what evil peoples that don’t want to share the world with other, like woman,jews black etc.

  4. mary said on March 20th, 2009 at 5:20am #

    Read Layla Anwar’s blistering view of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a misnomer if ever there was one.


  5. Max Shields said on March 20th, 2009 at 7:11am #

    This same story can be told regarding Vietnam and the US invasion/occupation and murder of 3 million Southeast Asians – children, women and men; not to mention the ecological damage that is beyond one’s imagination. The bombing tonage was equal to that of the WWII (on a tiny land mass, mind you) – and of the full devastation of atomic atrocities to Japan. The lasting human tragedy that continues, the napalm and gases defoiling and destroying whole swathes of land and water is immeasurable.

    There has been no accounting for this; and there never will be – more than likely. Iraq and the world that is devasted by US intervention – Latin America and parts of Africa and the Middle East, are byond the rule of law and justice.

    It is the ultimate atrocity to let such a manical power go unfettered, unaccountable for its war machine. As we sit here in the US, worrying about jobs, economic free fall, and no “safety net” to protect the least fortunate, the corporate/political elite and plutocracy continue its ways with its drones and military escalation and occupation with 800 bases round the globe.

    I scratch my head in askance: what has the United States of America done that is so good that it outweighs the human slaughter, dislocation and ecological damage to the planet? What “money” has been spent by the US that somehow pays for ALL THIS!!! Who are “we” to claim as self-righteous moral highground as this government slaughters children and pays for Israel to do likewise?