One Man's Mission: Justice For Iraq

Iraqis cross a busy border checkpoint between Kurdish- and Islamic State-controlled territory in Maktab Khalid, just west of Kirkuk, Iraq, September 17, 2014. Photo by Andrea Bruce / The New York Times)
Iraqis cross a busy border checkpoint between Kurdish- and Islamic State-controlled territory in Maktab Khalid, just west of Kirkuk, Iraq, September 17, 2014. Photo by Andrea Bruce / The New York Times)

While in Boston in 1994, full-time peace activist Bert Sacks made a decision that changed his life forever.

He decided to seek out a study produced by a group called the Harvard Study Team, which had reported to The Washington Post that the deliberate destruction of Iraq's civilian infrastructure by the US military, along with the US-led economic sanctions against that country, were likely to cause 170,000 Iraqi children to die.

Sacks refuses to ignore what is happening.

Unfortunately, that estimate would turn out to be far, far too low, as President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, infamously boasted on national television when she said the price of 500,000 dead Iraqi children was "worth it." Albright went on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

"Since that time 21 years ago, I could not leave this issue alone," Sacks, a kind, soft-spoken 72-year old activist from Seattle, told Truthout.

He went on to make nine trips into Iraq, the first one in 1996, as part of a Voices in the Wilderness delegation and in an effort to "educate myself and my fellow Americans about the disastrous effect of this policy on Iraqis."

For his efforts, in 2002, he was fined $10,000 by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for the heinous crime of bringing $40,000 worth of medicine to sick and dying Iraqi children in Basra, Iraq, during his second trip there in1997.

He refused to pay the fine. He then sued the OFAC over the fact that it fined him, but lost the case.

In turn, the OFAC sued him for the fine, plus another $6,000 in interest and penalties.

Most people in the United States have chosen to ignore the catastrophic situation the US government has caused in both Iraq and the greater Middle East. One could easily argue that both the catastrophe that is today's Iraq as well as the bloodbath in Syria stemmed from the US wars against Iraq, which began in 1991 and continue to this day.

Sacks refuses to ignore what is happening. He is a one-man movement, seeking justice, and continues to look for ways he can help the people of Iraq - and nothing the US government has thrown at him thus far has slowed him down.

"Making Life Uncomfortable for the Iraqi People"

Sacks was horrified by the 1991 Gulf War, but even more taken aback by the ensuing US-led sanctions.

"On March 22, 1991, I read a New York Times front-page story covering the UN report by Martti Ahtisaari on the devastating, 'near-apocalyptic conditions' in Iraq after the Gulf War," he explained.

The report read: "famine and epidemic [were imminent] if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met. The long summer ... is weeks away. Time is short."

The UN report recommended an immediate survey of civilian damage caused by the US bombing of Iraq and an immediate cessation of the sanctions in order to prevent "imminent catastrophe."

Sacks told Truthout that one particular sentence of that article "has stayed with me for nearly 25 years."

"What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions."

It says, "Ever since the trade embargo was imposed on Aug. 6, after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States has argued against any premature relaxation in the belief that by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power."

"Even today it's hard for me to read this article without a deep feeling of shame, that my country would do such a thing," Sacks has written. "That there would not be a major uprising of citizens over what was such an unequivocal war crime against the most vulnerable part of the Iraqi population, the children."

"This is the practice of total war as followed in World War II," Sacks said. "No civilians are exempt from the war, not the elderly, not women, not even little babies."

It is all well documented to this day: how the US government deliberately targeted the civilian infrastructure of Iraq with bombing runs, then forbade the importing of critical components to rebuild water treatment facilities, electrical grids and hospitals, and forbade the import of medicine, as well as things as basic as food and pencils.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency published a 1991 document (available here) with the subject line, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities."

The document notes that Iraq was dependent upon the importation of equipment and chemicals needed to purify its water supply, and went on to add:

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 ... The entire Iraqi water treatment system will not collapse precipitously ... full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take at least another 6 months.

The drumbeat of assaults carried out directly against the Iraqi people continued in the aftermath of the 1991 bombing campaign. On May 27, 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker infamously stated, "... [W]e will never normalize relations with Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein remains in power." The statement effectively served as a death sentence to well over 1 million Iraqis, who died as a result of the sanctions between 1991 and 2003.

Less than a month later, on June 23, 1991, a Washington Post article titled "Allied Air War Struck Broadly in Iraq - Officials Acknowledge Strategy Went Beyond Purely Military Targets" was published.

The article quoted senior US military officers admitting that the worst civilian suffering resulted not from bombs that went astray, but instead from "precision-guided weapons that hit exactly where they were aimed - at electrical plants, oil refineries and transportation networks."

Pentagon analysts calculated that in 1991, Iraq had roughly the same electrical generating capacity it had in 1920, when things like sewage treatment and refrigeration were rare.

A military planning officer is quoted in the article, saying: "People say, 'You didn't recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage. Well, what were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions - help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions." [emphasis added]

Col. John Warden III, deputy director of strategy for the US doctrine and plans for the Air Force, agreed that one purpose of destroying Iraq's electrical grid was that "you have imposed a long-term problem on the leadership that it has to deal with sometime."

"Saddam Hussein cannot restore his own electricity," he said. "He needs help. If there are political objectives that the U.N. coalition has, it can say, 'Saddam, when you agree to do these things, we will allow people to come in and fix your electricity.' It gives us long-term leverage."

The strategy of using civilian deaths and suffering as "leverage" against a dictator was not only endorsed by members of the US military. In July 1991, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said that every bombing target in Iraq - including civilian infrastructure - was "perfectly legitimate," and added, "If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

Given that Cheney went on to become one of the leading hawks promoting the 2003 war against Iraq, which led to at least 1 million Iraqi deaths and counting, he clearly remained true to his word.

Iraqi Children

Sacks' concern about the impacts of US policy on Iraqi children continued to grow.

His trips into Iraq continued, as did his research findings about how the US military knowingly and deliberately destroyed targets that would cause the death and suffering of Iraqis, including children and babies.

A US Air Force publication, in 1995, cited Iraq as an example of "dual-use targeting." Mentioning airstrikes against Iraqi electrical power facilities during the 1991 war, the report stated, "As a result, epidemics of gastroenteritis, cholera, and typhoid broke out, leading to perhaps as many as 100,000 civilian deaths and a doubling of the infant mortality rate."

The same report went on to question whether Air Force doctrine supported or condemned these actions, but went on to conclude:

The US Air Force has a vested interest in attacking dual-use targets so long as dual-use target destruction serves the double role of destroying legitimate military capabilities and indirectly targeting civilian morale. So long as this remains within the letter if not the spirit of the law and the JWE [Christian Just-War Ethic], the Air Force will cling to the status quo.

Sacks was long since aware of a 1992 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled, "Special Article: Effect of the Gulf War on Infant and Child Mortality in Iraq," which concluded, "The Gulf war and trade sanctions caused a threefold increase in mortality among Iraqi children under five years of age. We estimate that an excess of more than 46,900 children died between January and August 1991."

The report also showed that the researchers' data demonstrated a direct link between the 1991 war and sanctions to the subsequent increase in deaths, in addition to the reported epidemics of gastrointestinal and other infections - the exact diseases mentioned in the US Air Force publication.

But that was just the beginning of the sanctions and suffering. As Albright mentioned, at least half a million Iraqi children would go on to be killed by US policy, and at least that number of adults were killed by malnutrition, diseases and other health issues related to the destruction of infrastructure and sanctions.

In 1997, a New England Journal of Medicine report zeroed in on the human costs of the sanctions against Iraq. It mentioned the findings of the 1992 study, and went on to add that Iraqis were experiencing "suffering of tragic proportions ... [with children] dying of preventable diseases and starvation."

"To this day, there are still only a few rotating hours of electricity a day for most Iraqis."

As late as 2000, US Rep. Tony Hall visited Iraq and was shocked by what he found. In a letter to Secretary of State Albright, Hall said, "I share UNICEF's concerns about the profound effects of increasing deterioration of Iraq's water supply and sanitation systems on its children's health. The prime killer of children under five years of age - diarrhoeal diseases - has reached epidemic proportions and they now strike four times more often than they did in 1990."

All but one of the contracts for supplies Iraq needed were placed on hold by the US government. The contracts were for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers and other related equipment. Of this, Hall added, "Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death."

Sacks told Truthout that he thinks about what happened - and continues to happen - daily.

"Whenever there's a power outage here in Seattle, and people complain about not having electricity for a few hours or days, I think of my first visit to a family in Baghdad in 1996. It was four months before they had any electricity and any water from the tap, after the US Air Force had destroyed nearly all of Iraq's generating capacity," he said. "To this day, there are still only a few rotating hours of electricity a day for most Iraqis, and nothing approaching the prewar 9,000 to 9,500 megawatt capacity Iraq had in 1990."

Sacks reiterated his amazement at the statements made by the Pentagon bombing planners who made it clear that the consequences of taking out Iraq's electricity were not unexpected, but were actually anticipated - and even desired.

"That meant no sewage processing for the 6 million people in Baghdad," he said. "And consequently no safe drinking water for the residents of Baghdad and everyone downstream who got their water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers."

Still Seeking Justice

Sacks stood as the sole defendant in the federal court case of The United States of America v. Bertram Sacks.

He took, in his own words from his testimony, this stance: "I contended that I couldn't pay the fine, because that would be giving money to an organization [the United States] that had committed an act of terrorism."

The judge dismissed the lawsuit.

That left the 2010 OFAC suit against Sacks, aimed at collecting the $10,000 fine, which he'd publicly refused to pay.

"I'll continue to do whatever seems practical to raise Americans' understanding of the horrendous mess we've made in Iraq."

"I wanted to take advantage of this second chance in court to raise the issue that US policy using the suffering and deaths of Iraqis, especially the most innocent and vulnerable, children under 5, to overthrow Saddam Hussein, came to constitute terrorism according to our own US legal code," Sacks explained. "Unfortunately, the judge denied me this chance by dismissing the government's case against me because the statute of limitations had run out."

Despite what Sacks saw as a setback, the suit prompted him to start his blog, IraqiKids.org, "to share with interested parties what I'd learned, and continued to learn, over the five years since then, including related issues," he said.

He is pleased that his research and statements regarding what he sees as war crimes, and even terrorism, remain a matter of federal district court and public records due to his case.

And Sacks is far from finished.

"I'll continue to do whatever seems practical to raise Americans' understanding of the horrendous mess we've made in Iraq and beyond, including what we're doing to our own country," he said.

As Sacks sees it, the real work now is clear: "to continue to study nonviolence - deep nonviolence, not just 'don't throw rocks' - and to learn to understand, internalize and apply it to Iraq issues, as well as to the many conflict situations we face today."


About the Author

Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.

His third book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in Washington State.

This article was first published at Truthout.