Another grim marker reached in Iraq

The death toll in Iraq continues to grow. Associated Press announced March 3 that American deaths had reached the 1,500 mark when a soldier was killed in action south of Baghdad. The number of Iraqi civilians killed is more than 107,000.

“Despite all the ‘banner days’ that were supposed to mark turning points in this war, the violence continues and escalates,” Military Families Speak Out said in a recent statement. “The U.S. occupation of Iraq continues to be the problem, not the solution.” The organization urged support for the troops and “the fallen” by ending the occupation.

Several new reports last week depict Iraq as a hellish nightmare, with overflowing prisons, American use of illegal chemical weapons, torture by the interim Iraqi government, and mounting death tolls on both sides.

American forces used illegal chemical weapons, including mustard and nerve gas, in their November attack on the city of Fallujah, says Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official with the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Shaykhli assessed health conditions in Fallujah after the U.S. assault.

Shaykhli also said radioactive materials may have been used by U.S. forces. “I absolutely do not exclude their use of nuclear and chemical substances, since all forms of nature were wiped out in that city. I can even say that we found dozens, if not hundreds, of stray dogs, cats, and birds that had perished as a result of those gasses.”

According to Al Jazeera and other news agencies, Fallujah residents said American forces also used napalm, citing as evidence melted bodies seen around the city.

Mustard gas, nerve agents and napalm are all illegal under international law. Mustard gas causes blistering of the skin or lungs when it is touched or inhaled. Nerve agents affect the nervous system, and some agents can kill a human within one to two minutes of skin contact.

Napalm is made of jet fuel and other chemicals and causes the human body to “melt.” The effects of napalm were depicted in an infamous picture of a badly burnt, naked Vietnamese girl running on a road near the village of Trang Bang during the Vietnam War.

American-run jails in Iraq are bursting at the seams. The U.S. is building more prisons, even as many innocents languish. According to The New York Times, by early March, the three main U.S. prisons held 9,800 people — 1,000 more than were held in January. Abu Ghraib, the prison notorious for its torture scandals, currently holds 3,160 prisoners, even though its capacity is only 2,500.

From the time they are picked up until the time their cases are reviewed, detainees wait three, four, sometimes up to six months. Thousands of innocent civilians are held for months on end.

Human Rights Watch recently charged that the interim Iraqi government, headed by former Baathist and U.S.-supported Ayad Allawi, has tortured Iraqi detainees, including children. The report charges torture has become routine. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Iraq with 90 detainees, 72 of whom alleged having been tortured or ill treated, particularly under interrogation.

“The people of Iraq were promised something better than this after the government of Saddam Hussein,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The Iraqi interim government is not keeping its promises to honor and respect basic human rights.”

Whitson acknowledged the tremendous challenges faced by Iraqi security forces, and condemned insurgents that target civilians, but said that is no excuse for torture. “International law is unambiguous on this point: no government can justify torture of detainees in the name of security.”

As many have argued, as long as U.S. troops remain, security will be elusive and violence will escalate.

dmargolis@pww.org