Saddam's Gas Victims Blame The West, Too

Elaine Sciolino NYT
Friday, February 14, 2003

ISFAHAN, Iran His breath was loud and hard, his mouth wide open as he struggled to force air into his lungs. "I am," said Mohammed Moussavi, a "living martyr."

Almost 15 years after Iran's war with Iraq ended, Moussavi and thousands of others like him are painful reminders of the long-lasting effect of Iraq's use of chemical weapons in that eight-year conflict.

His story is typical of a war generation that fervently believed, after Iraq invaded in 1980, in the need to defend Iran and, later, to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In March 1988, four months before Iran declared a cease-fire, he was badly wounded on the battlefield, not by bombs or bullets but by mustard gas.

"We were wearing gas masks because we expected Saddam to use chemical weapons," he recalled. "But there was too much gas. I suddenly felt a bitter taste in my mouth, and then my mouth filled with blood. I put on a new mask, but the gas had already affected my body."

Today, at 40, Moussavi is chained to an oxygen concentrator. His lungs and air passages are permanently scarred, his vision blurred, his skin susceptible to peeling and rashes. When the breathing nearly stops, he chokes and his chest heaves. "This is a very burdensome illness, both for me and my family," he said. "I never feel I'm getting enough oxygen. The phlegm I cough is filled with blood and hard like bricks."

During the war, about 100,000 people were killed or wounded in chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqis, said Dr. Hamid Sohrabpour, a pulmonary specialist and the director of Iran's chemical treatment program. Iran has compiled records for about 30,000 of them.

One in every 10 of these victims died before receiving treatment, he said. About 5,000 to 6,000 still receive regular medical care under government-financed programs.

In building an argument for war against Iraq, President George W. Bush has stressed the need to rid the world of whatever may be left of Iraq's ballistic missile arsenal and its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

The fear that Iraq still might have such weapons drove the UN Security Council in November to approve unanimously a resolution calling on the Iraqi regime to disarm or face "serious consequences."

But there is deep resentment and anger here that it was Western companies that helped Iraq develop its chemical weapons arsenal in the first place and that the world did nothing to punish Iraq for its use of chemical weapons throughout the war.

"The world knew," Moussavi said. "Iraq developed these weapons with the help of the United States and the West. No matter how many times Iranians shouted that Iraq was using chemical weapons, they were ignored. I don't know why the United States has suddenly become kinder than a mother for the suffering of us chemical weapons patients."

Sohrabpour is equally frustrated. "We took patients to Germany, to Britain, to France, but no one stopped Saddam's regime from using these terrible weapons," he said. "The United States let him develop, stockpile and use these weapons. Now suddenly it's changed. The fact is that the United States is only after its own interests. It doesn't care about what has happened to people."

After a small group of American and European journalists visiting the war front in February 1984 independently verified the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. State Department publicly stated that evidence suggested that Iraq had used the lethal weapons. It was the first confirmed use of the banned substances since World War I. But the United States, which tilted toward Iraq after it decided that Iran was a more dangerous country, did nothing.

Two years later, Iraq began using chemical weapons as an "integral part" of its battlefield strategy and a "regular and recurring tactic," according to a declassified report by the CIA.

A move led by some Democrats in the U.S. Senate to impose sanctions on Iraq after it used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 went nowhere.

The Iraqis used both liquid and dry forms of mustard agent, which burns body tissue and causes blindness, severe blistering, skin discoloration and lung damage, and nerve agents like sarin and tabun, which paralyze the muscles and cause convulsions and vomiting that can lead to death.

Nerve gas victims usually died on the spot unless they were immediately treated with antidotes. But many mustard gas victims survived, developing ailments that worsened over time and often led to death.

The 12,000-page weapons declaration that Iraq delivered to the United Nations in December identifies 31 major foreign suppliers for its chemical weapons program, including two companies based in the United States that are now defunct, 14 from Germany, 3 each from the Netherlands and Switzerland and 2 each from France and Austria.

The plight of chemical weapons patients in Iran is complicated by the fact that Iranian leaders have manipulated the legacy of the war for their own purposes. Although there is deep empathy for victims of chemical weapons attacks, there is resentment toward the Foundation for the Deprived and the War Disabled, a huge state-affiliated organization that disperses aid to the victims and that has long been accused of corruption and cronyism.Moussavi, who was interviewed in the presence of two officials from the foundation, praised the organization for its constant support and said his sacrifice was worthwhile. Then, anger overtook him. "My anger is not targeted at anyone in particular," he said. "It's because I can't breathe. All those who are suffering from gas exposure have the same anger."
Copyright 2002 The International Herald Tribune

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