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Our Cruel Legacy in Iraq: Birth Defects in Fallujah's Children

As the U.S. continues its Iraq withdrawal show -- even while the supposed withdrawal deadline is seriously in doubt -- what is happening right now in the city of Fallujah is a devastating reminder of what the war has wrought. It's not just the heavy civilian toll during the famous battles of Fallujah, which left hundreds of innocents dead, or the iron-fisted security measures that followed, which cut off the city from the outside world. Today, the legacy of the U.S.-led war is written on the bodies of children who weren't even alive when the city fell under siege. According to the BBC, "Doctors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah are reporting a high level of birth defects, with some blaming weapons used by the U.S. after the Iraq invasion." "Now, the level of heart defects among newborn babies is said to be 13 times higher than in Europe." Today's BBC report follows an investigation by the Guardian last fall, which found "up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants, compared to a year ago," according to doctors in Fallujah.
Neurologists and obstetricians in the city interviewed by the Guardian say the rise in birth defects -- which include a baby born with two heads, babies with multiple tumors, and others with nervous system problems -- are unprecedented and at present unexplainable.
Dr. Ayman Qais, director and senior specialist at Fallujah General Hospital, told the Guardian, "We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies. Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased dramatically." The U.S. military has feigned ignorance about its role in this pediatric health crisis -- "No studies to date have indicated environmental issues resulting in specific health issues," a military spokesperson told the BBC -- a claim bolstered by difficulty in unearthing a single cause for the deformities and abnormalities. In addition to new weaponry, factors that could contribute include "air pollution, radiation, chemicals, drug use during pregnancy, malnutrition, or the psychological status of the mother," according to Dr. Qais. "We simply don't have the answers yet." It would be hard to overstate the suffering of the people of Fallujah in the past several years. The first battle of Fallujah, in April 2004, destroyed much of the city, once known as the “City of Mosques.” The second battle, in November and December of that year, more or less finished the job, bringing, aside from death and destruction, the insidious substance known as white phosphorus. "The brutal destruction of Fallujah by the American army was not followed by any reconstruction, as if the city is being punished for its attitude against the occupation," an engineer in Fallujah told IPS journalists Ali al-Fadhily and Dahr Jamail in 2008. "Our best doctors fled the city for fear of being detained by American and police forces just because they helped civilians during the two sieges of 2004," a doctor at Fallujah General Hospital told al-Fadhily and Jamail. "They are now considered terrorists or at least terrorist supporters, when they should have been decorated with medals for their heroic work in helping their people." The IPS report cited disturbing figures from hospital administrators as well as two other local groups on the medical nightmare emerging in Fallujah:
… [I]n 2006, they found "5,928 new illness cases that were unknown before in Fallujah," over 70 percent of which were "cancers and abnormalities" in children below 12 years of age.
In the first six months of 2007 there were 2,447 cases, more than 50 percent of these cases were children. Simply, this means that most of the victims are children, and this will threaten the new generation in this city.
Almost two years later, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson "visited a new, U.S.-funded hospital in Fallujah where pediatrician Samira al-Ani told him that she was seeing as many as two or three cases a day, mainly cardiac defects."
Our correspondent also saw children in the city who were suffering from paralysis or brain damage -- and a photograph of one baby who was born with three heads.
He adds that he heard many times that officials in Fallujah had warned women that they should not have children.
To see a video on the BBC report, go here.
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