Foreign Policy in Focus: The Under-Examined Story of Fallujah

By Hannah Gurman

Seven years after the U.S. invasion of Fallujah, there are reports of an alarming rise in the rates of birth defects and cancer. But the crisis, and its possible connection to weapons deployed by the United States during the war, remains woefully under-examined.

On November 8, 2004, U.S. military forces launched Operation Phantom Fury 50 miles west of Baghdad in Fallujah, a city of 350,000 people known for its opposition to the Saddam regime.
The United States did not expect to encounter resistance in Fallujah, nor did it initially face any in the early days of the war. The first sign of serious hostility appeared in April 2003, after U.S. soldiers  from the 82nd Airborne division fired into a crowd of protesters demonstrating against the occupation and the closure of their local school building, killing 17 civilians and injuring 70. The following February, amid mounting tensions, a local militia beheaded four Blackwater employees and strung their bodies from a bridge across the Euphrates River. U.S. forces temporarily withdrew from Fallujah and planned for a full onslaught.

Following the evacuation of civilians, Marines cordoned off the city, even as some residents scrambled to escape. Thirty to fifty thousand people were still inside the city when the U.S. military launched a series of airstrikes, dropping incendiary bombs on suspected insurgent hideouts. Ground forces then combed through targeted neighborhoods house by house. Ross Caputi, who served as a first private Marine during the siege, has said that his squad and others employed “reconnaissance by fire,” firing into dwellings before entering to make sure nobody inside was still alive. Caputi later co-founded the group Justice for Fallujah, which dedicated the week of November 14 to a public awareness campaign about the impact of the war on the city’s people.

By the end of the campaign, Fallujah was a ghost town. Though the military did not tally civilian casualties, independent reports put the number somewhere between 800 and 6,000. As The Washington Post reported in April 2005, more than half of Fallujah’s 39,000 homes were damaged, of which 10,000 were no longer habitable. Five months after the campaign, only 90,000 of the city’s evacuated residents had returned.

The majority still lacked electricity, and the city’s sewage and water systems, badly damaged in the campaign, were not functional. A mounting unemployment crisis — exacerbated by security checkpoints, which blocked the flow of people and goods into and out of the city — left young residents of Fallujah especially vulnerable to recruitment by the resistance.

The Official Success Story

Although the initial picture of the devastated city looked grim, by 2007 Fallujah had become a key part of the emerging narrative of successful counterinsurgency in Iraq. At a press conference in April of that year, Marine Colonel Richard Simcock declared that progress was “phenomenal” and that Fallujah was an “economically strong and flourishing city.” According to the official narrative that has since crystallized, the second siege of Fallujah turned out to be a major turning point in the war. “By taking down Fallujah, the Marines denied a sanctuary for the insurgents,” said Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division during Phantom Fury, in an oral history published by the Marines in 2009. In contrast to the insurgents who relied on “brutal tactics,” he explained, the Marines were able to win over the good will of the people. This contributed to the larger “Awakening” in Anbar province, the linchpin of counterinsurgency’s “success” in Iraq.

Official “progress” narratives of war rarely tell the whole story, especially when it comes to the war’s long-term effects on the civilian population. Seven years after the second siege of Fallujah, despite lucrative U.S.-funded contracts to rebuild infrastructure, much of the city is still in ruins, and unemployment remains high. As terrorist attacks in Anbar and across the country have risen in the past year, security is increasingly tenuous. In August, a car bomb exploded at a police station near Fallujah, killing five officers and wounding six more.

Of the current problems in Fallujah, the most alarming is a mounting public health crisis. In the years since the invasion, doctors in Fallujah have reported drastic increases in the number of premature births, infant mortality, and birth defects — babies born without skulls, missing organs, or with stumps for arms and legs. Fallujah General Hospital reported that, out of 170 babies born in September 2009, 24 percent died within the first seven days, of which 75 percent were deformed — as compared to August 2002, when there were 530 babies born, only six deaths, and one deformity. As the years go by, the problem seems to be getting worse, and doctors are increasingly warning women not to have children.

Many residents have suspected a link between the drastic rise in birth defects and the weapons deployed by U.S. military during the war. The United States has admitted to using white phosphorus in Fallujah, a toxin in incendiary bombs that causes severe burns. But it denies targeting civilians or employing a class of armor-piercing weapons that contain depleted uranium, a byproduct of nuclear weapons used in the production of munitions and armory and known to cause mutagenic illnesses.

The Science and Its Critics

Two recent studies led by Dr. Christopher Busby, a chemistry professor at the University of Ulster who specializes in environmental toxicology, have attempted to document and explain Fallujah’s health crisis. The first was an epidemiological study conducted by a team of 11 researchers who visited 711 households in Fallujah. Published in the December 2010 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, it found that congenital birth defects, including neural tube, cardiac, and skeletal malformations, were 11 times higher than normal rates, and rose to their highest levels in 2010. The study also found a seven-to-38-fold increase in several site-specific cancers, as well as a drastic shift in the ratio of female-to-male births, with 15 percent fewer boys born in the study period.

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UNESCO Award for Dr. SM Haq


The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission  (IOC) of UNESCO  on its   50th Commemorative  Anniversary, held on 22nd June 2011 at the  UNESCO Headquarters,  Paris ,  awarded   Professor  Dr. S.M.Haq  of Pakistan  a  Commemorative  Medal for his outstanding contributions to the program activities of the Commission  in Ocean Science and Services.  

Dr.  Haq  is  the first Pakistani to have  received  this award  from the IOC of UNESCO.

Dr. Haq’s   involvement in the IOC program  and activities dates back to  1961,  when  he, at the invitation of the IOC/ Scientific  Committee of Oceanic Research (SCOR) of  ICSU,  participated  in its meeting  held in Delhi to finalize the arrangements for the launching of the  International Indian Ocean Expedition  (IIOE ; 1960-65) with IOC as the coordinating body.
As  part of  Pakistan’s participation  in  the  IIOE  activity,  Dr. Haq, with the support of the University of Karachi and in close cooperation with and support  of the  Directorate of  Hydrography of  the Pakistan Navy,  led  oceanographic  cruises, consisting of  a team of young national scientists,  on board the P.N.S.  Zulfiquar,  covering the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.  The data collected during the cruises were later incorporated in the Indian Ocean Atlas, published by  the  IOC.

Serving as  Head of the Capacity Building  program activities of the IOC, (1978-1990)  Dr. Haq was responsible for  the introduction and implementation of  a wide range of  measures to enhance  marine science capacity  of a number of  coastal and island states of  the Caribbean,  Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and East and  West African coasts. These activities were  timely, considering  the adoption  by the international community of the final text of the UN Convention  on  the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS : : 1982) and, later, the provisions  adopted   by the  UN Conference on Environment for Development (UNCED : 1992), which triggered national interest world-wide for  marine sciences  in  new   and extended areas of national jurisdictions  offshore. 

The overall result of these contributions was seen in the progressive involvement  of developing countries in  regional and global  scientific  program   as well as  their  increased awareness of the importance of coastal and ocean sciences in the context of national development.

Born in Hyderabad  (India)  and educated  at the Osmania University, Dr. Haq  immigrated to Pakistan in 1954. He is   now a US citizen,  residing permanently in  Cincinnati, Ohio.

Dr. Haq obtained his Ph.D.  in 1960 in Marine Science from the Marine Science  Centre of University of N. Wales. He was a post-doctoral Fulbright Fellow at  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mass.,  (1963-65) and  a recipient of  the post-doctoral Nuffield  award at  the  Marine  Biological  Association  of  the U.K. (1973). His scientific  work  covered  the vast areas  of the Irish Sea, the Indian  Ocean, the Western Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean as   part of his research studies.  He  Published numerous scientific pares in international journals, including  as joint editor of a book  on “Coastal Management imperative  for  Maritime Developing  Nations,”  published by the  Kluwer   Academic  Publishers of  the Netherlands. 

At the national  level (Pakistan), Dr.  Haq served as the founder-director of the Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Karachi, 1970-78. He was a member of the Pakistan Delegation  to the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (1976), where he made important contributions to  the negotiating text dealing with the role of Marine Scientific Research in the New Ocean Regime.


Arabian Sea Host to Rare Humpbacked Whales

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

humpback_2The Middle East is host to a veritable smorgasbord of treasures ranging from the Oud, or Arabian stringed instrument, to the finest breeds of horses in the world.  At the onset of this year Marine Scientist Robert Baldwin, in cooperation with the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), revealed that a rare species of humpbacked whale was discovered in the Arabian Sea specifically alongside the coast of Oman.

Baldwin led his own team of researchers in studying the new species, which has just recently been named the “Arabian Sea Humpback Whale” by the International Whaling Commission. The researchers were able to collect an immense amount of data including samples of DNA and more than 10,000 photographs of the whales in their natural habitat. They also studied behavioral and social patterns of the newly discovered mammals to better understand how to preserve and protect the species from harm. 

What makes the Arabian Sea Humpbacked Whales so unique from other whales is that they do not migrate. Other breeds of whales are nomads and regularly migrate in search of food, better water temperatures depending on the season and for breeding purposes. These whales prefer to stay close to home, off the coast of Oman, and will spend their lifetime in the exact same place. The Arabian Sea Humpbacked Whales must be able to fulfill all of the activities of a regular whale while never moving too far from home.

According to Baldwin, the newly discovered breed of whale is so unique that it is one of the most at risk whale species in the world. In a recent statement Baldwin said, “Not only are these whales distinct in this regard, but our recent research also indicates they are one of the smallest and potentially most vulnerable whale populations in the world.” The whales face threats both on land and in the sea in the form of pollution, urban development that often extends into the ocean with manmade islands, sea crafts and rising sea temperatures during the summer months that force the warm-blooded whales to marinate in water the temperature of soup.

Several of Oman’s ministries, including the Ministry of Fisheries, have vowed to take whatever measures necessary to protect the newly discovered national treasure. The Executive Director of ESO, Lamees Daar, recently was quoted as saying “Now, more than ever, we have a huge responsibility to keep our seas healthy and by working with both Ministries our combined efforts will have a greater impact on the protection and conservation of this species.”

In the interim the Omani-Based Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project, currently managed by Marine Scientist Andrew Wilson, will oversee the well being of the whales until more data is gathered and processed to determine the best course of action to ensure the longevity of the population.