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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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