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Who’s responsible for covering Iraq with red dust?

May 10, 2022 at 1:56 pm

Iraqis visit the Imam Ali shrine during a sandstorm in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf on 5 May 2022. [QASSEM AL-KAABI/AFP via Getty Images]

A dust storm that covered seven Iraqi governorates, including Baghdad, caused more than 5,000 cases of suffocation and the death of one person. Social media sites circulated astonishing pictures of the red dust that enveloped the atmosphere, people and places for the seventh time in a month. The pictures were accompanied by analyses and theories, combining scientific evidence, exaggeration and official propaganda accompanied by justifications to various degrees.

Official statements focused on climate change, lack of rain and desertification, which are real causes worldwide, as the destruction caused by man to the environment is no longer a secret to anyone. Its increasing symptoms include hurricanes, floods, rising temperatures, desertification, drying up of agricultural lands, forest fires and the increasing gases and air pollution. These are phenomena that environmentalists have long warned us of and called for the necessity of finding radical solutions to them. Scientists and environmental activists stressed the need to obligate all countries without exception to adhere to changes that can stop or speed up the repair of the damage caused.

When looking at the environmental situation in Iraq, we will find that it is distinguished by a uniqueness that distinguishes it from America, Europe and even neighbouring countries. Despite this, official statements try to package it in the same box.

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When following official local statements and international reports we realise they do not address the roots of the environmental disaster in Iraq and the responsibility of Western colonial policy for it. They thought it would be enough just to scratch the surface by proposing the formation of committees, the fate of which remains unknown after the media hype died down. This hinders finding real solutions that help first to stop the deterioration and secondly, to improve the situation.

The uniqueness of the catastrophic situation stems from the fact that the environmental disaster, in addition to the general destruction in the country, is the result of war, occupation and neo-colonial, international and regional policies that are reinforced by the non-state regime in Iraq. This has led to the undermining of the economic basis of life in the region. The effects of these wars and colonial policies, as well as the regime’s total disregard for its responsibility, are visible in the devastating climate change, depletion of natural resources, water scarcity and air and soil pollution from the use of modern munitions, such as depleted uranium.

Iraqis receive treatment at an emergency ward in Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad as thousands were hospitalised across the country during a heavy sandstorm on 6 May 2022. [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]

Iraqis receive treatment at an emergency ward in Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad as thousands were hospitalised across the country during a heavy sandstorm on 6 May 2022. [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]

It is estimated that the war on Iraq caused the release of 141 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, between 2003 and 2007, i.e. more than 60 per cent of all countries in the world. Iraqi scientist Dr Souad Al-Azzawi and Egyptian Dr Beatrice Boctor have documented in many of their research the US violations of international law during the Gulf War, early on, by using weapons capable of long-term impact, causing permanent destruction of the natural environment even after there was no military need for it. Time has proven this to be correct, especially after the US continued to violate the laws of war and humanitarian laws in the following years until its invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Among the reasons for the destruction of the Iraqi environment, which are deliberately kept quiet, is how the American forces dispose of military waste by burning it in large pits in the ground.

Soldiers admitted that the waste included used medical supplies, paint, plastic water bottles, batteries and even entire Humvees. The burning process made the soldiers seriously ill. “The smoke was toxic. It’s a silent killer, and it may not kill you on the battlefield tomorrow. Down the road, it’s going to cause some long-term health effects,” said retired US Army Lt. Col. Dan Brewer. “And we’re seeing that now, we’re seeing that a lot,” he added. The increase in the emergence of symptoms in the soldiers led to the establishment of an association to demand special care and compensation for wounded soldiers, however, neither Iraqi nor foreign politicians, or even members of local and international human rights organisations, demanded an investigation into the symptoms that the Iraqi citizen was exposed to as a result of burning toxic waste, not to mention claiming compensation. Double standards remain the dominant language.

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While no one disagrees about the complexity of the Iraqi environmental situation and its being the result of decades of destruction, failing to hold the West primarily responsible for the destruction and offering solutions that do not deviate from the path of the same regimes that caused the devastation will not lead to cleaning the country up and stopping it from its downward spiral. The lack of water in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as a result of the construction of dams by Iran and Turkey, in violation of international agreements, constitutes a serious problem, which was addressed by Dr Souad Al-Azzawi in a recent research paper she wrote, in which she noted the inevitability of the two rivers drying up. This catastrophe will not stop as long as the ruling regime consists of parties and militias, quarrelling to the point of fighting among themselves, thus stripping the state of any central power and authority. The solutions, even simple ones, such as legislating a law prohibiting unorganised excavations, razing orchards and converting them into buildings, and preventing the uprooting of trees and instead working to encourage planting dense trees and the return of farmers to land they left due to droughts and storms, remain pending without implementation. The real treatment remains linked to the presence of a sincere political will, emanating from the heart of society and representing its interests and imposed by the people themselves.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 9 May 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.