Grit Your Teeth – Surgery In ‘Liberated’ Iraq

Watching Closely?

In a recent Media Alert, ‘Killings At Falluja – The BBC Tells One Side Of The Story’ (April 29, 2003), we reported how the BBC’s lunchtime news had devoted 3 minutes and 10 seconds to the killing of 16 and wounding of 75 Iraqi civilian protestors by US troops in Falluja. In those 190 seconds, the BBC repeated the claim that the US had acted in self-defence five times. The claim made by Iraqi protestors – that the demonstration had been peaceful and unarmed – was not mentioned. In responding to queries from Media Lens readers, Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, explained:

“Details of the shootings at Falluja came in during the later part of the morning, and more information, including accounts of the events by eyewitnesses, continued to come in throughout the day. At One O’Clock, the primary fact was a simple one, that the Americans had killed 13 Iraqis and wounded several dozens of others.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, May 7, 2003)

And yet, as we pointed out in our alert, at 11:41 that same morning, a BBC Online news report had been posted on the Media Lens message board citing a local Sunni cleric in Falluja, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, who said: “It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons. They were asking the Americans to leave the school so they could use it.”

In his new book, Web Of Deceit, Mark Curtis shows how the mainstream media promote one key concept above all others – “the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence”. The illusion is maintained, Curtis writes, by consistent bias that “sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as ‘normal'”. US-UK responsibility for suffering is always downplayed, never eliciting the attention or horror it deserves.

We asked David Mannion, editor of ITN news, why, despite plenty of reports on two individual Iraqi children – Hanna suffering from terrible burns, and Ali Abbas who lost both arms in bombing – many of the really grave problems facing civilians in Iraqi hospitals and in the wider community are not being communicated to viewers.

Mannion’s response:

“you are clearly not watching closely enough”. (Email to media Lens, May 7, 2003)

Readers can judge for themselves if we have been “watching closely enough” by considering the extent to which they have seen the facts below emphasised, or mentioned at all, in recent weeks. If these facts have been widely covered by ITN and other media in recent weeks, eliciting the level of outcry and outrage they deserve, then we are wrong and Mannion is right. It’s a simple test.

Outdoing Saddam – The US-UK Are “Absolutely Accountable”

How many readers are aware, for example, that, according to UNICEF, more than 300,000 Iraqi children are currently facing death from acute malnutrition – that is, twice as many as under Saddam? What does it say of the US-UK occupation that we have managed to double the suffering previously experienced by children under “one of the most sadistic regimes on the planet”, as Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer described it? (Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong’, the Observer, April 13, 2003) And what does it say of the journalists who raged against that sadism that they are silent now?

On May 14, the United Nations UNICEF agency warned that Iraq’s children – including nearly 8 percent of all children under five – are facing disaster:

“We knew going into the war that Iraqi children were poorly nourished,” said UNICEF representative in Baghdad Carel De Rooy. “But these findings make clear that not enough is being done to turn the situation around. Instead, it has gotten worse. We know the risks that Iraq’s children face, and we know what to do. But we are humanitarian workers, not police. Secure aid delivery equals effective aid delivery.” (Reuters, May 15, 2003)

We have seen no references to this shocking report on either BBC or ITN news since May 14.

More than a month after the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Baghdad residents “are still struggling to survive without basic services”, UN OCHA reported on May 15. Electricity remains intermittent, clean drinking water is unavailable to large numbers of people, and authorities are barely coping with sewage disposal.

In the Baghdad suburb of Adamiya, the director of electric power distribution, Muthanna al-Ubaydi, said the 30,000 people in his sector were now receiving only about six hours of electricity a day. Muthanna said during the war, many transmission lines from power stations to the city had been destroyed. Of 245 high-tension lines only 15 are now working.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports only 2,200 MW of electricity are being generated nationwide in Iraq out of the 10,000 MW needed. It said this raised a serious threat to public health, since it limited the production of safe water, and the risk would increase with the advent of summer.

How many people are aware of the true state of Iraq’s hospitals a month after ‘liberation’?

A week after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, the Red Cross reported that 32 out of 35 hospitals in Baghdad had shut down following looting and violence – a staggering catastrophe that was reported and quickly dropped by the media. Unable to find out what happened next from the mainstream, we turned to the internet. We managed to find some answers on the ReliefWeb site. Baghdad “still does not have any fully functioning hospitals,” ( Morten Rostrup, head of Médicins Sans Frontières in Iraq, reported on May 2.

As a result, sufferers of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and epilepsy had nowhere to refill their medications. Life threatening diseases such as tuberculosis and kala azar, a fly-borne sickness, were “going untreated due to lack of medicines” in Amarah, Basra, Karbala, Nasariyah and elsewhere. Rostrup gave the kind of damning verdict that is all but banned from the media, which remains stuck in patriotic ‘support the war’ mode:

“The US-led coalition was so focused on the military campaign that seeing that the health system was functioning after the war was not a priority. That was a big, big mistake. They are absolutely accountable.”

On May 9, Dr Hadi Rahim Dayri in Basra’s Al-Tahrir hospital reported between 45 and 50 suspected cases of cholera arriving every day, all with severe diarrhoea, dehydration and projectile vomiting. Only about 30 of them could be admitted overnight due to a shortage of beds, while the rest had to be sent home. A number have already died.

The chronic lack of sanitation in Baghdad has resulted in the worst levels of diarrhoea ever seen, with doctors there also fearing an outbreak of cholera: “There is no sanitation and no clean water,” Dr Husayn Fadil al-Jawadi, a paediatrician,  said. “Even tap water, there is a smell, and when you put it in a glass you can see the material in it.” In 1999, doctors had managed to control an outbreak of cholera in Iraq, “but I fear it could be much worse this time”, Dr al-Jawadi said.

Oxfam’s regional media coordinator, Alex Renton, said last week that Oxfam is continuing to lobby US-UK forces over their duties as an occupying power to protect civilians in the fabric of life inside Iraq:

“We believe that at this moment the occupying power is failing in those duties.” (Renton, quoted Agence France-Presse, May 5, 2003)

It is the kind of failure that overwhelmed the residents of Al Rashad Psychiatric Hospital as Baghdad fell to US forces in early April. Terrified, all 1,015 residents fled as looters stole medicine and equipment, then stripped the hospital of doors, windows and light fixtures.

On April 25, aid worker Steve Weaver of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) visited Al Rashad. Amid the destruction, he saw decades’ worth of patient records scattered about. A lone member of staff was painstakingly sorting through the piles of papers, trying to re-file them. MCC describe the bigger picture:

“This incident tells the larger story of post-war Iraq – the collapse and destruction of hospitals, water purification systems and other vital institutions, which are leaving vulnerable people in desperate straits.” (, May 13, 2003)

Weaver was told that some 700 patients were still missing from Al Rashad. Staff were concerned that they may be wandering Baghdad’s lethal streets. On May 13, the Red Cross reported that numerous security incidents happen daily in the capital: looting, banditry, ambushes, car-jacking, physical attacks and killings. A member of staff confided to Weaver that some female patients at Al Rashad had been raped during the looting.

And consider the hell that is the sole hospital in Umm Qasr, containing 12 beds currently catering for around 45,000 people. The five permanent local “doctors” are actually students in their third and fourth years of medical school: “There is no hygiene of any kind, no basic facilities, no fully trained medical staff, no operating theatre, no fridge – there is just nothing there,” says Mark Cockburn, a paramedic with Rescue Net.

What does Blair’s “moral case for war” mean when patients, undergoing basic surgery without painkillers, “have to grit their teeth, or put a piece of cloth in their mouths to bite on,” as Cockburn reports? Where is the outcry in our politics and media about this fate befalling a country we are supposed to have “liberated”?

The deceptiveness of the British government’s response is by now predictable. Thus, Tony Blair’s newly appointed Special Representative to Iraq, John Sawer, claimed recently on Newsnight:

“You’re focusing on problems in Baghdad. Let’s put it into a bit of proportion. In major cities like Mosul and Basra, and in sensitive inter-communal places like Kirkuk, or places of religious value like Najaf and Karbala, the situation is actually quite close to getting back to normal. The situation around the country is not too bad; the problem is here in the capital.” (Newsnight, BBC2, May 14, 2003)

On the same day that Sawer made this comment, UNICEF’s Carel De Rooy reported the doubling of acute malnutrition rates in children under five in Baghdad since February, adding:

“We can assume that the situation is as bad if not much worse in other urban centres throughout Iraq.” (UNICEF, ‘Iraq survey finds slide in child health’, May 14, 2003)

This is “close to getting back to normal”, according to the British government.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Ask them why they have given so little coverage to the grave crises afflicting the civilian population of Iraq. Ask them to draw attention to UNICEF’s, May 14 report indicating that 300,000 Iraqi children are currently facing death from acute malnutrition – twice as many as under Saddam in February. Ask them to draw attention to the suffering in Umm Qasr, where patients undergoing basic surgery without painkillers “have to grit their teeth, or put a piece of cloth in their mouths to bite on,” according to aid workers. Why are these horrors not being widely discussed? Ask them to ask the government why it is not doing more to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people.