Why the Iraq war failed: the Hospital from Hell

Statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Fird...

Statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Firdos Square after the US invasion of Iraq. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you want to know why the American occupation of Iraq was such a disaster, you need look no further than the story of the former Saddam Hussein Central Children’s Hospital in Baghdad.

When I first saw the hospital in 2004, it was beyond belief. There was sewage dripping from the roof of the premature babies’ ward, leaking from pipes above, spattering down to the floor between the cots, where it gathered in foul stinking puddles.

Downstairs in the leukaemia ward, the toilets had overflowed, sending a huge pool of shit floating across the floor between the beds where children writhed in agony. There were blankets black with blood at the end of the corridor, left over from the invasion, when they had been used on Iraqi soldiers injured fighting the Americans.

The children were crammed in two to a bed. I remember one girl looking on in fear while her bed-mate twisted with convulsions. There were no nurses: the children’s parents were doing what they could to keep the wards clean.

The stairs were piled high with rubbish, old unplumbed toilet cisterns, broken bits of machinery, and babies’ cots piled high with notes on long-dead patients that were thick with dust.

It was the hospital from hell — and it was the biggest children’s hospital in Iraq.

The story of how it ended up like that is the story of Iraq. The hospital had been a place of nightmares long before the American invasion. Saddam Hussein had kept it like that, deliberately starved it of resources so he could send visiting foreign journalists and diplomats there to show them the suffering US-led international sanctions were causing in Iraq.

Today, the sanctions that were in place before the 2003 invasion are regarded as a failure because they didn’t cause the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow Saddam. But they are a salutary lesson of what sanctions achieve. They were devastating for the ordinary people of Iraq. The economy collapsed, children couldn’t even get pencils for school. But they barely touched Saddam.

And in the Saddam Hussein Central Children’s Hospital, Iraq’s dictator and the international community conspired together to make the lives of Iraqi children hell. The sanctions starved the hospital. Saddam made sure it was starved some more.

But when I visited the hospital in 2004, that was all long in the past. Saddam was toppled, the Americans had been in control of Iraq for ten months.

And in the hospital, nothing had changed. Well, the name had — now it was called Al-Iskan Central Children’s Teaching Hospital. But the pipes were still leaking sewage, shit was still flooding the leukaemia ward, the place was still filthy, and the children were still dying.

The US had been running Iraq for ten months, and they had done nothing to improve conditions at its biggest children’s hospital.

No one from the US civilian administation, the CPA,  had even visited to see what the hospital might need.

There wasn’t enough fuel for the generators during Baghdad’s endless power cuts. There was a drug shortage so severe that doctors had to send the children’s parents out to buy medicine on the black market — only to find they had been sold the medicine that was supposed to be sent to the hospital. As the hospital director said, it wasn’t the Americans who were stealing the medicine — but they were in charge, and they weren’t preventing it.

It was hard to disagree with Iraqis when they said that, despite all the rhetoric about liberating them from Saddam Hussein, the Americans and their British allies didn’t seem all that interested in the Iraqi people.

The first clash between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians was in Fallujah, when locals demonstrated to demand their school be reopened.

The Iraqis had the same preoccupations as people everywhere: schools, healthcare, and law and order. And the Americans were doing nothing about any of them.

The children’s hospital stood as witness to that. The children had died there as vicitims of sanctions, and as victims of Saddam. And now they were dying as victims of the American occupation.

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