The physical destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure in the “Gulf War”
The relentless allied bombing of civilian targets in Iraq during the “Gulf war” compounded the effects of the sanctions imposed earlier and left a legacy of destruction that Iraq was prevented from repairing.
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker apparently warned Iraqi deputy prime-minister Tariq Aziz at their meeting of 9 January 1991 in Geneva, that is before the “Gulf war”, that Iraq would be brought back to the pre-industrial stage if it did not withdraw from Kuwait. The systematic bombing of Iraqi infrastructure and economic facilities corroborates this story.
A US-government report entitled “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability” identified “[f]ive basic categories of target – command and control, industrial production, infrastructure, population will, and fielded forces” that were “encompassed in the plan[or attacking Iraq]”. The report goes on to state: “Attacks on targets such as television and radio stations and electrical power generation and distribution facilities would degrade the will of the civilian population.”(emphasis added).
Attacking civilian infrastructure and the “population will” is prohibited under the provisions of international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes. If “degrading the will of the civilian population” was apparently one of the purposes of bombing electrical power generation and distribution facilities, it would also make sense that such purpose underpinned the persistent refusal by the U.S. to allow the repair of these facilities after the “Gulf war”.
While U.S. and allied leaders publicly disclaimed any intention to harm civilians or civilian objects, their military forces reportedly targeted, disabled, destroyed or damaged major civilian infrastructure over the whole territory of Iraq, including most power plants and transmissions facilities, multipurpose dams, refineries, food-processing plants, food-and-seed storage warehouses, flour mills, a dairy-products plant, sugar refineries, a syringe factory, telecommunications systems, irrigation facilities, municipal water-treatment and sewage plants, a veterinary-vaccine manufacturing facility, civilian vehicles, roads, railways, airports, bridges and numerous industrial, commercial, educational, religious and cultural facilities.
Estimates about the value of the damage due to the 1991 bombing campaign range from a low estimate by the CIA in 1991 of $30 billion to what is generally considered as a more realistic estimate of $200 billion.
More than 90 percent of Iraq’s electrical capacity was bombed out of service in the first hours of the “Gulf war”. This comprised the country’s 11 major electrical power stations and 119 substations. Existing generating capacity of 9,000 MW in December 1990 was reduced to only 340 MW by March 1991. The United States apparently had designed a special weapon specifically to shut down Iraq’s electric power. US Air Force officers acknowledged that targeting Iraq’s infrastructure (including the electrical power system) was related to an effort “to accelerate the effect of the sanctions”, that is to “degrade the will” of the civilian population and encourage it to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Col. John A. Warden III, the deputy director of strategy, doctrine and plans for the U.S. Air Force, explained the rationale for targeting Iraq’s electricity system to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post:
Saddam Hussein cannot restore his own electricity. He needs help. If there are political objectives that the UN coalition has, it can say, “Saddam, when you agree to do these things, we will allow people to come in and fix your electricity.” It gives us long-term leverage. (emphasis added)
Military analysts contacted by Gellman estimated that it would take about a year to repair destroyed transformers or switching yards – with Western assistance – but that repairing main generator halls bombed by the United States would take five years.
Pentagon officials, contacted by Gellman, declined to offer written explanations on the specific military relevance of 28 electrical targets. A planning officer contacted by Gellman said
People say, “You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage”. Well, what were we trying to do with[the] sanctions - help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effects of the sanctions.
Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who had overall command of the air campaign, tried to downplay the injurious intent of destroying the electrical infrastructure by explaining to Gellman that the “side benefit”[of destroying the infrastructure] was ”the psychological effect on ordinary Iraqi citizens of having their lights go out.”.
Gellman also reports another justification adduced in support of targeting the infrastructure, namely that Iraqi civilians were not blameless for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait: “The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear,” one senior Air Force officer reportedly said, noting that many supported the invasion of Kuwait. “They do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.”
Another officer, who played a central role in the air campaign, declining to be named, explained to Gellman that strategic bombing strikes against “all those things that allow a nation to sustain itself.”
With “the destruction of power plants, oil refineries, main oil storage facilities and water-related chemical plants, all electrically operated installations have ceased to function.” effectively paralyzing water- and sewage treatment and other life-sustaining services depending on electricity. It also seriously disrupted electricity-powered irrigation necessary for domestic food production and electricity-dependent refrigeration of foods and medicines. This was corroborated by a team of ten U.S. health professionals who visited 11 major cities and towns in Iraq between April 27 and May 6, 1991 to inspect the humanitarian situation. The team’s report published in the New England Journal of Medicine provides findings confirming those included in the report by the Ahtisaari mission:
We found suffering of tragic proportions. As is so often the case, the youngest and most vulnerable are paying the price for the actions of others. Children are dying from preventable diseases and starvation as a direct result of the Gulf crisis...[T]he predominant factor contributing to epidemic waterborne diseases was clearly the destruction of the electrical infrastructure. Although the allied bombing may have caused relatively little direct damage to the civilian population, the destruction of the infrastructure has resulted in devastating long-term consequences for health.
Gellman writes that “[a]ccording to Pentagon analysts, Iraq’s electrical power generating capacity four months after the end of the Gulf war had declined to the pre-industrial level of 1920, before reliance on refrigration, water-purification and sewage treatment became widespread.”.
Ed Vulliamy reported that water-treatment plants in Basra had been bombed in the Gulf war: “It was not merely the transformers in the water plants that were bombed, but the giant Japanese-built turbines themselves, which cannot be repaired under the embargo.” Eyewitness evidence of the destruction of other water facilities has been documented The Harvard Team reported in September 1991 that it had visited the two sewage-treatment facilities that serve Baghdad. Both plants ceased operation during the first weeks of the war because they lost electrical power. One plant was later destroyed by allied bombs and, as of early May, continued to discharge raw sewage into the Tigris River.
Clark reported that “four of Iraq’s seven major water pumping stations were destroyed. Bombs and missiles hit 31 municipal water and sewage facilities; 20 were hit in Baghdad alone. Sewage spilled into the Tigris and out into the streets of Baghdad, adding water-borne disease to the list of killers.”.
He adds: “Water purification plants were incapacitated nation-wide. Those that were not damaged could not function without electricity. For many weeks, people in Baghdad – without television, radio, or newspapers to warn them – were getting their drinking water from the Tigris in buckets.”.
Prof. Thomas J Nagy, basing his conclusions on a document issued by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and declassified in 1995, claims that the US deliberately destroyed Iraq’s capacity to provide drinking water. The DIA report, dated 18 January 1991, entitled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” (“IWTV”) and circulated to major forward allied Commands, provides a technically detailed account of Iraqi water treatment installations and the degree of leverage over Iraq and its people that could be obtained by damaging such installations or preventing their rehabilitation. The significance of the IWTV report will be discussed in more detail elsewhere.
A declassified US report acknowledges that chlorine production facilities had been destroyed, presumably by allied bombing:
Nation-wide restoration of water potability has been slowed by 1) the destruction of Iraqi's chlorine production capability and 2) the financial cost of rebuilding damaged petrochemical plants and the interim requirement of importing chlorine products from abroad. Water purification systems and portable generators provided through humanitarian assistance have served, at best, as stop-gap measures. Iraq's Ministry of Health continues to provide public health communiqués instructing inhabitants to boil water, fully cook food, and store food and water in clean containers.
The New York Times reported in June 1991 from Iraqi government sources that six chlorine-manufacturing plants had been damaged during the war. One of the plants was reportedly under repair and could be shortly made operational but would only meet 20 percent of Iraq’s chlorine needs for water-treatment.
Iraq’s telecommunications system was put out of service by bombing “in the first few days” of the “Gulf war”. A fact-finding mission by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to Iraq in June-July 1991 reported that “400,000 of Iraq’s 900,000 phone lines had been destroyed. Fourteen central exchanges were irreparably damaged, with 13 more put out of service indefinitely.”. In order to prevent the dissemination of information, news and warnings to the population, six wireless broadcasting stations, 12 television stations, and five radio stations, were bombed. Without electricity, even undamaged radio transmitters and receivers were useless.
In a country built around two great rivers, 139 automobile and railway bridges were either damaged or destroyed, including 26 in the Basra province alone. Both main highways and other roads were bombed and to prevent their repair, road maintenance stations were also bombed.
Among facilities destroyed in the Gulf war was the “only veterinary vaccination facility” in Iraq, leaving farm animals vulnerable to disease. It was inspected by the Ahtisaari mission. Stocks of vaccine were stated to have been destroyed in the same sequence of bombardments on this centre, a FAO-funded regional project. Other facilities essential for agriculture were eight multipurpose dams “repeatedly hit and heavily damaged”, and “all of the irrigation systems serving [irrigated lands] – including storage dams, barrages, pumping stations, and drainage projects – were attacked. Farmers lost the ability to flood or drain land, cutting food production in half and causing widespread saltwater intrusion in Basra province.”.
In addition to the destruction of food production and processing plants, other plants of revelance to food production were destroyed in the bombing campaign, including phosphate plants, a pesticide warehouse and the nation’s tractor assembly plant. A major fertilizer plant was destroyed in bombing raids that took 16 lives.
Clark reports that a “major hypodermic syringe facility in Hilla was destroyed by laser-guided rockets.”.
Food warehouses were reportedly hit, damaged or destroyed by allied bombing: At least three in the Baghdad province, seven in the Basra province, all of Iraq’s General Company of Foodstuffs warehouses in the Al-Qadissiya province, the country’s biggest frozen meat storage and distribution center and grain silos across the entire country.
Food production facilities were reportedly hit, damaged or destroyed by allied bombing: Three facilities of the Iraqi Dates Company, Iraq’s baby milk powder factory at Abu Ghraib, unique to the region, a vegetable oils factory and sugar factories.
Further evidence is provided by Middle East Watch, a Division of Human Rights Watch about the bombing of a sugar refinery and a domestic heating-gas factory in Northern Iraq and another sugar factory in southern Iraq, a poultry farm in the an-Anbar governorate, vegetable oil factories in the Baghdad governorate; and food and grain warehouses, flour mills, and a dairy factory in Basra. Seed warehouses were also reported to have been destroyed in the allied bombings and were inspected by the Ahtisaari Mission. According to the Mission Iraq was particularly dependent upon foreign vegetable seeds.
Clark reported the destruction of 28 civilian hospitals and 52 health centers, presumably by allied bombing: “Zubair Hospital in Basra province totally collapsed from bombing. At Al-Rashad Mental Hospital, Southwest of Baghdad, ceilings collapsed on patients’ beds. At Ulwiyya Maternity Hospital, shrapnel and broken glass hit babies and mothers. The student clinic and school in Hilla was bombed. Five of Iraq’s military medical facilities were also damaged.”.
Allied forces reportedly damaged 676 schools; 38 were totally destroyed. Eight of those hit were parts of universities.
Clark reports: “U.S. planes hit 11 oil refineries, five oil pipeline and production facilities, and many oil tankers…Bombs hit major storage tanks, the gas/oil separators through which crude oil passes to refineries, the distilling towers and catalytic converters critical to modern refineries, and the important K2 pipeline junction near Beiji, which connected northern oil fields, an export pipeline to Turkey, and a reversible north-south pipeline inside Iraq.”
Under the laws of warfare, belligerents are permitted to target oil refineries and oil storage facilities, inasmuch as they significantly contribute to the capacity of the enemy to wage war. In the case of Iraq, oil was primarily an export commodity that permitted Iraq to import food, medicines, various raw materials and manufactured products; only a fraction of oil production was used for local, civilian and military, needs.
The destruction of the Iraq oil industry had therefore a double purpose: That, limited, of curtailing the military capacity of Iraq and the other, major, to prevent Iraq from the ability to export oil, raise foreign currency and thus secure the well-being of the population.
4 To spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited by both Art. 51(2) of Additional Protocol I and Art. 13(2) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions; The charges by the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICTY against General Djukic, contained in an indictment of February 29, 1996, included among the offenses the act of terrorising and demoralising the civilian population by indiscriminately shelling Saravejo (cited by William J. Fenrick, “Attacking a civilian population as a punishable offense”, 7 Duke J. of Comp. & Int’l L. 539)
5 Art. 85(3)(b) stipulates the prohibition of “launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects with the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects…”. Breaches of Art. 85 are defined as war crimes.
6 Clark (1992) , p.64, writes: “[T]he three-volume Pentagon report issued in April 1992 claimed that the long-term crippling of Iraq’s electrical grid was an accident – that the allies had meant only to temporarily damage the grid. But if the United States had really wanted Iraq to be able to restore its electrical power, it would have lifted sanctions after the war to allow Iraq to buy parts to repair the damage. And the damage to Iraq’s infrastructure was comprehensive. Electric power was only one part of the overall strategy.”
10 Clark (1992), p. 65, writes: “The International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) fact-finding trip to Iraq in June-July 1991 reported that 400,000 of Iraq’s 900,000 phone lines had been destroyed. Fourteen central exchanges were irreparably damaged, with 13 more put out of service indefinitely. The ITU reported that as late as July 1991, ‘no reliable telecommunications exist[ed] in Iraq’ “
13 Carnahan (1992) writes: “After the gulf war, Pentagon officials revealed that U.S. targeting policy had been directed at objectives beyond the simple expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. These reportedly included creating postwar leverage over Iraq (by destroying facilities that could not be repaired without foreign assistance) and reinforcing the impact of the UN economic sanctions.”
26 The justifications for collective retribution or attacks on civilian objects were all given under the conditions of anonymity, suggesting that the military planners in question were conscious of the unlawful nature of such acts.
37 Report No. DTG: 221900Z JAN 91 from DIA Washington DC to CENTCOM with copies to CENTAF, UK STRIKE COMMAND, MARCENT, 18 ABC, NAVCENT, SOCCENT,. 7TH CORPS and ANKARA. The report was declassified and posted on the website of the GulfLink (http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/declassdocs/dia/ )
38 AFMIC (Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center) Assessment 05-91, Iraq: Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities, 15 November 1991 http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/declassdocs/dia/19950901/950901_0404pgf_91.html