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Patrick Cockburn on Missing Billions in Iraq and Soaring Cancer & Infant Mortality Rates in Fallujah

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In Iraq, an official audit by the US Special Investigator for Iraq Reconstruction found that the Pentagon cannot account for almost $9 billion taken from Iraqi oil revenues between 2004 and 2007 for use in reconstruction. Meanwhile, a new medical study has found dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004. We speak with Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to news from Iraq, where an official audit by the US Special Investigator for Iraq Reconstruction found that the Pentagon cannot account for almost $9 billion taken from Iraqi oil revenues between 2004 and 2007 for use in reconstruction. The report comes amidst continuing Iraqi concerns that, seven years since the US-led invasion, the billions of dollars pumped into reconstruction have failed to rebuild the country’s ravaged infrastructure.

Meanwhile, a new medical study has found dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004. The rates of infant mortality and cancer exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the report, there’s been a four-fold increase in all cancers and a twelve-fold increase in cancer in children under the age of fourteen. Infant mortality in Fallujah is more than four times higher than in neighboring Jordan, eight times higher than in Kuwait. The report says the types of cancer are, quote, “similar to the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionizing radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout.”

Well, for more on Iraq, we’re joined now on the phone by veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, author of several books on Iraq.

Patrick, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with this billions that are missing. Where are they from, and what happened to them?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, they came, ultimately, from Iraqi oil revenues. They were in a fund held by the UN called the Fund for Iraqi Development. And what I find extraordinary about this is that this happened 2004 to '07; this was happening well after we knew that fraud had been occurring everywhere. But even then, there seems to have been no auditing. Money was just spent. Nobody quite knew where it went. So there seems to have been a free-for-all with Iraqi funds, really up to quite recently.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Patrick, this is really astounding, given the amount of attention that Congress and the US government devoted to where the money went in the Oil-for-Food Program of Iraq before the US invasion. And now we find that with the United States government directly involved, there's still questions about where did the oil money go.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, and it’s a very good point, you know, that the Oil for Food, the money — I mean, Saddam’s government was trying to conceal where the money was, was the purpose of sanctions, was to deny the government money. But the US government didn’t want to conceal it, and yet it doesn’t seem to know where it is. And, you know, no country in the world needs more investment than Iraq. One of the extraordinary things is not just that money was stolen, but, you know, how was the money which was accounted for really spent. I often go up to my roof of my hotel in Baghdad and look around the skyline, and there are no cranes to be seen. So I wonder, you know, these billions of dollars, $53 billion alone voted by the US Congress, where did they go, and what was built with them?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s truly incredible. This is 95 percent of the fund that’s unaccounted for, and this came after, as you point out, the scandal of where money went, was a result of fraud and corruption, if people remember, years ago here in the United States.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure, no, exactly. I mean, it’s — in the first year after the — you know, of the occupation, the guys in charge of the money could defend themselves by saying, “Look, there was complete confusion. We just moved in. We didn’t know what was happening.” And, you know, it’s not wholly convincing, but there was a case that that’s how millions of dollars couldn’t be accounted for. But this was much later on that there was still a free-for-all with Iraq’s money, and nothing was — either it was stolen or nothing has been done with it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Patrick, I’d like to ask you about this whole other issue of the report on — by Chris Busby and some other epidemiologists about the situation in Fallujah and the enormous increases in leukemias and cancers in Fallujah after the US soldiers’ attack on that city. Could you talk about that?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure. I think what’s significant, very significant, about this study is that it confirms lots of anecdotal evidence that there had been a serious increase in cancer, in babies being born deformed, I mean, sometimes with — grotesquely so, babies — you know, a baby girl born with two heads, you know, people born without limbs, then a whole range of cancers increased enormously. That this was — when I was in Fallujah, doctors would talk about this, but, you know one couldn’t — one could write about this, but one couldn’t really prove it from anecdotal evidence. Now this is a study, a scientific study, based on interviews with 4,800 people, which gives — proves that this was in fact happening and is happening. And, of course, it took — you know, it has taken place so much later than the siege of Fallujah, when it was heavily bombarded in 2004 by the US military, because previously, you know, Fallujah is such a dangerous place to this day, difficult to carry out a survey, but it’s been finally done, and the results are pretty extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the various weapons that were used in the bombing of Fallujah in 2004?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, primarily, it was sort of, you know, artillery and bombing. Initially it was denied that white phosphorus had been used, but later this was confirmed. I think one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact, in this case, that before one thinks about was depleted uranium used and other things, that just simply the use of high — large quantities of high explosives in a city filled with civilians and people packed into houses — often you find, you know, whole families living in one room — was, in itself, going to create, lead to very, very high civilian casualties. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the increase in cancers and so forth, and the suspicion that maybe depleted uranium, maybe some other weapon, which we don’t know about — this is not my speculation, but of one of the professors who carried out the study — might have been employed in Fallujah, and that would be an explanation for results which parallel, in fact exceed, the illnesses subsequently suffered by survivors of Hiroshima.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, under President Bush, Afghanistan was the forgotten war; under President Obama, Iraq is the forgotten war. Patrick?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s interesting, and it’s very depressing, I think, you know, that — I suppose the great success of the surge wasn’t really militarily, but to get Iraq off the front pages and leading television news in the United States. And, you know, people speak of Iraq being better. I suppose it is better. You know, we only have about 300 people murdered every month rather than the 3,000 a month we had a few years ago. But it’s still extremely bad. But, you know, it’s sort of — it is very strange that, you know, last weekend we had forty pilgrims killed in a southern Iraqi city by a bomb, and really you would have to hunt through the media to find any mention of this at all. And this is, you know, continually happening. But it was as if Iraq had returned to some sort of peace. Well, actually, it remains one of the most violent countries in the world. Maybe Somalia is worse, but not many other places.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this continuing inability of the Iraqi leadership to even form a functioning government, yet that gets no attention any longer here in the US press?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s happened because the surge, everything else, that was oversold as a solution. Secondly, American soldiers are no longer being killed. Thirdly, you know, all the — they are being killed in Afghanistan. So I think you have almost over-coverage of Afghanistan and under-coverage of Iraq, which is, as you mentioned, an exact reverse of the situation we had a few years ago, when Afghanistan was a sort of — not just a forgotten war, but nobody knew a war was taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the significance of August 31st, the US saying it’s going to reduce the size of its forces in Iraq to 50,000? And does that include military contractors?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I don’t think it does. No, they will remain. But I think that the pullout is quite genuine. Some people are being skeptical about this, but I think that, you know, with the situation in Afghanistan, I can’t see the administration wanting to remain on in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And you point out, Patrick Cockburn, also that General Electric has agreed to pay more than $23 million to settle bribery charges relating to Iraq.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure, yeah. I mean, it’s sort of — in general terms, I mean, this is one case. But in general terms, you know, there’s been — Iraq has gained the reputation as — I think there’s an organization, Transparency International — being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And, you know, it’s, again, going back to a point we were talking about earlier, that this is — there was some reason for this in perhaps the first year or two of the occupation. I remember the entire military procurement budget of $1.2 billion just disappeared, got stolen. But, you know, this is sort of really going on to this day, that they — and this is sort of a real sign, I think, of a dysfunctional government. And, you know, that’s what most Iraqis feel. They just can’t understand, so long after the war, why they’re still only getting a few hours’ electricity and there’s no clean water and, you know, the situation is not getting better.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, we want to thank you for being with us, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, author of several books on Iraq.

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