Cowardly British government tries to stop courageous Iraqi scientist travelling to tell the truth
WHY has the British government prevented an Iraqi medical scientist travelling to Canada to speak about war deaths and longer term effects on health? We can make a guess, but it would be better if the government was asked to explain its action.
Dr. Riyadh Lafta co-authored a study published by The Lancet in October that estimated more than half a million people had died in the war in Iraq. The Iraqi physician was due to address students at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia about his work, and then to present a paper last week about an alarming rise in cancers among Iraqi children.
Instead he was teaching depleted classes at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, with many students staying at home for fear of attacks, and was wondering when he himself might be targetted. In January, two car bombs tore through the university, killing 70 and injuring more than 200, mostly students. In February, a female suicide bomber killed more than 40 more. A week ago Dr. Lafta heard that one of his colleagues, a lecturer in pediatrics, had been killed.
"They took money from his family, and yet still they assassinated him," he said. "Even a man who is a little bit well known is at extreme risk of being killed," he told reporters in a phone interview. "Now, when I talk to you, really I am risking my life."
Dr. Lafta's home was searched by coalition forces several weeks ago. His speciality is epidemiology, which studies the health of populations, and thus can be politically "sensitive" so far as governments are concerned. For the study on war deaths volunteers enquired door-to-door around local communities throughout Iraq, and from the evidence they received, the researchers extrapolated to an estimated figure of 654,965 war dead- or about 2.5 per cent of the population.
That was 10 times higher than the previous Iraq Body Count, and 20 times higher than the number the Bush administration uses. According to a recent survey, it's about 66 times higher than the number the average American believes - 9,800. The study shocked some people into abandoning their support for the war, but although it had been overseen by John Hopkins University in the United States it was attacked in the American media, as well as by the British and US governments.
Dr. Lafta believes those who wage the war must know the damage they are doing. "It is our duty to concentrate on the things that are alarming and disastrous to our population," he said. "This is unpopular. I know it is. But the challenge is to find the truth. I am not a politician. I hate politics."
The Iraqi scientist arranged to present the findings of the report at the University of Washington last year, but was denied a US visa. Then last week when he was due to speak in Canada, and had been issued a Canadian visa, he was prevented from travelling because British consular officials in Jordan refused to grant him a transit visa to pass through London.
"Why would an academic physician not be granted a visa?", asked Dr.Tim Takaro, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. "I've grown accustomed to this from the US, but I was very disappointed the British would not even give him a transit visa to pass through an airport."
The doctor would have needed the visa to spend four hours at Heathrow airport in between planes. Dr.Randy Parrish at the University of Leicester said Dr. Lafta had stayed a week in the United Kingdom two years ago, when he brought teeth specimens for Dr.Parrish. "I cannot really understand this denial of a visa, since he obtained one a couple of years ago evidently without incident. "
Tim Takaro, who has been Dr. Lafta's colleague in the child-cancer study, thinks the answer is evident. "There's no reason anything should have changed between those two visits. The only thing that changed was the Lancet study."
Dr. Lafta's data suggests an increase in birth defects and a tenfold rise in childhood cancers that could be due to the war, in which depleted uranium munitions and phosphorous weapons have been used. Colleagues are trying to find a direct flight for Dr. Lafta to Canada, or a connection through a country that will grant a visa. They fear that the physician could be a target for the death squads that have ravaged Iraq's professional classes or for government forces.
Dr. Lafta says he will continue his research. He says the war has heightened his senses. "You use it to concentrate more, and you start to struggle for something. Maybe your adrenaline is going. You have an objective, and the difficult conditions make a special kind of person. It makes you more courageous." Many professionals have left Iraq, but the physician says his work - and his patriotism - keep him there."I can't leave my home just because I am scared of being killed."
British Foreign Office officials claimed they did not know about this case. I bet. If only our politicians had an ounce of Dr. Lafta's courage they might face the facts, and stand against George Dubya's war. As someone said at London's May Day rally yesterday, even the US Democrats in Congress are to the Left of Labour on this. Hopefully some MPs will demand to know why this Iraqi doctor was not allowed his visa. Is what he has to report so dangerous?