Crimes of compassion, Iraq's long war and Canada's bloody hands

A U.S. Army soldier attached to 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment hands out informational flyers in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2008. Photo: U.S. Army/Spc. Kieran Cuddihy

Canadians should prepare themselves for an onslaught of feel-good propaganda in the coming weeks as the world marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most horrific war crimes of the 21st century, the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by forces including the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

It will be disheartening to watch as liberal commentators from the Toronto Star and CBC engage in the most dishonest kind of smug, self-satisfied flag saluting, praising then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien for allegedly “declining” to sign on to the war. Yet the notion that Canada somehow decided not to be part of the Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq is a complete falsehood, and is well-documented elsewhere .

Lost within any of this self-congratulatory coverage will be the people of Iraq themselves, for whom 2018 marks 38 years of almost non-stop warfare and repression, during which they have endured hardships that are incomprehensible to most of us. The blood of the Iraqi people -- millions of them killed, maimed, poisoned, irradiated, traumatized -- is on the hands of many Canadian corporate, military, and political leaders who profited from weapons sales and political brinksmanship.

And while every Canadian government from Pierre Trudeau through to Justin Trudeau is in part responsible for this misery, no one has been held to account for aiding and abetting the crimes against humanity that have marked decades of aerial bombardment, the use of chemical and radioactive weapons (resulting in a massive spike in previously unseen birth defects), and an economic sanctions regime described by former UN inspectors as a “genocide.”

Was the price ‘worth it’?

Enforced throughout the 1990s in part with $1 billion in Canadian military muscle, those sanctions led to the monthly deaths of over 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of five, and provoked the high-profile resignations of UN humanitarian co-ordinators Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck. When Halliday resigned in 1998, he stated: "I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’ because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view."

What was one to make of a policy that deliberately targeted the importation of civilian goods that allegedly had “dual use,” from pencils and baby dolls to eyeglasses and shampoo? The equipment needed to fix electrical generating stations and water purification systems destroyed during the 1991 U.S. and Canadian bombing runs of Desert Storm was not permitted entry, so water-borne diseases ran rampant. The medicines needed to treat the spike in cancer (a result of tons of depleted uranium munitions dust that wound up in the Iraqi soil, air and water) didn't get through either.

Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, asked on the CBS program 60 Minutes if the sanctions-related deaths of a half million Iraqi children were worth it, famously replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

The people of Iraq were subjected to a Stalingrad-style siege, and while the general responsible for the Russian siege was charged as a war criminal at Nuremberg, Clinton now struts about the world stage as a self-styled “elder statesman” who runs a foundation where he paints himself as the second coming of Mother Theresa.

“In my life now, I am obsessed with only two things: I don’t want anybody to die before their time, and I don't want to see good people spend their energies without making a difference," Clinton crowed when the foundation began.

As Clinton continues to rake in obscene six-figure speaking fees for trotting out such tripe and basks in the “at least he wasn’t like Donald Trump” comparisons, New York oncologist Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who also believed no one should die before their time -- especially in Iraq -- remains behind the same prison walls that have marked his existence since his arrest 15 years ago this week for an alleged crime of compassion.

A crime of compassion

Dr. Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years for consciously violating the sanctions against the people of Iraq. Many individuals and groups who were not Muslim also violated the sanctions -- fines were the worst punishment directed at a number of groups -- yet Dhafir, as the driving force behind the Help the Needy Foundation, which provided millions in aid, was the only one to suffer such a fate. Needless to say, corporations that quietly went around the sanctions not for humanitarian goals, but to profit from their relationship with the Hussein dictatorship, did not face charges either.

Dhafir’s imprisonment began on the morning of February 26, 2003, when hundreds of federal agents swooped down on the community of Syracuse, New York. They knocked down his door, pointed a gun at his wife's head, and ransacked his house, taking away any books related to Islam while leaving behind the Bible and tomes on American history.

Agents proceeded to terrorize patients at Dhafir’s clinic, and interrogated almost 150 primarily Muslim Help the Needy donors about how often they prayed, whether they had family in the Middle East, and whether they celebrated Christmas.

Cynically framed as a terrorism-related arrest as the U.S. prepared its invasion of Iraq, the first indictment of Dhafir contained 14 charges of violating sanctions. But when he refused a plea bargain, the government ratcheted up its already hyperbolic case, alleging an additional 45 alleged breaches of various financial laws related to the running of a charity as well as alleged Medicare fraud. The non-sanctions charges were speciously vague, and related to things like incorrectly filling out the complicated Medicare forms (many doctors refuse to treat Medicare patients as a result of their burdensome regulations, and even Medicare officials themselves appeared confused about them during the trial). Charges also arose from using another organization to issue Help the Needy’s tax receipts, a not uncommon practice. In any event, most such "white collar" cases, should they actually result in a trial, do not produce such serious consequences.

Refusing to be silent

As community members could testify, Dhafir was a hugely generous person, and opened his office not in Syracuse, where he could have made more money, but an hour away in Rome, New York, an under-served community. His reputation for providing interest-free loans, treating low-income patients, donating large chunks of money for schools and mosques, and assisting newcomers to the U.S. was legendary.

But Dhafir’s refusal to be silent in the face of genocide resulted in seven government agencies investigating Help the Needy and intercepting his mail, email, faxes and telephone calls, bugging his office and hotel rooms, combing through his trash, and also conducting physical surveillance. They were unable to find any evidence of terrorism links, yet the stench of such alleged associations infused the trial as a result of headline-grabbing outbursts from New York Governor George Pataki and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

After a six-week trial, Dhafir was convicted in February, 2005, though as the Syracuse New Standard pointed out, “The defense was forbidden during the trial to tell the jury that the government's investigation of Dhafir had apparently begun as a terrorism hunt, nor was the defense allowed to argue that Dhafir had been selectively prosecuted for alleged crimes that are relatively common and do not usually result in criminal charges.”

Said former UN representative Denis Halliday: “I am stunned by the conviction of this humanitarian, especially as the US State Department breached its own sanctions to the tune of $10 billion. The policy of sanctions against Iraq undermined not only the UN’s own charter, but the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention as well.”

During his time behind bars, Dhafir has developed a range of debilitating conditions, from an untreated hernia and diabetes, to chronic gout, significant back pain, and incipient cataracts. Even though he was originally sentenced to a medium-security prison within driving distance of his community, he was transferred to the notorious Communication Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana (a.k.a., “Little Guantanamo”), which was “home” to dozens of Muslims arrested as part of post-9/11 racial profiling paranoia. At the CMU, he could not have contact visits, his freedom to worship was severely limited, phone calls were rare, and he was harshly treated along with his fellow, isolated inmates.

When Barack Obama was getting ready to leave the White House, Dhafir, now aged 69, had the opportunity to apply for clemency, but declined to do so.

“How can an innocent person like me ask for this alleged commutation from a criminal, regardless of who she/he is?” he asked. While he is considering applying for non-medical compassionate release given his age and the fact that he has served so much time in prison, he watches as the world continues to treat the people of Iraq as a geopolitical punching bag and a $1 trillion economic opportunity. Indeed, Canadian companies are salivating at the chance to help “rebuild” the very infrastructure that they helped to destroy.

Dr. Dhafir, if forced to serve the remainder of his term, will not be released until he is 76 years of age. The lives of those he tried to save in Iraq -- as well as the lives of patients who no longer had access to his compassionate and accessible medical services in New York State -- are nameless victims to almost all of us, just some of the millions who have been sacrificed in the name of state security, war profiteers, and politicians addicted to militarism.

Further details of Dr. Dhafir’s case are available at

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