WASHINGTON -- The tragic exodus of Kurds is only the most vivid example of a "slow-motion catastrophe" taking hold in Iraq in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, and a summer of epidemics and starvation may be ahead for millions of Iraqis already squeezed by the effects of U.S. bombing and United Nations sanctions, according to a group of U.S. doctors who just returned from Iraq.
"We refer to this as a bomb-now, die-later kind of war," Dr. H. Jack Geiger said yesterday. "This is a slow-motion catastrophe of immense proportions. . . . The four horsemen of the apocalypse -- war, famine, disease and death -- are riding through Iraq now."
Dr. Geiger was among two groups of physicians who returned from Iraq and Turkey in the past several days after visiting on behalf of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights. His group visited the cities of southern Iraq, including the port city of Basra, and several cities in northern Iraq in the Kurdistan region. The second group visited Kurdish refugee camps just inside Turkey along the Iraqi border.
The plight of Iraq's Kurds is the most pressing problem, the doctors said, and they estimated that from 400 to 1,000 are dying each day, most of them children who succumb from dehydration brought on by diarrhea.
But while the world has paid close attention to the woes of the Kurds, a potentially greater tragedy has begun to unfold in the rest of Iraq, the doctors said.
"The Kurdish refugee situation is dramatic, visual, urgent and severe," said Dr. Geiger, a public health specialist from New York. "But I do have a concern that our focus on this will obscure what is happening in the rest of Iraq. This is not just a refugee situation. It is far more pervasive."
The gravest problems in the rest of the country are a direct result of the U.S. bombing raids during the war, the doctors said, although they praised the precision of the bombing, saying it may well have been just as accurate as the military claimed. "With only a few glaring exceptions, it was indeed surgical," Dr. Geiger said. "I would even say neurosurgical."
They said that housing damage was minimal and that some of the wholesale damage in the centers of some cities in southern Iraq seemed to have been caused by Iraqi shelling during the Iraqi rebellion that followed the war.
The problem with the U.S. bombing was that its targets were just as vital to the Iraqi population as they were to the Iraqi military -- power plants, water plants, fuel supplies and communications systems.
This has left behind what Dr. Geiger described as a "surreal" combination of undamaged, seemingly modern streets on which families live in primitive, unsanitary conditions.
Without power, he said, "You can't pump water, you can't purify water, you can't pump sewage, you can't irrigate the crops . . . you can't even count the sick and the dying. . . . You have to imagine Chicago with people drinking sewage out of the Chicago River and trying to boil it with little kerosene stoves that can blow up. . . . They are caught in a high-technology trap. The infrastructure on which they depended for their lives has been explicitly and selectively destroyed."
As a result, "Iraq is on the verge of starvation," said Dr. Jonathan Fine, executive director of the physicians group. "Epidemics are likely to begin in about May."
Add to this the U.N. economic sanctions and there is little prospect that the Iraqi economy will enliven enough to improve conditions any time soon, the doctors said. The sanctions are due to be reviewed by the United Nations within six weeks as part of the recently adopted cease-fire resolution, and the doctors questioned the need for their continuation.
"This is a burden on the conscience of the world community," Dr. Fine said. "We have to deal with our security needs, but we also have to deal with the needs of these people."
What little food, water and fuel are available in Iraq seem to be used by the Iraqi military, the doctors said. "It seemed quite clear from our observation that the army had fuel," Dr. Geiger said. "The soldiers that I saw appeared well-fed, well-nourished and well-hydrated."