UK charity seeks compensation over 'lost' cancer drugs for Iraqi children

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

30 December 2003

A British charity for Iraqi children is demanding that the Government repay almost £100,000 to its donors after nearly half its shipment of medicines ­ including vital cancer drugs ­ was lost by the British Army after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Despite assurances by the British military commander in Basra that the medical supplies, valued at £201,410.98, would be safely delivered to five paediatric hospitals, Medical Aid for Iraqi Children (MAIC), a registered charity, says doctors at Iraqi hospitals found almost 50 per cent of the value of its supplies had gone "missing". In a statement the charity said it was "seeking compensation of £98,784.49 ­ the value of the medical supplies lost".

"Many children, especially cancer patients, went without treatment," the charity said. "It is very probable that many other children who could have been saved lost their lives due to the lengthy delay and significant loss of medical supplies."

British military authorities have been unable to account for the disappearance of the supplies and their correspondence with the charity, which begins with assurances that the medicines would be safely delivered, slowly retreats from these promises and then complains about the "disappointing" tone of MAIC's complaints about their failure to account for the missing medicine. A subsequent letter from Baroness Amos, when she was Secretary of State for International Development, states ­ wrongly ­ that there was "some uncertainty" about the Baghdad hospitals which were to receive the medicines, adding that British troops had "a lot of competing priorities" to manage.

May Daftari, of MAIC, has expressed her outrage to both the Army and the Government. "We are most concerned about this significant loss of medical supplies, especially at a time when war injuries were rife and need for medicines were paramount," she said.

"Cancer patients who are dependent on our regular supplies of anti-cancer drugs were deprived of vital treatment."

The consignment of supplies, including cancer drugs for children, surgical items, baby milk, crutches and wheelchairs, were sent to Iraq on 1 May, less than three weeks after American troops entered Baghdad, on board Sir Richard Branson's much-publicised Virgin humanitarian flight to the southern city of Basra.

Correspondence shows that Ms Daftari sent details of the hospitals in Baghdad ­ the Mansur Teaching Hospital, the Central Paediatric Teaching Hospital and the Qadisiyah Hospital, as well as the Children's Hospital in Karbala and the Paediatric Hospital in Basra ­ to Virgin on 30 April, when Sir Richard Branson praised MAIC's "generosity and quick response" to the emergency in Iraq.

Two days later, Colonel John Graham, of the medical branch of the 1st Armoured Division, thanked MAIC for its "generous donation of medical aid" which was received at Basra airport on the Branson flight. "You will be pleased to hear that we were able to arrange immediate safe storage of the medicines and equipment," he wrote. "They will be moved very shortly to the intended recipients." By 19 May, Ms Daftari had become worried. One of the doctors in Baghdad waiting for the medicine had learnt that at least two of the deliveries had not arrived. "As a British charity," she wrote to Colonel Graham, "we also need hospital receipts to assure our donors in the UK". That same day, Colonel Graham e-mailed MAIC to say the "kit" for Baghdad was still in Basra but it would be moved to the capital on the next C-130 transport aircraft.

Ms Daftari replied on 28 May that the MAIC board felt "great concern" that cancer drugs valued at £95,123 could be damaged by heat. She repeated the names of the five hospitals expecting the supplies.

Colonel Graham replied more than two weeks later that the heat-sensitive drugs had been stored at the medical warehouse in Basra but that the medicines for Baghdad had been flown to the capital "between 24 and 31 May", to be distributed by "Korean Food for the Hungry".

By 23 June, Ms Daftari was faxing Colonel Graham to say that, despite his assurances, the medical supplies had still not been supplied to the Baghdad hospitals. On 10 July, she wrote again to Colonel Graham to say 30 per cent of the supplies in the list of medicines were missing when delivered to one Baghdad hospital. "You kindly assured us ... that our supplies ... would be delivered to the pre-assigned hospitals," she wrote. "We had full trust in the British Forces that they would arrange the safe distribution of all our supplies. Unfortunately ... we have not received ... hospital receipts for the delivery of our supplies which I have requested several times in my faxes to you."

A reply came three days later from a Colonel E B Carmichael ­ his address was "Headquarters Multinational Division (South East), Operation TELIC II" ­ saying Colonel Graham had left Iraq, but claiming that "at the very outset no undertaking was given that medical supplies could readily be moved to Baghdad at that moment in time ... My predecessors did not receive any receipts that I am aware of and I am not optimistic that I will ... to expect these medical supplies could be delivered with a clear audit trail [sic] in an insecure and challenging environment where looting was occurring is simply unrealistic."

This is the first reference in British documents to the looting that British troops permitted in Basra after their occupation of the city. Ms Daftari had made no mention of this. But Colonel Carmichael had not finished. "Could I point out," he wrote, "that I find the tone of your recent fax and the implied criticism disappointing to say the least ..."

A letter from the Department for International Development on 9 July claimed there was "some uncertainty about which four [sic] hospitals" the supplies were intended for, adding that British forces in Basra had "a lot of competing priorities to manage". It also stated "all the drugs and supplies have now arrived at their intended recipients in Baghdad". The charity says this is untrue.