An Iraqi professor of medicine whose recent work on civilian deaths during the Iraq war has embarrassed the Bush administration won't be making it to his planned speech tonight at a Vancouver campus. Nor will he be able to keep his original date at the University of Washington, his conspicuous absence today just the latest set-back for a group of American and Canadian researchers who have been trying unsuccessfully to obtain the necessary visas to bring him to North America since July.
Tim Takaro, an associate professor of health sciences at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University and a collaborator with Riyadh Lafta, a professor at Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University, said that after months of being stonewalled in attempts to obtain a visa for Lafta to speak in Washington, the researchers decided in December to shift their focus about 140 miles northward to Vancouver.
Lafta easily obtained a visa to come to Canada, Takaro said, and was set to speak tonight at Simon Fraser, his talk to be broadcast at UW. In addition to delivering a speech, Lafta was to spend 10 days collaborating with researchers, including Takaro, on an investigation into reportedly escalating childhood cancer rates in southern Iraq -- bringing much of the data with him in paper form.
But Lafta’s transfer visa for a four-hour lay-over in Britain was denied while he was in Jordan, en route to Vancouver – leaving him with no way to complete the trip, Takaro said. Lafta had traveled extensively in the United Kingdom as recently as 2005.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10,” Takaro said of his frustration level. “We put a lot of effort into this. There’s a very important message here that we want students to hear, particularly our students in public health. The impacts of the war on civilians are being under-reported.”
“It’s the public health impacts of the war that we want people to understand. That’s the message that’s being squelched.”
An October article by Lafta , co-authored by Johns Hopkins University researchers and published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that an additional 654,965 Iraqis died between March 18, 2003 and June 2006 above what would be expected based on pre-war mortality rates. They argue that about 601,027 of those deaths -- or 91.8 percent -- are attributable to violence. The Lancet also published a similar article  co-authored by Lafta back in 2004.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State declined to respond to inquiries on Lafta’s visa application, citing privacy concerns. But Lafta and his colleagues speculated that the application was unduly delayed for political reasons -- although Amy Hagopian, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington and the principal investigator for the southern Iraq cancer study, conceded there's no evidence for that.
"I was going to deliver a speech about the destruction and death they have caused in my country and the expected future effects of it regarding the disastrous increase in children malignancies and congenital anomalies," Lafta said in an e-mail received early Friday morning. "I believe that they are afraid of that, and I wonder: is this their Academic liberty????" (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version).
“I just think it’s a terrible shame that academic researchers trying to embark on legitimate investigations into serious health issues are blocked from doing so for apparently political reasons,” Hagopian added.
“Dr. Lafta had the data, and we need to talk with him about how it was collected. We can’t write a paper without actually sitting with him and discussing all the context in which the data were collected and analyzing the data together, running the statistical models together.... This has to be a face-to-face process.”
Hagopian and Takaro hope to bring Lafta to Canada via another European nation as soon as possible, although Hagopian said that they have already depleted their grant by spending thousands of dollars for unused plane tickets and visa fees. “Some of these ticket expenses may be recoverable, but the dust hasn’t settled yet,” Hagopian said.
They plan to move forward regardless. “We’ll have to find other resources because we’re determined to finish this process," she said.
In lieu of Lafta’s speech, Les Roberts, a co-author of the article on Iraq mortality, will speak at Washington’s Seattle campus tonight . Simon Fraser students can watch a broadcast of the lecture live.