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Running Dry: Sanctions Hit Iraq's Young the Hardest
Published on Sunday, August 4, 2002 in the Seattle Times
Running Dry: Sanctions Hit Iraq's Young the Hardest
by Greg Barrett
Gannett News Service

The Gulf War and sanctions reportedly have resulted in more than 1 million Iraqi deaths, half of which were children younger than 5. Prohibitions on replacing such "dual-use" items as water pumps, generators and chlorine resulted in lethal epidemics. As U.S. lawmakers debate whether the military should again strike at Saddam's regime or simply tighten the trade embargo, Iraqis brace for the next round of crossfire.

WASHINGTON — Massive new irrigation systems stretching across the breadbasket regions of rural Iraq would normally be cause for celebration. In a nation where nearly a quarter of the children suffer chronic malnutrition, abundant crops of wheat and barley would signify hope and progress.

But when Hans von Sponeck, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, visited Iraq last month he found neither: The spigots were turned off. Although the sophisticated sprinkler systems had survived the exhaustive screening of U.N. trade sanctions, the water pumps had not.

"The danger is these pumps could be used by the (Iraqi) military for other purposes," said von Sponeck, a 32-year veteran of the United Nations who resigned two years ago to protest the sanctions. "Anything that has a sophisticated pumping mechanism can be used for propelling weapons of mass destruction, I guess."

Such is life in Iraq a dozen years after the international trade sanctions of Aug. 6, 1990, attempted to peacefully push Iraqi President Saddam Hussein back from Kuwait, and 11 years after the allied forces of the Persian Gulf War rained bombs on Baghdad.

The ongoing collateral damage of the war and sanctions on Iraqi civilians has totaled more than 1 million deaths, half of which are children younger than 5, according to UNICEF and World Health Organization reports.

As U.S. lawmakers this summer debate whether the military should again strike at Saddam's regime or simply tighten the trade embargo, Iraqi civilians live in dread of the inevitable crossfire. More than 700 targets were bombed in 1991 to cripple Saddam — bridges, roads and electrical grids that powered 1,410 water-treatment plants for Iraq's 22 million people.

Coupled with the U.N. sanctions that blocked or rationed dual-use imports such as the water pumps, electric generators and chlorine — that also can be used in the making of mustard gas — epidemics ensued. Iraqi children died from dehydration and waterborne illnesses such as cholera, diarrhea and other intestinal diseases.

At his confirmation hearing last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid the blame at Saddam's feet.

"No one cares for children more than I do," Powell said. "And I understand that a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon of a Saddam Hussein threatens not only the children of Iraq but the entire region far more than tightened sanctions."

At the freshly painted Al-Mansour Children's Hospital in Baghdad, pediatrician Qusay Al-Rahim said the nation that once was among the most industrialized in the Middle East has made some progress in the past decade. Electricity is again reliable. More than half the pharmaceutical drugs his patients need are available. Hospital elevators work and colostomy bags no longer have to be washed and reused.

The sanctions — which have been maintained because Saddam refuses to comply with U.N. resolutions for arms inspections — do not prevent the import of food and most medicines.

But, Al-Rahim said, infants and children still die from a lack of common equipment and supplies that were readily available before Saddam's stubborn stand against the West.

"For example, we have a shortage of Vitamin K," he said of the coagulant used to prevent hemorrhaging in newborns.

In an independent study published 19 months after the six-week Gulf War, The New England Journal of Medicine reported a trend that foretold Iraq's future.

During the first eight months of 1991, nearly 47,000 more children than normal died in Iraq, and the country's infant- and child-mortality rates more than doubled, to 92.7 and 128.5 per 1,000 live births respectively.

A 1999 UNICEF study showed a continuing trend: In 1998, the infant- and child-mortality rates were 103 and 125 per 1,000, respectively.

The U.N. oil-for-food program was created five years ago to generate some sense of normalcy for Iraqis. Yet as of Tuesday, it was still withholding more than 1,450 import contracts worth $4.6 billion in humanitarian supplies for Iraq. A U.N. pledge in May to regenerate and expedite the contracts, so far, has produced only a trickle of change — 14 humanitarian supply contracts worth $7.6 million.

The United States, concerned with Saddam's potential for developing weapons of mass destruction, initiated roughly 90 percent of the blocks on humanitarian supplies by the U.N. Security Council.

In Amman, Jordan, this summer, Jordanian Minister of Water Munther Haddadin addressed the plight of Iraqi children, who, for example, suffered almost a fourfold increase in low birth weights (4.5 percent to 21.1 percent) between 1990 and 1994. The rate remains steady today at 25 percent.

"You wonder why there are terrorists?" Haddadin asked, according to writer Jane McBee, who toured the Middle East with members of the Physicians for Social Responsibility. "What do you think these children will be in 10 years? Do you think they'll join the Peace Corps?"

Less than a month after the Gulf War, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar told the U.N. Security Council the conflict had "wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society."

In a letter to the council dated March 20, 1991, de Cuellar wrote: "Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology."

It was a result the United States predicted even as allied forces bombed Iraq's civilian infrastructure.

In a January 1991 document titled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said the bombing of Iraq coupled with an embargo of chemicals and supplies could fully degrade Iraq's civilian water supply.

"Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur," read declassified portions of the report.

George Washington University professor Thomas Nagy stumbled across the document in 1998 during online research about depleted uranium. The subject line of the Pentagon paper read: "Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad."

Its analysis, as Nagy said, was blunt: "Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification-distribution, electricity and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks."

"Imagine if the document had read, 'U.S. Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,' " and it described in detail how to spread epidemic to the U.S. civilian population. "It would be called terrorism," Nagy said. "Or worse. Genocide."

The Pentagon, meanwhile, dismissed the document. Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks called it an assessment written for U.S. policy-makers but said he didn't know who had requested it or for what purpose.

"If you have this report, the best thing to do is to then look at what policies went into place. ... There are no sanctions that prevent (Saddam) from sustaining the water-treatment program" and caring for his people, Brooks said.

But Saddam has delivered on his part of the U.N. oil-for-food program, according to the United Nations, which has 158 observers in Iraq monitoring the movement of supplies. Since the relief effort began in 1997, he has never been cited for diverting or hoarding supplies, said program spokeswoman Hasmik Egian.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, complained in the spring of 2000 about U.S. efforts to block crucial water and sanitation supplies. Following a five-day tour of hospitals, schools, clinics and water-treatment plants from Baghdad to Babylon, Hall wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death."

Hall cited 19 supply contracts for dual-use items such as water-purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps and water tankers, and said the United States was responsible for blocking 18 of them.

When Albright was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1996, Lesley Stahl of CBS' news program "60 Minutes" asked her about the sanctions and the deaths of Iraqi children.

Albright said it was America's responsibility to make sure the Gulf War did not have to be fought again. "I think it is a very hard choice," she told Stahl. "But the price, we think the price is worth it."

U.S. Air Force Col. John Warden, who devised the Desert Storm Air Campaign's pinpoint strategy in 1991, said he had never heard of the Defense Intelligence Agency document outlining Iraq's water-treatment vulnerabilities.

He regrets the death of children, he said, but the United States is not to blame: "It bothers me from the standpoint that here is an evil guy ... who was willing to stand around and see that kind of thing happen. If you put someone in a hopeless position and keep grinding your heel into them, that is one thing. But we did not do that. The blame 100 percent goes to a guy named Saddam Hussein."

Warden, now retired and living in Georgia, believes another strike at Iraq would — or should — follow his Gulf War blueprint.

"When we went to war, our objective was to reduce Iraq's capability to be strategic," he said. "In order to make that happen, the last thing you want to do is focus your efforts solely on the military — that is where you get your least results. ... We shut down the electrical system within the first hours of war. ... We shut down the internal flow of oil by knocking out the refineries. We also knocked out the communications.

"In my view, it was extraordinarily successful. ... Wars are devastating on civilians. Always have been."

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company


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