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Sharp jump in child deaths in Iraq

NCR Staff

Iraqi children under the age of 5 are dying at more than twice the rate they died 10 years ago, according to a new report on child and maternal mortality released Aug. 12 by the United Nations Children’s Fund. The report concluded that the deaths of 500,000 children under the age of 5 were directly related to the U.S.- backed economic sanctions.

The first survey of the condition of women and children in Iraq since 1991, when the Gulf War ended, reveals an “ongoing humanitarian emergency,” according to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

The report appeared amid a new round of reporting on the ongoing, if hidden, war against Iraq. U.S. and allied warplanes continue to pound targets in the northern and southern “no-fly” zones.

According to an Aug. 13 New York Times report, forces bombing Iraq since December have flown “two-thirds as many missions as NATO pilots flew over Yugoslavia in 78 days of around-the-clock war there.” According to other reports, some within the Clinton administration are arguing for increasing the bombing.

The UNICEF report also provides fuel for opponents of the economic sanctions that have been in place since 1990, such as the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness. Those groups have argued that the measures -- the most severe and comprehensive in modern history -- affect only the most vulnerable in Iraqi society and have done nothing to dislodge Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Rates more than doubled

The survey, conducted by UNICEF in cooperation with the government of Iraq, covered the southern and central parts of Iraq and the autonomous northern region of the country. The World Health Organization provided technical support for the survey.

In the central and southern portions of Iraq, where more than 85 percent of the country’s population resides, mortality of children under 5 more than doubled from 56 deaths per 1,000 live births during the period 1984-’89 to 131 deaths per 1,000 live births during the period 1994-’99. Infant mortality, defined as the death of children in their first year, jumped from 47 per 1,000 births to 108 per 1,000 live births during the same periods. The current death rates in Iraq are comparable with the rates in such countries as Haiti (132) and Pakistan (136).

The significance of the figures for the past decade becomes more pronounced given the fact that the child mortality rate in Iraq had dropped substantially during the 1980s. Bellamy noted in a release that if the reduction in child mortality had continued through the 1990s “there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children in the country as a whole during the eight-year period 1991-’98.”

In her remarks, Bellamy acknowledged the tension that exists between the U.N. Security Council’s imposition of harsh sanctions and the work of U.N. humanitarian agencies to document and help ameliorate the effects of the sanctions.

UNICEF, as a member of the U.N. family, recognizes that economic sanctions are an instrument intended by the international community to promote peace and security, said the release. “But our concern is that whenever sanctions are imposed, they should be designed and implemented in such a way as to avoid a negative impact on children.”

Interviewers gleaned information from nearly 24,000 households. The information was reviewed by a panel of independent experts, according to UNICEF.

The surveys found that in the autonomous northern region -- where food distribution is under direct control of the United Nations -- the under 5 mortality rose from 80 deaths per 1,000 live births in the period 1984-’89 to 90 deaths per 1,000 live births during the years 1989-’94. The under-5 rate fell to 72 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1994-‘99. Infant mortality rates followed a similar pattern.

Opinions range widely in the mainstream press over the use of sanctions and their effects. The Washington Post, for instance, in an Aug. 17 editorial, said “Saddam Hussein is not the first to use the suffering of children as an instrument of war, but he is surely distinctive in his manipulation of the suffering of his country’s own children.” Placing the blame for the humanitarian disaster on Saddam Hussein, the Post argues that the Iraqi ruler has used funds from the oil-for-food program that began in 1996 to build new palaces and build new weapons of mass destruction.

However, United Nations personnel in Iraq have emphasized in past interviews that Iraq sees no cash from the oil-for-food program, that all transactions are handled outside of Iraq and closely monitored by the U.N.

The Orange County Register, on the other hand, on Aug. 16, urged in an editorial: “Indeed, Americans need to ask why the United States supports a policy that has not undermined the tyrannical Iraqi government, but has reduced a country to pre-modern living standards. Americans also need to ask why the administration wantonly bombs Iraqi targets without explaining its long-term intentions or getting a declaration of war from Congress, as required by the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, Voices in the Wilderness continues to sponsor delegations of Americans, who travel to Iraq carrying medical supplies banned under the U.S.-backed U.N. sanctions. The group’s purpose is to deliberately defy the sanctions and call attention to what it believes is an ongoing full-scale war against the most vulnerable in Iraqi society (NCR, May 21).

One of the most recent delegations was led by Christopher Allen-Doucot of the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House in Hartford, Conn. Doucot spent a month in Iraq, visiting the grim hospital wards that are filled each day with children dying of malnutrition and water-borne diseases. Doctors in the southern region of Iraq also claim that cases of childhood cancers have jumped at least fivefold since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

Doucot also visited neighborhoods that had recently been bombed by the U.S. and British planes maintaining the no-fly zones. Although the Pentagon, in numerous printed reports has denied injuring or killing any civilians, Doucot and others talked to people in the southern region around the city of Basra who were severely injured or lost relatives in the bombing raids.

In an article written for his Catholic Worker house newsletter, Doucot recounts that on July 18, two days before he entered Iraq, American warplanes bombed two sites in the Governorate of Najaf, about 150 miles south of Baghdad.

13 killed, 18 wounded

He said the bombing killed 13 civilians and seriously injured 18 others.

Doucot said a cab driver in a hospital he visited told of pulling three passengers from his taxi. All had been killed by flying shrapnel.

Another of the wounded was Hassan Muan, a 6-year-old boy whose right arm was blown off at the shoulder. “His father asked me,” Doucot wrote, “ ‘Why does America bomb us? We are not criminals.’ ”

The delegation also had an extended conversation with Hans Von Sponek, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. He replaced Denis Halliday, who resigned the position in September 1998 in opposition to the sanctions. Halliday has been speaking out against the sanctions since that time.

Von Sponek has also voiced criticism in the past of the effects of the sanctions and continued his criticism in the discussion with the Voices delegation.

Even if Iraq were able to pump and sell the maximum amount of oil allowed under the sanctions provision, the government would still be able to raise only about $4 billion a year. “You cannot hope to finance, with an average that we’ve had up till now of $2 billion every six months, a life of people, 22 million, in a way that gives them what they should have, what they deserve, what is their human right -- it’s simply not possible,” he said in a session that was tape recorded and later transcribed by members of the delegation.

Under those figures, Iraq would have a per capita amount of $180 per year to provide all the basic needs for the population. That amount he said, “puts Iraq in the category of Niger, of Chad, of Haiti,” among the poorest countries in the world.

In addition, he said, the severe degradation Iraq has suffered under the sanctions -- a regime that prohibits the purchase of most goods, including food, medicine and machinery spare parts or any new technology -- has been compounded this summer by a severe drought that has all but destroyed the country’s limited agriculture.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999