August 4, 2002
Gannett News Service
As reported in the Detroit News and the Seattle Times
WASHINGTON -- Massive new irrigation systems stretching like tentacles in the breadbasket regions of rural Iraq would normally be cause for celebration. In a nation where nearly a quarter of the children suffer from 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 vetting 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 12 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 under age 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 fret over 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 can also 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 of 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 refused to comply with U.N. resolutions for arms inspections -- do not prevent the import of food and most medicines. Just Thursday, the Iraqi government invited the chief U.N. weapons inspector to Baghdad, hinting that inspections could be renewed after nearly four years.
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 a sense of normalcy for Iraqis. Yet as of July 30, 2002, 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 has so far produced only a trickle of change -- 14 humanitarian supply contracts worth $7.6 million. The United States, meanwhile, 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.
Less than a month after the Persian 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."
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 came 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."
Nagy gets tearful discussing the document.
"Switch the nouns," said Nagy, who immigrated to America in 1949 and considers it his savior. "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," he 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 he said he didn't know who had requested it or for what purpose.
"It's too long ago," Brooks said. "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.
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, Saddam has never been cited for diverting or hoarding supplies, said program spokeswoman Hasmik Egian.
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