A Trip to Baghdad Reveals a Nation Sagging Under the Weight of Sanctions

This is life – and death – in Iraq after eight years of sanctions imposed by the United Nations following the 1991 Gulf War.

At Al Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad, malnourished children, covered with flies, lie on stained mattresses. Mothers and fathers sit on the beds, methodically swatting at the flies. Medicine is in short supply. The hospital is dark; electrical power is shut off periodically each day to conserve resources. The usual antiseptic odor of medical facilities has been replaced with the stench of urine, feces and decay.

Moving from bed to bed, Dr. Tarig Al-Shujairi lists the illnesses afflicting the children: typhoid fever, pneumonia, leukemia, tuberculosis, cholera. Even polio and measles are making a comeback, he says.

A nurse runs by carrying a small bottle of oxygen. Nemya, a 2-year-old girl with hair the color of sand, has meningitis and is unable to breathe because of the fluid clogging her bronchial tubes. Her father and mother are frozen at the side of her bed while the nurse covers Nemya’s face with the small oxygen mask.

It is too late. Nemya’s chest heaves, her body shakes, and she dies. Her mother pulls her scarf close about her face and cries silently. Her father looks at a visitor and touches his chest over his heart.

A 50-cent tube could have saved her life, another doctor says. But the hospital has none. Impossible to obtain under the sanctions, Al-Shujairi says.

The U.N. plans to keep the sanctions in place until it is convinced that Iraq’s long-range missiles and chemical, nuclear and biological weapons have been dismantled or destroyed, which Iraq had agreed to do at the end of the Persian Gulf War.

The sanctions range from a ban on commercial flights to and from Iraq to an oil embargo, eased somewhat three years ago when the United Nations allowed Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to buy food and medicine.

The sanctions, despite the hopes of many Western leaders, have had little apparent effect on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He remains firmly in control, and efforts to find and destroy his weapons are in limbo. But they have had a devastating effect on Iraq’s 22 million people.

Reports from U.N. diplomats, church leaders and officials of humanitarian organizations point out how the economic and military sanctions have left many people scrambling for survival. Baghdad’s unemployment rate is more than 50 percent; in the second-largest city, Basra, unemployment hovers around 75 percent.

Out-of-work engineers drive taxis, and doctors take second jobs to supplement a salary that, because of inflation, now averages only about $3 to $5 per month. And each month thousands of infants are dying of malnutrition-related illnesses that many believe would not be a problem except for the sanctions restricting or bogging down the shipment of food and medicine.

“Ten years ago, malnutrition was almost non-existent,” said Anupama Rao Singh, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in Baghdad. From 1991 to 1998, children under 5 were dying from malnutrition-related diseases in numbers ranging from a conservative 2,690 per month to a more realistic 5,357 per month, according to Singh’s figures.

“Malnutrition in Iraq is not just epidemic, it is endemic,” Hans von Sponeck, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said in an interview.

“The sanctions are turning the social structure upside down – the middle-class is every day more impoverished.”

Robert Watkins, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Iraq, calls the situation “a natural disaster not caused by the forces of nature, but by the forces of man.”

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright strongly defends the sanctions. When asked on “Meet the Press” last December if the United States bears any responsibility for the deaths of Iraqi children because of a lack of food and medicine, Albright said: “No, Saddam Hussein bears full responsibility for that. It is actually the United States that was the author of the oil-for-food program which permits Saddam to sell oil for food. If we had not done that, and if the sanctions weren’t in place, then he would be selling oil for tanks. So it is the United States and our allies that have made sure that the people of Iraq have food.”

Earlier this year, Peter Burleigh, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a speech to the Security Council, expressed concern that the embargo has caused immense suffering in Iraq, but stressed that Saddam’s regime was mostly to blame.

Still, whether the human cost of sanctions is worth what they may accomplish in curbing or changing the Iraqi regime is being hotly debated by business groups, humanitarians and politicians at the United Nations and in many world capitals.

Russia, France and China, together with several Arab countries, have called for new approaches that could lead to the sanctions being lifted or eased.

The sanctions alone are not solely responsible for Iraq’s misery. The country’s economy was weakened by Iraq’s war with Iran and then again by the Gulf War touched off by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. But the sanctions have seemed to speed up an ever-increasing spiral of poverty and death.

On a windswept landfill on the outskirts of Baghdad, Saleh Mohammed provides an example. Here, he cuts apart salvaged tires and sews the good sections together to form one usable spare. Mohammed lives in Saddam City, the poorest section of an increasingly impoverished city. The sun will soon bake the soft soil like clay, making digging for trash heap treasures all but impossible, but for now, amid the swirling sand and hordes of flies, there is a little money to be made.
Mohammed presses the tire against his legs and with a razor-sharp knife trims off the sides with the precision of a surgeon. Then he finds a tire with the best tread and methodically sews the parts together.

For each tire, involving several hours work, he earns up to 3,000 dinars – about $1.50. Around him hundreds of other Iraqis, mostly school-age boys, scramble through the refuse for something of value, just to survive.

Such poverty was rare not all that long ago.

Watkins, the Red Cross and Red Crescent leader in Iraq and a Canadian, described Iraq before the Gulf War and before sanctions as an oil-rich country with a sophisticated infrastructure. Well-designed highways linked its cities to the surrounding countries, hospitals were state-of-the-art, education was free through the college level and malnutrition was almost non-existent. But Iraq was forced to import most of its food and medicine. Also, the nation relied heavily on some 2 million people brought in from other countries to work in the service industries.

After the war, most of those 2 million people went home, leaving Iraqis on their own, with little experience in running the basic sectors of their economy. The oil industry, water treatment plants and electrical generating plants were nearly destroyed. And U.N. sanctions limited their ability to repair those facilities.

The Iraqi government is caught in a kind of Catch-22. It needs money to rebuild and once again import enough food and medicine for its people. But sanctions on equipment limit the government’s ability to pump oil to get that money.

Both Watkins and U.N humanitarian coordinator von Sponeck pointed to the Iraqis’ lack of experience for the delays in distributing food and medical supplies – delays that some sources in the West have said were the Iraqi government’s attempts to create worse conditions in Iraq in an effort to gain international support for lifting the sanctions.

“It is very clear that there is a willingness (on the part of the Iraqis) to get the supplies to the people,” von Sponeck said. “Every day I am amazed at how they manage with so little.”

He added that there is “absolutely no evidence” that shipments under the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to sell up to $5.2 billion dollars of oil every six months in exchange for an equal amount of food and medicine, is being diverted to the government or to the black market.

Von Sponeck also said that Iraq, because of a lack of oil-industry-related parts, has never been able to pump enough oil to meet the $5.2 billion mark allowed under the oil-for-food program. The most Iraq has sold was $3 billion, of which 35 percent was taken by the U.N. to run the program and for war reparations. The remainder of the money is deposited in a U.N.-controlled account to pay for food and medicine contracts.

In addition to the immediate horror of thousands of children dying from malnutrition-related causes, von Sponeck said, there is a more long-term tragedy among students.

“The most serious situation in Iraq,” he said, “is the plight of the young people – we are grooming a generation that is deprived of the ability to prepare for the future.”

“The fact is, educational items are embargoed” under the sanctions, von Sponeck said.

At a school in the heart of Baghdad, the principal, Sister Suzanne de Immaculate, said shortages include the basics: textbooks, paper, pencils. The students come from the neighborhood, for the most part, but many parents from other parts of the city enroll their children at her school because of its excellent reputation. The school had been a private Catholic school until it was nationalized in 1974. The students, who attend classes from Monday to Thursday and on Saturday, study English and French beginning in the fifth grade.

Most of the students appeared healthy and well-dressed in school uniforms, but there were notable exceptions of poor-looking students without uniforms.
UNICEF’s Singh said economic sanctions have caused a breakdown of the family structure, with many children now forced to help supplement the family income.

They are dropping out of the educational system much earlier than usual, she said.

And while the quality of education has deteriorated, Singh said, chronic malnutrition is damaging children’s capacity for learning.

“Children are too important to become a pawn of politics,” Singh said.

At another primary school in Saddam City, 48 students were packed into a narrow, dark, concrete-block room, made darker by the lack of electricity. Two and three students shared desks designed for one, and several students had to sprawl on the concrete floor as the teacher wrote their English lesson on the blackboard. Paper and pencil were their only instruments of learning. All the classrooms were the same: crowded, cheerless with bare, unpainted walls.

At the University of Baghdad’s medical school, students seemed upbeat. For the most part, they appeared eager to talk to foreigners. They dressed more upscale than most Iraqis and fewer students wore traditional Arabic and Muslim attire than did the general population.

But their future appears bleak: taking low-paying positions in hospitals overwhelmed with sanctions-related illnesses or joining the growing numbers of professionals who are fleeing the country. Von Sponeck described the brain-drain phenomena as “immigration without noise” because so many people are quietly leaving their lives behind.

Before the war, the University of Baghdad had drawn students from throughout the Middle East and had the reputation of being the best medical school in the region.

Now, the students there work with 10-year-old equipment, and only a trickle of current medical journals and textbooks.
“We need it (the sanctions) to stop,” said Inas Adnan, a third-year medical student who lived with her family in Salt Lake City for five years while her father went to school.

“Eight years is enough,” she said. “We want our lives to return to the way they were.”

Adnan said the medical school was damaged and forced to close for two weeks in December when a U.S. missile hit nearby, shattering all the windows.

“It is very frightening to try to sleep at night when the bombs are falling,” Adnan said.

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