Sanctions and heat take toll on Iraq

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IRAQ IS not the first country in the world to see its economy collapse and its people impoverished. But it is unique in one respect. The disaster to its people was caused directly by the action of the United Nations. In 1990, before the UN Security Council imposed sanctions, the main health problem for Iraqi children was obesity. In March this year a survey by Unicef showed that 58 per cent of Iraqi children under five suffer from malnutrition.

The highly experienced and skilled heads of UN agencies in Baghdad, people who have spent their lives aiding developing countries, are in the bizarre position of overseeing the return of Iraq to a pre-industrial age. "Acute malnutrition here is about the same as in Haiti," says Dr Habib Rejeb, who heads the World Health Organisation in the Iraqi capital. "Everything is breaking down. People have to drink polluted water ... so they become too sick to benefit from food."

Officials from the United States and Britain, the hawks on the Security Council over maintaining sanctions, say that hunger and disease are being dealt with by the oil-for-food plan agreed between the UN and Iraq in 1996. Iraq would be allowed to export some oil and the revenues, under UN control, would be largely spent on food and medicine.

The plan is failing. In the bland words of a Unicef report this year: "The 'oil-for-food' programme has not yet made a measurable difference to the young children of Iraq in terms of their nutritional status." In other words they are still dying.

Ali al Fawaz, at the Iraqi Ministry of Health, says an additional 50,000 Iraqi children under five died last year compared to 1990. Foreign-aid officials say the true figures are impossible to know because many Iraqis no longer use hospitals. Philippe Heffink, the Belgian head of Unicef in Iraq, says: "Whether it is 45,000 or 65,000, the fact is that the number has increased substantially."

The reason why more food and medicine, which started to arrive 18 months ago, has not reduced the number of Iraqi starving or dying, is simple. The infrastructure is collapsing. Iraq lies on the flat Mesopotamian plain. Water and sewage have to be pumped. This requires electricity, but output has dropped from 10,000Mw eight years ago to 4,000Mw today.

What has thrown the infra-structural breakdown into stark relief is a freak heat-wave this summer. At its best, Iraq is really a desert, split by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and has one of the most torrid climates in the world.

At this time of year the temperature in Baghdad is normally about 45C (113F) in the shade. This summer it is four or five degrees hotter.

Mohammed Shaft, head of forecasting at the Iraqi Meteorological Office, says: "At the end of July it reached 49C in Baghdad, in the shade. In the sun it is about 12 degrees higher."

People and animals need more water. Air conditioners are used more. The pressure on the power station is too great and there are electricity cuts, seven or eight hours a day in Baghdad and 20 hours in the country.

What this means to the ordinary Iraqi can be seen in Saddam City (previously called al-Thawra), a working-class neighbourhood of Baghdad where people live in crowded crumbling brick houses. There are pools of sewage covered with green scum in the streets. In the Ibn el-Beldi hospital for Maternity and Child Care, Dr Ali Hassan al-Jumayil was this week sweating in his 45C office.

"As you see, we have no electricity," he said. "It is hard even for a healthy adult to bear it." On a tour of the wards, pointing to five- month-old Zemed Ahmed, he said: "That is typical. The child suffered from malnutrition, it has no immunity. It is suffering bloody diarrhoea and chest problems."

The people of Saddam City were always poor. Now they are on the edge of starvation.

In a general hospital in the same area, Dr Allan Leon Donatossian, its director, who used to work in Westminster Hospital in London, explains about his patients. He says: "They can get jobs because there is more dependence on manual labour because machines are out of order or need spare parts." The problem, he says, is that people hardly get paid. "I get 12,000 dinars [pounds 6] a month and they get less."

Denis Halliday, the UN's Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, resigned last month because of his frustration at what he sees as the UN's "Band- Aid" approach to the crisis in Iraq. It was at his prompting that Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, increased the value of Iraqi oil exports earlier this year to $5.2bn (pounds 3.5bn) every six months. But the Iraqi oil industry is in such disrepair that it cannot pump more than $4bn. Mr Halliday says: "We have estimated that $10bn is needed to repair electricity alone. We are putting in $300m.

America and Britain argue that if the Iraqi people are suffering so badly, then it is the fault of Saddam Hussein and his government. If they came clean to the UN about Iraq's non-conventional weapons, then sanctions would be lifted. But the UN has always been ambivalent about the circumstances under which it would agree to lift sanctions. Sometimes it is said that they will stay until Saddam Hussein is removed, as well as disclosure on weaponry. Ordinary Iraqis say they have no influence over either decision and ask why they should be made to suffer.

None of the heads of the UN agencies in Baghdad interviewed by The Independent showed any doubt that the present system is a disaster. Asked when things would get better, Dr Rejeb at the World Health Organisation said: "God knows."

Ironically, before the Gulf War, it was doves in the West who wanted sanctions and the hawks who called for bombing. In the event Iraq suffered both, but eight years later it is sanctions which turned out to be the crueller option, killing far more Iraqis than the bombs.