Sanctions reduce Baghdad to ruins

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of the Second World War the allies were astonished to discover that the animals in Berlin zoo were all svelte and healthy, having received their exotic diets throughout the conflict. They concluded that strategic bombing was less successful in disrupting the German economy than they had expected.

Eight years of sanctions against Iraq have proved far more effective. Ani and Suker, the two lions in Baghdad zoo, died in 1993 and 1996. Dr Adel Salman, the director of the zoo, set in a sun-baked park in the centre of the city, says they died "of malnutrition and diseases we couldn't treat".

Only one big cat, a four-year-old Bengal tiger named Malloh, remains in the zoo, living on a diet of donkey meat bought in the local market. He does not look happy. He crouches close to an ageing air-conditioner in a stable at the back of his cage to escape the torrid heat of summer in Baghdad, where yesterday temperatures were close to 50 degrees centigrade.

Dr Salman, a former army officer with greying hair who has run Baghdad zoo, little frequented by Iraqis, for nine years, explains his difficulties as he struggles to keep his animals alive. Whatever expedients are tried, resources are not enough. There are bananas and apples available in the shops for the monkey but they are too expensive," he says. "We feed them vegetables instead."

Everywhere Iraq is full of people just failing to make do. Eight years of sanctions have proved far more devastating for Iraq than three years of strategic bombing for Germany. The damage is cumulative. Prohibited from exporting oil except under UN control, Iraq has built no new power stations or water or sewage plants since 1990. It has not been able to buy spare parts for the old ones, which are increasingly obsolete.

Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, resigned this month in apparent frustration at his inability to persuade the UN that the Iraqi infrastructure is collapsing. In an interview earlier in the year he said: "Electricity is 40 per cent of what it used to be. We have estimated that we need $10 billion and we are putting in $300 million.

What this means for ordinary Iraqis can be seen in the sweltering ward at the 335-bed Saddam Children's hospital in central Baghdad. The UN recently allowed in 10 incubators for babies. They are computer controlled and made in Japan but their manufacturers had apparently not imagined that they would be expected to function in temperatures which are well over 40 degrees centigrade because the hospital's air conditioning barely functions. As a result the sick and premature babies are placed in the incubators but their doors have to stay open because of the heat.

Far more is needed than food and drugs. The hospital has six Italian- made lifts but yesterday only one was working. Many of the patients are suffering from malnutrition. Dr Qais Muhsin points to two-month-old Hanan Ahmed lying on a bed being fanned by his grandmother and says: "He has rickets or calcium deficiency. That is the first thing we look for in infants these days."

The malnutrition is not just because of lack of food. Despite food supplies deliveries to Iraq under the oil-for-food plan signed in 1996, a quarter of all Iraqis under five are malnourished according to a Unicef report last year. A reason for this is what Lockton Morrisey, the regional director of Care International, says is "the abominable state of the water supply and the collapse of the sewage system." Children, who are already malnourished get gastro-enteritis and die.

A heatwave this summer, severe even by the standards of the Mesopotamian plain, has made Iraqis deeply conscious of how far their infrastructure has declined.

Dr Muhsin says: "The heat provides an excellent medium for bacteria to flourish. It makes the rivers more contaminated but people have to drink straight from the river because they are thirsty and there is no alternative."

Not everybody in Iraq is sick. Society still functions, though at a more primitive level than before. There is construction activity, particularly in the shopping streets in Baghdad. An Iraqi economist says: "It is cheap to build because you only have to pay a labourer the equivalent of $1.50 (91p) a day."

There are even Iraqis who have not suffered from sanctions. These are mostly farmers. Restaurants are full of men wearing traditional robes or dishdashes, who come from the country.

"The hotels are full of farmers," says the same economist, who did not want to give his name. "People who drive cars imported since sanctions almost certainly made their money in agriculture." Ever since the embargo was imposed in 1990 the government has kept the real price of wheat at the equivalent of about $100 a tonne.

Overall, Iraqis have a deep sense of bitterness. They feel that sanctions are designed to keep Iraq weak and not because the US or Britain is really frightened of such Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as may remain.

"Sanctions hit the people not the government," said one Iraqi friend. "We are being punished worse than the Nazis who killed 15 million people and we don't deserve it."

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