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Children pay price for Iraq blockade

CHILD MORTALITY in most of Iraq has more than doubled in the nine years since United Nations sanctions were imposed, a leading UN agency said yesterday.

Citing "an ongoing humanitarian emergency," a report by the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) said that in the south and centre of the country, the area controlled by Saddam Hussein, the death rate for children under five rose from 56 per 1,000 live births in the period 1984-89 to 131 per 1,000 in the past five years.

The survey, prepared with the Iraqi government and the World Health Organisation, did not specifically blame trade sanctions for the crisis which has seen some 500,000 Iraqi children die since the Gulf War. But Unicef's director Carol Bellamy, insisted sanctions be applied in ways that avoided harming children.

"We are not calling for a lifting of sanctions as such, because we cannot. That is not in our jurisdiction," she said, adding: "but when they are used they need to be implemented in a way to avoid serious human impact."

Iraqis would not be experiencing such deprivation "in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the UN Security Council," the report said.

Its findings seem bound to intensify criticism that sanctions are not working - merely increasing the suffering of the ordinary civilian population, while doing nothing to hasten the downfall of President Saddam. But Britain, a prime advocate of sanctions and partner with the US in the low level continuing air war against Iraq, rejected the idea that sanctions were aimed at children.

The Foreign Office minister Geoff Hoon, pointed to the more stable child mortality rate in largely autonomous northern Iraq, home to 15 per cent of the country's population.

The mortality rate of children under five in the north declined by more than 20 per cent - from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1989 and 1994 to 72 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1994 and 1999.

Mr Hoon said "sanctions could be lifted tomorrow" if Saddam complied with his international obligations. He claimed a new Security Council resolution drawn up by Britain would release an extra $770m (pounds 478m) of aid to Iraq if passed. But Britain argues that Iraq's existing oil-for- aid programme allows Saddam to buy all the food and medicine the country needs.

Unicef urged the UN committee overseeing sanctions and the Iraqi government to give priority to contracts that will have a direct impact on the well- being of children. The Iraqi government should implement nutrition programmes, adopt a national policy promoting breast feeding, and replace the baby formula in the current food rations with additional food for nursing mothers, Unicef said.

The United States, which opposes lifting sanctions until Iraq is disarmed, blamed the Iraqi leader for the malnutrition and deaths of Iraqi children in government-controlled areas. James Rubin, a spokesman for the US State Department, said: "The bottom line is that if Saddam Hussein would not continue to hoard medicines and capabilities to assist the children of Iraq, they wouldn't have this problem. Clearly the blame for the suffering of the Iraqi people falls squarely on the shoulders of its tyrannical leader.

"In places where Saddam Hussein isn't manipulating the medicines and the supplies, this [the programme] works. We can't solve a problem that is the result of tyrannical behaviour by the regime in Baghdad."