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Inside File: UN back-pedals on Baghdad sanctions report

'CHILDREN, War and Sanctions' is the story of a report that never happened. It involves the conclusions of an expert witness on the plight of Iraqi civilians two years after the Gulf war. It was commissioned by Unicef, a body that functions under the umbrella of the UN - the very institution that went to war against Iraq and has maintained sanctions against it since. Its ultimate fate is an object lesson in how humanitarian concerns can be exploited to make political points, in particular when the regime involved is that of Saddam Hussein.

In February, the UN Children's Fund commissioned Eric Hoskins, a Harvard expert on public health, to compile a 'situation analysis' for its country programme in Iraq. 'We did not commission him to do a report on the effect of war and sanctions,' said a Unicef official.

Yet Dr Hoskins' 32-page 'preliminary draft' - obtained by the Independent - purports to identify 'the impact of war and sanctions on Iraqi women and children'. It states, inter alia, that 'nearly three years of economic sanctions have created circumstances in Iraq where the majority of the civilian population are now living in poverty', and that 'by most accounts, the greatest threat to the health and well-being of the Iraqi people remains the difficult economic conditions created by nearly three years of internationally mandated sanctions and by the infrastructural damage wrought by the 1991 military conflict'.

The 'executive summary' concludes: 'Sanctions, unless applied in a manner which safeguards the civilian population, may threaten the more vulnerable members of society - especially children and women. Indeed, it may be that one fundamental contradiction remains: that politically motivated sanctions (which are by definition imposed to create hardship) cannot be implemented in a manner which spares the vulnerable.'

'We were not satisfied with it,' said a Unicef official. 'We have in fact shelved it. The report reaches conclusions not entirely based on fact.' Although the UN sanctions were bound to have a negative effect, 'we do not have enough evidence that they are entirely to blame'. The country's own running-down of its services and its currency reform were also contributory factors, he said.

An aid worker from an independent body went further: 'We tend to be more sceptical than the author of the report. The Iraqis are very good at manipulating information.'

Dr Hoskins' view is that 'I think I produced a good document.'

Had it been made public, the report would inevitably have been misused as propaganda fodder by Iraq. On Tuesday the oxymoronically titled Iraqi Justice Minister, Shebib al-Maliki, told the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna that the sanctions were a 'flagrant abuse of power and a crime of genocide perpetrated against an entire people', adding that the permanent members of the Security Council 'do not find it enough to have inflicted all the destruction that they did on Iraq's civil and economic infrastructure . . . the people of Iraq suffer today from shortages in food, medicine and medical requirements.'

A brief look at the other side of the equation: President Saddam's record in complying with the UN resolutions, the one route to getting the sanctions lifted. UN inspectors yesterday remained locked in a row with Iraq over the installation of two remote cameras to monitor missile test sites and removal of chemical production equipment.

More disturbingly, President Saddam last month added another Briton to his list of foreigners languishing in Abu Ghraib jail with near-decade sentences for the relatively petty offence of crossing the border into Iraq. He joins two Britons, three Swedes, a German and several non-Europeans.

A senior Foreign Office official is due to visit the Britons this weekend. President Saddam is thus reviving his practice of taking hostages to blackmail the West: he has made it known the men's fate depends on an unfreezing of Iraqi assets. He has also sought, in vain, to cause a rift between Sweden and Britain by privately telling the Swedes that their men would be released were it not for the unco-operative attitude of Britain.