Marshland villages pounded by Iraq: UN report finds indiscriminate and constant bombardment of civilians

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SADDAM Hussein's forces have maintained a continuous bombardment since June of villages in the marshlands of southern Iraq where dissidents have reported the use of chemical weapons, according to a UN report to be published today.

The report was prepared by the UN's special rapporteur for Iraq, Max van der Stoel. In February, the UN Commission for Human Rights asked him to present a report on civil and political rights in Iraq. Today sees the publication of the interim account being presented to the General Assembly. It focuses on southern Iraq and the economic situation in the country as a whole.

Although many of the allegations have been made elsewhere, this is the first report with the imprimatur of the United Nations, rather than the work of small, sometimes partisan, human rights groups, to have addressed the most recent problems in southern Iraq.

The rapporteur discovered four main areas of civil and political abuse. There was the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian settlements in southern Iraq from June until at least the end of October. The authorities in Baghdad have countered that they are asserting control over an area in which many dissidents have hidden.

The rapporteur also found that the Iraqis had used arbitrary powers of arrest and detention, and an effective embargo to starve the inhabitants of the area.

Several pages of the report are devoted to the draining of the marshes, which has damaged the social and cultural rights of the people. Iraq has always countered that draining the marshlands was to help agricultural development. Yet there has been no evidence of such development, and it is generally accepted the aim was to facilitate military operations against rebels hiding in the marshes.

The rapporteur found no evidence that Iraq had deliberately poisoned rivers and waterways in the marshes, but did find evidence of tremendous pollution of the waters, with effluent from chemical plants and untreated sewage.

Because the government of Iraq would not allow the investigating team into the country, the report was based on the testimony of Marsh Arabs interviewed in southern Iran.

On the economic situation, the report broadly agreed with the Iraqi government that the economy had declined and infant mortality increased as a result of economic sanctions. But it found Baghdad at fault for failing to fulfil UN resolutions that would allow those sanctions to be lifted.

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, is in New York seeking the lifting of the oil embargo, which is due for review. The embargo was imposed to make Iraq comply with UN strictures against chemical, nuclear and biological weapons development.

'There are signs that Iraq might be moving towards formal acknowledgement' of the surveillance programme, said a recent report from the UN Special Commission (Unscom) in charge of scrapping Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Rolf Ekeus, chairman of Unscom, has estimated his inspectors would need about six months to test the programme before he could recommend to the Security Council that the commission had done as much as possible to rid Iraq of nuclear, chemical, biological and certain ballistic weapons.

A team from Unscom has just returned from southern Iraq where it sought scientific evidence of chemical weapons use. The special rapporteur found no technical evidence. Iraqi dissidents have accused the Bahgdad authorities of attacking villages in southern Iraq with phosgene or some cocktail of proscribed chemical agents in the latter part of September.