Progress in Iraqi freedom stained by growing hardship

The Bush administration continues to insist that progress is being made in Iraq, but the last two years have brought deepening misery for Iraqis. That is the inescapable conclusion of a report released in May by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation.

The "Living Conditions in Iraq" study is based on a 2004 survey of more than 21,000 households. It shows the Iraqi people are suffering widespread death and war-related injury, high rates of infant and child mortality, chronic malnutrition and illness among children, low rates of life expectancy, and significant setbacks for women.

The Iraqi people were already suffering serious hardships when the war began - the result of Saddam Hussein's policies and 13 years of UN sanctions. Since the US invasion, the report notes an "alarming deterioration" in living conditions.

The innocent and vulnerable populations of Iraq are suffering the most. Malnutrition among small children is widespread. Nearly one quarter of Iraqi children suffer chronic malnutrition, and 8 percent suffer acute malnutrition.

Illness levels among Iraqi children are also high - due in part to a growing lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. Forty percent of urban households report sewage in the streets of their neighborhoods.

Infant and child mortality rates remain abnormally high in Iraq, though there is much uncertainty about the exact numbers.

The overall trend, however, is unmistakable: a rise in infant and child mortality rates over the past 15 years.

This contrasts with the global trend - reflected by Iraq's neighbors - of steadily falling infant and child mortality rates over the past few decades.

Iraq's alarmingly high child mortality rate translates into thousands of 'excess' deaths every year. These are the quiet, unseen victims of the continuing tragedy in Iraq.

The new report also sheds light on the number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to the US-led invasion and occupation. As of mid-2004 the war had caused 24,000 Iraqi deaths, the study estimated. This is the number for all deaths, civilian and military, in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

The death toll in Iraq has continued to climb, of course, especially in recent weeks, so these numbers are larger now than when the survey was conducted last year.

War has caused widespread injury and disability in Iraq. Most of those injured in earlier wars were soldiers, but the victims of the current war are more likely to be women, children, and the elderly. Among Iraqis, the number of children injured since the US invasion is higher than the number of military-aged men.

There's striking evidence of the insecurity of daily life in Iraq.

Gun shots and weapons fire are common - 37 percent of respondents said such activity occurred daily in their neighborhoods; 23 percent said it occurred several times a week.

Public insecurity has especially serious consequences for Iraqi women - the survey found that nearly half "think the security in their area has worsened" compared with one year ago.This causes an increasing number of women to stay at home, thus reinforcing a decade-long trend of declining levels of education and literacy among women.

"The security situation is a major obstacle to individual freedom in women's everyday life," states the report.

Years of war and sanctions have devastated Iraqi society and caused widespread malnutrition, illness, and premature death.

The resulting public-health crisis has lowered life opportunities for the entire population. "The probability of dying before the age of 40 for Iraqi children born between 2000 and 2005 is estimated at 18 percent; approximately three times the level in neighboring Jordan and Syria," states the new report.

During the 1990s a worldwide humanitarian outcry rose in response to reports of Iraqi babies dying because of sanctions. It is time for a new public outcry now, to demand urgently needed humanitarian relief for the Iraqi people.

David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and a senior research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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