Glimmer of light for Iraqi people

Tough UN sanctions have deeply impacted Iraqi society, but malnutrition rates have 'stabilized.'

After eight years of punishing United Nations sanctions against Iraq, one bright spot is beginning to emerge.

Amid UN statistics that show widespread levels of chronic malnourishment - 1 in 4 children under five years of age, with possibly thousands dying each month - UN officials now report that malnutrition rates have "stabilized" for the first time.

"It is still unacceptably high, but it is the first step to improvement," says Philippe Heffinck, the UN Children's Fund representative in Iraq. Increased food rations mean that market prices have dropped, so low-income families can buy more.

But will this positive trend continue? "That's very difficult to say, because there are so many variables," he says. "Giving food and medicine alone is not going to solve the problem. A multisectoral approach is needed."

That approach means refurbishing Iraq's water, electricity, and health systems, which were heavily damaged by the American-led attacks of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Upgrading Iraq's oil-pumping capacity - to pay for the rebuilding - has also been required.

When Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the UN Security Council imposed the toughest sanctions and oil embargo in history. They are to be lifted only when the Council certifies that Iraq has given up all its weapons of mass destruction.

But that straightforward link has been tangled by politics and tactics. For years Iraq has sought to conceal the extent of its proscribed weapons programs and suspects that the real American agenda - regardless of how much Iraq complies - is to maintain sanctions until Saddam Hussein's rule is over.

Baghdad declares that lifting those sanctions is its top priority. Seeing no "light at the end of the tunnel" on sanctions, Iraq refused on Oct. 31 to work with UN weapons inspectors - a stand that nearly led again to American airstrikes. (Another standoff is already brewing as Iraqis rebuffed UN requests for weapons documents Sunday.)

Lack of money after the war meant that Iraq's social budget was cut back by as much as 95 percent. But the economy was in trouble long before. Iraq also fought an expensive war in the 1980s against Iran, all the while spending billions it did not have on its military.

To ease the problems - and to counter criticism that sanctions were killing the most vulnerable while leaving the Iraqi leadership untouched, or indeed strengthened - the US backed a UN "oil for food" proposal that would allow Iraq to sell oil to buy food.

After two years of delay, Iraq accepted the deal, and in December 1996 the first oil began to flow. It has since been more than doubled to permit the sale of $5.2 billion per year - far more than Iraq can pump at the moment. The US estimates that Iraq has lost $110 billion worth of oil sales since the embargo began.

Despite some progress on stabilizing malnutrition, however, examples of long-term decline are many. Test results at the decrepit Thiqar Secondary School in Baghdad have been dropping steadily, for example, as they have been across Iraq.

The results are low, students and teachers say, because students must work, too, to help their families get by. "Before the embargo, we used to study hard, we used to have a bright future," says teenager Ahmed Hussein. "Now nobody cares about that."

Critics - including most official and other Western sources here - say that instead of punishing the regime as intended, sanctions hurt only the Iraqi people.

"There will be a whole generation of impact," says Denis Halliday, the UN's humanitarian coordinator here until he left his post this fall. "There have been some really devastating consequences for Iraq's traditional family and Muslim values."

Widespread malnutrition is compounded by increased divorce, "single" mothers whose husbands often work at least two jobs to make ends meet, and a rise in children begging, street crime, and prostitution. Based on Iraqi estimates, the UN estimates that 700,000 Iraqi children have died since 1990.

The consequence, some in the Iraqi leadership complain, has been a turn to extremism by new young Baath Party members who say current policies toward the US and UN are "too moderate" because they accept the UN framework.

"What should have been done, before sanctions were imposed, was to assess how to protect the most vulnerable groups and curtail the sanctions that way," says a senior UN official. "That wasn't done, and that's the drama. Sanctions are a blunt instrument, and I hope this is a lesson for the future."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.