SADDAM HUSSEIN is not the first to use the suffering of children as an instrument of war, but he is surely distinctive in his manipulation of the suffering of his country's own children. His evident purpose in exploiting Iraq's most vulnerable citizens is to advance his campaign against the embargo imposed by the United Nations for his invasion of Kuwait nearly 10 years ago. In this way, he has sacrificed his nation's future in this grisly effort.

A new UNICEF survey warns of a "humanitarian emergency" in Iraq. Circumstances permitted a survey that spells out in hard numbers the difference Saddam Hussein's policy has made. In central and southern Iraq, where 85 percent of the country's 22 million people reside and where Iraq controls the terrain and distributes the supplies, the mortality rate for children under 5 increased through the 1990s from 56 deaths per 1,000 live births to 131. But in the Kurdish-inhabited northern regions protected by the NATO-led allies, under-5 mortality in the same period fell from 80 to 72 -- scarcely good numbers but better than the others and proceeding in the right direction.

It is an old story that Iraq, intent on breaking the embargo, long resisted the allies' offer of an oil-for-food arrangement that would suspend the embargo under U.N.-controlled circumstances and ensure adequate supplies of food, medicine and medical equipment. With what funds became available, Saddam Hussein, rather than serve the health of his people, instead built new palaces and new weapons of mass destruction. But it is a new story -- the UNICEF survey was the first such since 1991 -- that Iraq has also resisted friendly professional humanitarian advice to give priority to child nutrition and maternal health programs. The Iraqis have been slow to distribute supplies from their warehouses and to improve the bureaucratic infrastructure that enables aid to reach the needy population.

In the nine years since sanctions were first imposed, Iraq has presented the bizarre spectacle of a country -- better, a personal fiefdom -- less interested in protecting its children from the depredations of war than are the NATO-led countries that Saddam Hussein blames for his nation's pain. The allies are responsible for some part of Iraq's loss that arose from the wartime bombing of dual-purpose (civilian and military) water, sewer and electricity-generating facilities. But even here, President Hussein aggravated rather than eased popular distress by holding back from making the postwar improvements that the allies encouraged.

A new round of talks is underway at the United Nations to recalibrate relations with Iraq and improve the lives of ordinary people. Saddam Hussein is so far practicing his familiar policy that makes Iraq's children pawns.