TELEVISION PICTURES may appear to tell a different story, but right now, the world's most vicious conflict is not the one going on in Iraq. In fact, if the death tolls from the current Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and all of the Balkan wars of the past decade are combined, they would still not exceed the number of deaths caused by the much more obscure war in Congo. The International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees in the region, in a report published this week that 3.3 million people have died prematurely in that country since war broke out in 1998. The committee also believes that one in every eight homes has suffered a violent death; that in some regions, 75 percent of children born during the war have died or will die before their second birthday; and that the region is plagued by malnutrition and infectious diseases that in other circumstances would be curable.

Although the region is one of the poorest in the world, the source of the crisis is not the lack of humanitarian aid. The ultimate cause of the desperate poverty and high mortality is the war, between and among tribes and militia units in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The war has ethnic origins: It began in the wake of the Rwandan massacre of 1994, when the Hutu militiamen who murdered hundreds of thousands of their ethnic Tutsi countrymen fled across the border into what was then Zaire. From there they continued to harass local Tutsis as well as those across the border.

Yet the war keeps going not for ethnic reasons but because so many covet the region's gold, diamonds and coltan, an obscure but critical mineral used in almost all cell phones, laptops and pagers. Both Rwanda and Uganda are fueling the conflict and using the consequent chaos to exploit the region's minerals. According to a U.N. report, the financial value of the minerals that the Rwandan government illegally extracts from eastern Congo probably exceeds the entire value of Rwanda's exports.

Many had hoped that diplomatic interventions by the United Nations and South Africa, bolstered by 5,000 U.N. observers, would lead to some sort of normality. But signed agreements do not necessarily mean much on the ground. This month the main rebel leaders signed an accord. Almost immediately, 1,000 people were slaughtered in the northeastern corner of the country. All involved believe that greater U.S. influence is needed. More U.S. pressure on all the countries, perhaps combined with a stepped-up international presence along the borders, might help persuade them to stick to the agreements they've signed. The time and energy of a few U.S. diplomats -- not the billions of dollars that will be spent on Iraq -- could make an enormous difference to the lives of people.