Iraqi children are dying at twice the rate they did before Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait led to the Persian Gulf War and U.N. economic sanctions, according to a joint U.N.-Iraqi survey to be published today.
The random survey of 24,000 households with youngsters under the age of 5 is the most comprehensive study of children's mortality in Iraq since the Gulf War ended, and it quantifies the devastating impact that war and sanctions have had on ordinary families.
Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which wrote the report, said the U.N. embargo and the Iraqi regime are both to blame for the precarious state of children's health. She urged the international community to increase humanitarian aid, and she called on Iraqi authorities to work with the U.N. Security Council to ease the sting of sanctions, particularly on children.
"I don't think the international community can just assume that they have no responsibility and assume that oil-for-food will take care of everything," Bellamy said, referring to the program that allows Iraq to sell $5.2 billion of oil every six months to buy food and medicine. "At the same time, I don't want to let the [Iraqi] government off the hook."
In the most heavily populated regions of central and southern Iraq, the survey found the mortality rate for children under 5 years old has risen from 56 per 1,000 before the economic sanctions to 131 per 1,000. Infants less than 1 year old are now dying at a rate of 108 per 1,000, up from 47 per 1,000 before the sanctions.
The picture was reversed, however, in the autonomous Kurdish territory of northern Iraq, which lies outside of Baghdad's control. A survey of 16,000 homes there revealed a declining mortality rate for children under 5. It has dropped from 80 deaths per 1,000 newborns before the Gulf War to 72 per 1,000 between 1994 and 1999.
Bellamy attributed the discrepancy to the large amount of international aid pumped into northern Iraq at the end of the war. In contrast, humanitarian assistance began to reach central and southern Iraq only after April 1996, when Iraq agreed to the terms of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program.
While public health clearly has deteriorated under the U.N. sanctions, Bellamy said the Iraqi regime has aggravated the problem in several ways, such as encouraging bottle-feeding of infants, which exposes them to impure water.
Benon Sevan, the head of the U.N.'s humanitarian relief program in Iraq, also has raised concerns about the alleged hoarding of medical supplies and equipment in government warehouses. And he has criticized the Iraqi regime for giving contracts to unreliable middlemen who provide the government with defective products.
But Sevan added that a U.N. committee responsible for approving imports into Iraq has dragged its heels.