The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saddam Hussein said sanctions killed 500,000 children. That was ‘a spectacular lie.’

Child mortality figures provided to the United Nations were deliberately doctored by Saddam Hussein’s government to discredit the international community, a new report finds. (Enric Marti/AP)
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BEIRUT — During the rush to wage war in Iraq in the early 2000s, one figure widely cited both to justify and oppose the U.S.-led invasion was that more than 500,000 children had died as a result of U.N.-imposed sanctions in the previous decade.

Nearly two decades later, researchers at the London School of Economics have concluded that the figure simply wasn’t true.

Instead, child mortality figures provided to the United Nations were deliberately doctored by Saddam Hussein’s government to discredit the international community, the researchers said in a new report published by the British Medical Journal of Global Health.

“The government of Iraq cleverly manipulated survey data to fool the international community,” the report said, describing the figure of 500,000 deaths as “a massive fraud.”

“Following its creation and dissemination the deception received considerable attention and was widely believed to be true. Moreover, it continues to be influential,” said Tim Dyson and Valerie Cetorelli, who wrote the report and are with the London School of Economics.

“Unfortunately, however, the more mundane truth that has emerged has received much less attention than the original spectacular lie.”

The U.N. sanctions were imposed after Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991 in an effort to pressure Hussein to give up his alleged stockpiles of chemical weapons, and they restricted Iraq’s ability to import food and medicines.

A number of reports in the 1990s that suggested increases in the number of child deaths as a result of the sanctions were marred by poor or inadequate methodology, including one that appears to have included children who died in the Iraqi government’s crackdown against Kurds in the late 1980s.

But the most frequently cited study, one that caused widespread alarm at the time, was conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) based on figures that were deliberately falsified by the Iraqi government, the authors said. The survey showed that an additional 550,000 more children had died as a result of the sanctions than would have been expected had the sanctions not been imposed — on the basis of figures supplied by the Iraqi government and conducted by Iraqi government appointed researchers.

“The data were evidently rigged to show a huge and sustained — and largely non-existent — rise in child mortality,” the authors concluded. “The objective of Saddam Hussein’s government was to heighten international concern and to get the economic sanctions ended.”

The authors cite three subsequent U.N. studies carried out in the 2000s on the basis of independent research as evidence that the original report was flawed. Yet although the United Nations has subsequently disproved its own survey, it has not sought to correct the record, the authors said.

Too many children nonetheless are dying in Iraq, the report adds. Not only was there no substantial increase in child mortality during the 1990s, but there was also no significant improvement in the child death rate as a result of the U.S.-led invasion and the lifting of the sanctions, as U.S. officials have claimed. Fourteen years after the toppling of Hussein, more than twice as many children under 5 die in Iraq as in most neighboring countries.

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