The Deadliest Weapon

Sanctions and Public Health in Iraq

by Richard Walton

Dollars and Sense magazine, May / June 2001


Saddam Hussein is the enemy, three successive U.S. presidents- George Bush the Elder, Bill Clinton, and now Bush the Younger - have proclaimed. So what have ten years of UN sanctions (the most draconian in world history) accomplished? Well, the Iraqi dictator is more secure than he was a decade ago. And about a million Iraqi civilians, most of them young children, have perished from malnutrition and disease.

Step into the Children's Hospital in Baghdad. There are no enemies here, just dying kids who would not be sick, or who could easily be cured, if not for the sanctions. You blink back rears as you move from one shabby ward to the next, each crowded with family members, most of them stoic, some wailing in grief. One scene I will always remember: One of our group, a woman from Massachusetts, standing at a bed silently stroking the head of an unconscious infant while the baby's black-robed mother looked on. Neither spoke. Even if they had a common language, what could they say?

During the Gulf War, the United Nations (largely the United States) unleashed one of the most ferocious aerial bombardments in the history of air warfare, much of it against civilian targets. Among those targets were water purification systems, sewage systems, and food production, processing, storage, and distribution facilities. Then came the economic sanctions, which embargoed any goods that could have a "dual use," that is, military or civilian. In a modern economy, that covers almost everything: For example, chlorine, which is used in water purification, is designated as a "dual use" commodity. The sanctions have made it difficult, often impossible, to restore potable water and public sanitation or to produce or buy sufficient food.

Over the last ten years, the ancient plagues of hunger and disease have been visited on the Iraqi people to a shocking degree. The following gives some idea of the progression. In 1989, just before the Gulf War began, there were 7,110 deaths of children under five from respiratory infection, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, and malnutrition. Within a year of the war and the imposition of sanctions, the number of deaths had risen to 27,473. By 1994, the figure stood at 52,905, and in the first 11 months of 1999, it soared to 73,572. That's a ten-fold increase over ten years.

Here is another measure. In 1990, only 4.5% of Iraqi children were born with low birth weight (less than 2.5 kilograms, or about five and a half pounds).

By November 1999, the figure was 24.1 %, or just under one in four. Many of these children will have underdeveloped organs, suffer from mental retardation, and be more prone to illness, malnutrition, and low life expectancy.

One nutrition-influenced disease, kwashiorkor (seen in children with horribly swollen bellies, who can suffer long-term organ damage, including brain damage, unless the condition is quickly arrested) was rare in Iraq before 1990. By 1998, it had increased by 61.4 times. Cases of marasmus, which causes children to waste away, increased more than 50-fold.

Also in 1998, nearly two million Iraqis (out of a population of about 23 million) were suffering from severe and protracted malnutrition.

The war and the sanctions are directly responsible for these terrifying health problems. The galloping increases in grotesque birth defects and childhood leukemia are attributable to the widespread use depleted uranium in U.S. ammunition.

There has been a dramatic rise in cases of cholera (from zero in 1989 to 2,560 in 1998), amoebic dysentery (a 13-fold increase, up to 2(i4,000 cases in l 998), and typhoid fever (a nearly l l-fold increase) - all rarely found in Iraq before the sanctions, all preventable with potable water and effective sewage treatment. Because of vaccine shortages, such diseases as whooping cough, measles, mumps, and even polio (which had been all but eradicated) have also increased.

In addition, hospital patients are dying because of a lack of antibiotics, anesthesia, oxygen, antiseptics, x-ray film, functioning medical equipment, and even aspirin. Major surgical operations have plummeted from a monthly average of 15,125 in 1989 to 3,823 in November 1999, a decline of 74%.

In short, the ongoing war against Iraq has reduced a resource-rich country with free, cradle-to-grave medical care to the level of an impoverished African nation, where illness and malnutrition are widespread.

There is a terrible irony here. The U.S. government claims that sanctions are necessary because the Iraqi regime might develop weapons of mass destruction, which it might use against its neighbors. So the United States (no other country on the UN Security Council, except for the United Kingdom, continues to support the present sanctions) deploys actual weapons of mass destruction - epidemic disease and hunger on a massive scale.


Richard J. Walton, who teaches at Rhode Island College, visited Iraq in January as part of an International Action Center delegation headed by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark. A member of the National Committee of the Association of State Green Parties, he has written a number of books on U.S. foreign policy.

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