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
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
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.
International War Crimes