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Embargo brings death to 500,000 children in Iraq.

ATHENS, Greece - The Gulf War started on Jan. 17, 1991, and lasted 43 days. But the casualties of the war continue to mount in Iraq's hospitals, homes and schools.

UNICEF figures indicate 500,000 children have died as a result of the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council to destabilize Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Moreover, if the blockade continues, 1.5 million more children could eventually suffer malnutrition or a variety of unchecked illnesses because antibiotics and other standard medicines are scarce.

Starving, too, are the children's minds. The Iraqi Ministry of Education estimates the dropout rate is as high as 20 percent because children must work to supplement household incomes gutted by runaway inflation and the collapse of the Iraqi infrastructure. For those students who manage to remain in school, laboratories, textbooks and even paper and pencils are in short supply as a result of the embargo. The number of teachers has plummeted, and the country's budget for new-school construction has been eliminated.

At an international conference in Athens in mid-February - the sponsors of which would say only that it was funded by Greek and Arab business interests - Iraqi and outside observers say that Hussein's grasp on power remains strong and the sanctions are doing what sanctions do best: hitting the frailest segment of the population.

The conference drew participants from around the world, including large delegations from France and Russia. France wants renewed access to Iraqi oil, and Russia would like to be repaid for prewar debts.

Motivated by potentially lucrative business deals, both those countries have said it is time to end the embargo. But in Athens, a member of Russia's Parliament, Iona Andronov, predicted that at the Security Council's next bimonthly review of the embargo, scheduled for March 14, Moscow would muffle its earlier argument to lift the blockade in exchange for Washington's silence on the Russian assault on Chechnya.

"Only Russia could do it," Andronov said of the move to end the blockade, "and Russia won't do it now. (Russian Foreign Minister Andrei) Kozyrev will do what the Americans tell him."

Among the five permanent members of the Security Council, only France and possibly China would be left in favor of ending the sanctions; the United States and Britain are opposed.

The Security Council's bimonthly review is played out against an increasingly ugly backdrop. The two-day Athens conference featured grim photographs of Iraqi children, their bellies bloated from malnutrition; and of pitifully tiny infants, too weak to cry, their limbs as thin as sticks and their huge eyes reflecting a serenity that too often precedes death.

"A slow-motion Hiroshima," Egyptian activist Abdel Azim El Naghrabi called the embargo. "It has the same effect. More cunning, more subversive, but with the same effect. It's one of the great paradoxes of history that in one of the richest nations in the world, children are dying for lack of food and medicine.

"Not only do they want to destroy the people of Iraq, they want to destroy the future of Iraq: its children."

Among the conference sponsors was Women for Mutual Security, whose international coordinator, Margarita Papandreou, asked, "What are we telling the children of Iraq? That they must pay for the appalling human cost of the embargo because the U.S. wants to bring a nation to its knees?"

Papandreou said Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait should no longer be a factor in whether to continue the punishment being inflicted on his country. "The United Nations expects the people of Iraq to do what the world could not do," she said sardonically.

One of the issues that went virtually unmentioned at the conference was whether Iraq was allowing outside medical workers into the country. One Iraqi official said that the country was accepting aid but outside help was minimal and that all aid was funneled through the Iraqi Red Crescent.

Whatever aid gets through, however, is but a fraction of the need. Before the war, Iraq was annually importing $500 million worth of medical equipment and supplies. That figure is down to $10 million a year.

Papandreou's remarks were among the few mentions of the Iraqi leader, aside from those of the Baghdad delegation, who praised Hussein as a model of strength for the Iraqi people.

Whether Hussein is another Hitler, as his detractors bill him, or another PanArabist modeled after Gamal Abdel Nasser, as his supporters describe him, the man is clearly the author of Iraq's modernization. The goals achieved under his Ba'ath Party rule included a modern infrastructure, literacy rates that are among the highest in the region and equal opportunities for women.

Some 88,000 tons of ordnance dropped by the allies on Iraq during the war, however, bombed that vision into oblivion. By Western accounts, the destruction has fueled Hussein's intention of restoring his arsenal of chemical weapons. In an International Herald Tribune column recently, William Safire said that if Hussein did not have chemical-weapons strike capacity now, he would presently.

Iraqi officials dismiss such reports as a Western extrapolation of Hussein's quest to develop the medicines he is too short on cash to import.

The Athens conference was long on certain data - there were hundreds of pages of material on the tragic effects of the embargo and on Iraq's contention that it has complied with all U.N. resolutions - but short on other pertinent information.

When Hans Goran Franck, a former member of Sweden's Parliament, called for human rights for Kurds in Iraq, he was promptly rebuked by members of the Iraqi delegation, who maintained the Kurds had been accorded full rights since 1974.

In the end, delegates agreed on a simple statement that condemned the use of all economic blockades, citing Iraq as the most poignant example of how sanctions are used as "a new and terrible weapon of mass destruction that affects most severely women, children, the elderly and the sick."
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Author:Casa, Kathryn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 3, 1995
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