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Death and despair await Iraqi civilians

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s forceful presentation to the U.N. Security Council failed to convince key council members of the need for an immediate war against Iraq. Concern for the consequences of another conflict in the region could possibly explain France, China and Russia’s reluctance to authorize an attack.

Iraq has experienced two grueling wars in the recent past — war with Iran in the 1980s and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in these conflicts, most of them civilians or youngsters forcibly conscripted for military service.

A new war would seriously undermine Iraq’s already weakened health-care infrastructure and lead to the suffering and death of huge numbers of civilians.

The health and quality of life of most Iraqis has already dramatically declined in this once prosperous country as a result of the skewed priorities of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime and of the economic sanctions imposed against it.

It is estimated that only 47 percent of the population has access to clean water in rural areas. In urban areas, clean water availability has significantly declined. This situation is exacerbated by the 500,000 metric tons of raw sewage that are discharged into Iraq’s fresh-water resources every day.

In Baghdad, home to 5.6 million people, the daily per capita garbage-collection rate has decreased from 1.5 kg to 0.5 kg, creating a source of water contamination and posing a serious health hazard. According to UNICEF, Baghdad’s children are forced to drink water that contains up to 10 times the acceptable level of contamination. Until sewage is properly treated and disposed of, they will continue to suffer high rates of diarrheal infections.

Malnutrition is an important indicator of children’s well-being, because it reflects how well several sectors in society function. Presently, one in five Iraqi children is chronically malnourished. A significant factor in the high rate of malnutrition is the breakdown of Iraqi power grids and water-distribution networks following the last two wars and a decade of international sanctions. Before these events, Iraq had the best health-care services in the region.

Almost two thirds of the Iraqi population — between 14 and 16 million people — depend on a monthly food entitlement of approximately 2,200 calories per day. Although the food distribution system now works efficiently, war would paralyze it. Moreover, because the country has developed a heavy reliance on imported staples, local food supplies can no longer meet the needs of the population.

The health of the Iraqi population depends on medicine and equipment provided under the U.N. oil-for-food program. A halting of this program would have serious consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable sectors of Iraqi society.

In addition, hospitals and sanitation facilities depend on electricity to operate. In the event of war, the country’s power-generating facilities would likely be heavily damaged. And if Iraq’s oil wells are blown up or bombed, the resulting environmental damage could have serious health effects not only in Iraq but across the whole region.

The possible use of chemical and biological weapons by Iraqi forces within and beyond the country’s borders could provoke a nuclear retaliation by the U.S. or Britain. A nuclear explosion over Baghdad like the one in Hiroshima would kill between 60,000 to 360,000 people. A more powerful thermonuclear bomb could kill 10 times as many people, not counting long-term deaths.

Medact, the British affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, estimates if nuclear weapons are not used, 48,000 to 260,000 people — mostly civilians — would die in a new Iraq war. If civil war erupts, an additional 20,000 could die.

Although there is every reason to want Hussein out of power, those contemplating war against him should take into account the serious humanitarian consequences of such a move.