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No letup in suffering of Iraqi innocents

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Recent information on the consequences of the Iraq war on civilians and children only confirms a devastating picture of the situation. According to an article in the medical magazine The Lancet, there have been more than 100,000 civilians deaths since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The deaths include many children. Carol Bellamy, UNICEF’s executive director, has called the deaths of 34 children in recent bomb attacks “an unconscionable slaughter of innocents.”

Many of those deaths have been the consequence of coalition forces’ actions. According to the authors of the study published in The Lancet, there has been substantially more deaths in Iraq since the war began than in the period immediately before the conflict. The killings of dozens of children in recent bombings in Baghdad show, according to UNICEF, “a disregard for innocent lives that recalled the recent massacre of children in Beslan, Russia.”

This is the third time that Iraqi children have been victims of war in that country’s recent history. The two conflicts previous to the present one were the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which caused considerable damage to Iraq’s infrastructure. In addition, the country was under comprehensive U.N. sanctions for more than 12 years.

Although the introduction in 1996 of the Oil for Food Program, which allowed the Iraqi government to sell oil and use the revenue to purchase humanitarian supplies, reduced the impact of the sanctions, it had significant shortcomings. Among them was Saddam Hussein’s decision to use the funds for personal gain rather than improve the basic services’ infrastructure in the country.

Previous to this last conflict, Iraqi children were already highly vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. One in four children under age 5 was chronically malnourished, and one in eight children died before his or her fifth birthday. This was happening in a population where almost half is under the age of 18.

A limited postwar nutritional assessment carried out by UNICEF in Baghdad found that acute malnutrition has nearly doubled from what it was before the war. That assessment also found that seven of 10 children suffered from various degrees of diarrhea, which leads to a loss of nutrients and, often, death if not properly treated. As a result of this latest war, an already deteriorated water and sanitation system practically collapsed, leading to loss and/or contamination of piped water and greater susceptibility to contracting diarrhea.

It was estimated that 270,000 children born after the war had none of the required immunizations as routine immunization services were all but disrupted. In addition, existent stocks of vaccines became useless as a result of the destruction of the cold-chain system.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage are still pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers every day. Because water-cleaning chemicals have been looted or destroyed, the quality of water being pumped into homes is extremely poor and leads to more frequent illness and malnutrition among children.

As a consequence of all these factors, Iraq is the country that has least progressed in reducing child mortality since 1990. In the 1990s, the most significant increases in child mortality occurred in southern and central Iraq, where under-5 child mortality rose from 56 to 131 per 1,000 live births. Because of a lack of security, many babies are now delivered at home and many mothers do not receive any prenatal care.

In the main cities every day, children are killed or injured by contact with unexploded ordnance, land mines and other kinds of live ammunition littering the country. In Baghdad alone there are approximately 800 hazardous sites related to cluster bombs and dumped ammunition.

The Iraq Education Survey, carried out by the Iraqi government with support from UNICEF, describes how children’s educational opportunities have been affected by the war. In the most affected governorates, more than 70 percent of primary school buildings lack water service. The survey shows that since March 2003, more than 700 primary schools had been damaged by bombing, more than 200 had been burned and more than 3,000 had been looted.

After 18 months of hostilities, the suffering of civilians seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. More poignantly, at least half of the deaths attributed directly or indirectly to fighting between occupation forces and insurgents are women and children. That is a severe indictment against this senseless war.