LONDON. — London -- A year has passed since the United Nations deadline expired and the U.S.-led coalition went to war against Iraq, but there is still a large unanswered question about the decision for war. Could the coalition really have held together long enough for an embargo to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait without the need for a war?
It was the dawning realization that we were probably talking years, not months, for an embargo to have that effect that drove the policy makers in Washington and New York to give Iraq a six-week ultimatum for withdrawal in late November, 1990.
At that time they were mostly worried about the political fragility of the coalition under prolonged stress. But it is now also clear that the embargo was not the cheap, humanitarian alternative to war that many people then believed it was.
The first survey by a Harvard University medical team a couple of months after the shooting war ended estimated that ''As of May 1991, 55,000 additional deaths of Iraqi children under five had already occurred because of the gulf crisis.''
That figure is inherently unreliable, since the estimate of ''additional deaths'' due to the war changes by thousands if you change by even one-tenth of one percent the assumptions about what the ''normal'' death rate for Iraqi children would have been.
But certainly the vast majority of these assumed deaths were due to malnutrition or disease, not bombs -- and so are all the claimed deaths in the propaganda war that is now raging over far less stringent U.N. sanctions. For the trade embargo on Iraq was not wholly lifted at the end of the war.
Last August, the U.N. Security Council ended its controls over food imports into Iraq. But it retained its ban on Iraqi oil exports except for $1.6 billion worth which could be sold under U.N. supervision, with the proceeds deposited in an escrow account.
Of that amount, Iraq could use $933.7 million for the import of food and drugs; the rest would help pay for the U.N.'s program to ferret out and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to pay reparations to non-Iraqi victims of the war. It was at that point that the Iraqi government claimed that more than 11,000 people had already starved to death.
On to the next phase of the game. In October the Harvard team released its second report, confirming that child death rates have tripled and predicting that ''at least 170,000 children under five will die in the coming year from the delayed effects of the gulf crisis,'' a significant proportion of whom would be saved by adequate food and medical supplies.
But Mr. Hussein refused to sell the oil under the conditions imposed by the U.N. because, he claims, they are a gross interference with Iraqi sovereignty. ''Iraqis will eat grass rather than accept this,'' said an Iraqi diplomat -- no doubt with the full support of all the Iraqi children who would rather die than see their sovereignty infringed.
In the same month Britain reported that Iraq had imported almost 4 million tons of food since April, which is close to pre-war import levels. The U.N. believes that much of it was paid for in cash out of Iraq's reserves abroad, even though most of Iraq's $4 billion in known reserves remains frozen by the governments of the various countries where they are on deposit.
''We don't know how Iraq financed the import of food,'' said a U.N. official. ''Maybe [Saddam Hussein] has hidden assets.'' And in November Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the U.N. official in charge of relief efforts in the Persian Gulf, reported that Iraq was managing to provide a minimal 1,500 calories of food a day for its 18 million people, though water supplies are polluted or insufficient.
I honestly do not know what is true in all this. Clearly some children (and others) are dying in Iraq who should not die, but how many and due to whose policies is not clear. Just to be safe, it would be a good idea for Western countries to release some of the frozen Iraqi funds for use in buying more food and medical supplies.
Clearly, too, the continuing U.N. blockage of unrestricted Iraqi oil exports is partly designed to weaken Mr. Hussein's hold on power, a laudable goal but one for which ordinary Iraqis may be paying too high a price. And clearly Mr. Hussein is as brutal and cynical as ever: While complaining about the world's inhumanity toward Iraqi children, he maintains a tight food blockade against the Kurdish areas of Iraq that are not controlled by his army.
What I do know for certain is this. If the U.N. had avoided war and depended solely on the very tight embargo that was in force until August, a lot more people in Iraq would be dying by now. And a great many more than that would have to die before Mr. Hussein released his grip on Kuwait.
Meanwhile, the campaign of counter-claims and disinformation about those deaths would be raging at ten times the volume that it currently achieves, and the will to continue would be eroding as fast in the West as in the Arab members of the coalition. You may still not support the decision for war, but it is hard to believe that sanctions would ever have worked at all, let alone at an acceptable cost.
Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column about international affairs.