After victory, U.S., allies would shoulder Iraq's woes

Health, economy ravaged by war, sanctions, neglect

October 24, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - If American forces topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq, the United States and its allies will take on responsibility for a population severely weakened by two major wars, suppression of a post-Persian Gulf war uprising, 12 years of United Nations-imposed sanctions and Iraqi government mismanagement.

Over the past decade, Iraq's crippled economy, degraded water and sewer systems, erratic food supplies and poor health care have contributed to widespread poverty, disease and malnutrition, sharply increasing childhood death rates, lowering levels of education and devastating a once-large middle class.

In his speech to the nation Oct. 7, President Bush pledged that if war comes, "the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq at peace with its neighbors."

The form an occupation would take is uncertain and would depend on the amount of unrest in Iraq after a war, which other countries would participate and how strong a role Iraqis would be ready to play in running their country.

But the leading role played by the United States in maintaining harsh sanctions, drummed into the population of 23 million by Hussein's propaganda, probably will make ordinary Iraqis dubious about U.S. intentions.

Iraqis have seen that sanctions "didn't hurt the regime; it hurt the regular Iraqi," said Rahman al-Jebouri, spokesman for the Uprising Committee, an anti-Hussein Iraqi exile group. A U.S. pledge of liberation "is not going to fly on the Iraqi street," he said. "They want to see that it's practical."

The sanctions, on top of the U.S. refusal to back the popular anti-Hussein uprising in 1991, have fed anti-Americanism even among the many Iraqis who want to be rid of Hussein's cruel rule, said Phebe Marr, a historian of Iraq: "People are really unhappy with sanctions and want a return to normalcy."

By most available measures, conditions have improved in Iraq since the United Nations eased sanctions by introducing the oil-for-food program in early 1997, allowing Iraq to sell oil and use some of the proceeds for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

This year, the U.N. Security Council liberalized the sanctions further by allowing the import of all nonmilitary goods.

But U.N. agencies operating in the country still paint a bleak picture. In its latest report, the U.N.'s Office of the Iraq Program notes a "high incidence of waterborne diseases" caused by "the poor state of water and sanitation networks in the country."

Of a half-million children screened, 20 percent were found to be malnourished. Power blackouts continue, food rations remain short of recommended levels of calories and protein, and the country still faces shortages of medicines and vaccines.

Teachers earn $3 to $5 a month; doctors, $20 to $30 a month; and most of the population is dependent on food handouts, said Carel De Rooy, the Baghdad-based representative for UNICEF. Unable to get enough protein, more than half of Iraq's women suffer from iron deficiency, and the result is that one-fourth of babies are born underweight and vulnerable to disease, he said.

"We still are in a humanitarian crisis," De Rooy said.

While a small elite connected to the government lives in luxury, "for the overwhelming majority, life is extremely difficult in Iraq," Ryszard Krystosik, the Polish diplomat who represented U.S. interests in Baghdad until last year, said at a recent conference here.

With its immense oil wealth, Iraq enjoyed relatively high standards of prosperity, health care and education well into the 1980s, when the eight-year Iran-Iraq war began to take its toll on the population, causing rising malnutrition, medicine shortages and the destruction of some health and social facilities.

The Iraqi economy suffered after that war as a result of a sharp drop in oil prices and a cutoff of loans from other rich gulf Arab states that Hussein had used to help finance the war against Iran.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 prompted the Security Council to impose a comprehensive economic embargo intended to block all trade with the Iraqi government, exempting only medicine and humanitarian food aid.

Many thought that the sanctions, by cutting off oil revenue, would prompt Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait or cause his government to crumble.

"It never seems to have occurred to anyone at the time that the regime would simply choose to allow its people to perish," Iraq specialist and former National Security Council official Kenneth M. Pollack wrote in a new book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Iraq was particularly vulnerable to a trade embargo because it had allowed its domestic agricultural sector to deteriorate and by 1990 was importing about 70 percent of its food. Food prices skyrocketed.

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