Report shows malnutrition persists among young Iraqis


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- One in four Iraqi children suffers from chronic malnutrition, as poor security and poverty take their toll on the youngest generation, health and aid workers said yesterday.

The situation is worse in remote rural areas, where as many as one in three children suffers from problems associated with poor diet such as stunted growth and low weight, according to a recent government report that surveyed 22,050 households in 98 districts around the nation.

"This can irreversibly hamper the young child's optimal mental and cognitive development, not just their physical development," said Roger Wright, the special representative in Iraq for the U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, which provided support for the interagency report.

The study shows that Iraq's food-rationing program has not been able to meet many families' needs. Iraq's instability is the main culprit, health experts said, disrupting food distribution networks, along with lack of sanitation and clean water.

Iraq's lean days began long before the 2003 invasion. Food was in short supply in many parts of the country as early as the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein diverted billions of dollars to fund the war with Iran. And after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.N. sanctions had a deadly effect on many communities.

But the government survey found that although malnourishment rates are lower than during Hussein's time, the problem is growing. The study reported that 9 percent of Iraqi children were "acutely malnourished," even though enough food was being produced at the national level. The food shortages were generally caused by "a failure to ensure access to sufficient food at the household level," the report said.

Aid workers say that filling the breach would be simple if Iraq's security situation were better. After the bombing of Baghdad's U.N. compound in 2003 and the kidnapping and videotaped execution a year later of Margaret Hassan, the local director of CARE International, many nongovernmental organizations left Iraq to set up operations in neighboring countries.

Only a few international aid organizations continue to have a formal presence in Iraq.

"Our programs are very low-key," said David Singh, a UNICEF spokesman. "In certain areas, it's impossible to get assistance to children because of the security situation."

Still, pediatrician and parliament member Dr. Jinan Jassim Ubaidi said that however high malnourishment rates are now, they were worse under Hussein.

"I was the director of the Child and Maternal Mortality Center in Najaf in 1998, and the mortality rates were unbelievable," she said.

Violence continued to torment the country yesterday. The headless corpse of an Iranian pilgrim was discovered near a cemetery in Najaf, sending a chill through the holy city's booming spiritual tourism industry.

In Baghdad, Sheik Khalil Jabir, a prominent Sunni Arab cleric from Basra, a predominantly Shiite port city in the south, was assassinated along with his son.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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