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2 August 2000

Sanctions: the children of Iraq are still dying
by Mel Lehman

One of the hardest things Dr Basim Al Abdili has to do is visit the leukemia ward of his hospital in Baghdad. "We know there is a cure rate for leukemia outside Iraq," he says. "Here, our patients die in front of our eyes - we can't do anything for them."

Abdili is chief resident of the Sadaam Training Hospital at Baghdad's Mustansyria University's medical college. This morning he is seeing Ali Haki, an eight-year-old from the Baghdad suburbs with leukemia. In many countries, Ali and his doctors would have at least a fighting chance of defeating his disease. Here in Iraq, he will almost certainly die. The reason? Dr Abdili's hospital has not been able to get the medicines he needs because of the United Nations sanctions against Iraq. (The first resolution regarding sanctions against Iraq was UN Security Council Resolution 661, issued on 6 August 1990.)

This morning, Abdili offers his compassion to young Ali. There is little else he can do. Sadly, he's seen an increasing number of patients like Ali in recent years. "Before the sanctions," he says, "we lost just one patient every 48 hours. Now, after ten years of sanctions, we lose three to four patients daily. The mortality rate has increased six- to eight-fold since the sanctions."

Sanctions were applied against Iraq ten years ago, following its invasion of Kuwait. They are the severest ever directed against any country, but received widespread initial support as a tough but positive alternative to war.

The Gulf War took place anyway in 1991; since then the sanctions have claimed the lives of at least 500,000 children, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) - possibly as many as 1.3 million according to the government of Iraq. For UNICEF, the situation in Iraq now constitutes a "humanitarian crisis".

Effects on society
Beyond the lives lost is a whole society in shambles. Malnutrition, that has stabilized at about 25 percent of children under five, is now recognized as having caused widespread "stunting," or reduced growth, in children. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of street children. Nearly a third of young Iraqis have dropped out of school. Many Iraqis leave their country in search of opportunities elsewhere. And the results of the "oil-for-food programme", in which the sale of Iraqi oil provides funds for humanitarian assistance, have been far from adequate: many people's diets still lack essential nutrients and not enough medicine is available for young people like Ali Haki.

The local Christian communities have also been hurt by the sanctions. A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation that visited Iraq in 1998 reported that "The life and witness of the churches is affected as the basis of their ministry and self-reliance is challenged. The resources available within the constituency have dwindled as the number of Christians decrease because of emigration resulting from economic hardships."

The 1998 WCC report estimated that the Christian presence in Iraq ranged from 2.5% to 5% of the total population, a substantial decrease in recent years as many Iraqi Christians have emigrated to Lebanon and the West.

A call to lift sanctions
As the decade wore on and the terrible toll of disease and death mounted, more and more organizations, including the WCC and the Vatican, called for an end to economic sanctions against Iraq. In a letter to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan earlier this year, WCC general secretary Rev Dr. Konrad Raiser described the situation in Iraq as "gruesome", and said the time was "overdue for the Security Council to lift with immediate effect all sanctions that have direct and indiscriminate effect on the civilian population in Iraq".

Michael Nahhal, who has represented the ecumenical community in Iraq as a relief worker for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) over the past ten years, is also calling for the lifting of the sanctions.

"A whole generation of young people is being deprived of their basic needs, including opportunities to reach their potential as human beings," Nahhal says. "Iraqis are very bitter. The suffering of the people is great. One has to ask: what is the purpose and the aim of the sanctions imposed on Iraq?"

Indeed, many people are now asking whether the sanctions have any point. That they are not significantly affecting the people they were designed to influence - the government of Iraq - and instead are hurting the ordinary people is generally recognized. Predictably, the sanctions have increased resentment towards the UN and the two countries primarily responsible for perpetuating them - the United States and Great Britain. At the same time, as most observers now agree, the sanctions have actually strengthened the government of president Sadaam Hussein.

Humanitarian relief not enough
Such geopolitical analyses hold little interest for Ali Haki and the millions of other Iraqi children whose health and lives are threatened by the continuing sanctions. They just want to live and enjoy life like children everywhere.

Since the Gulf Crisis, churches and church-related agencies have conducted humanitarian relief programmes for the people of Iraq. Michael Nahhal and the MECC have played an important role in linking the outside world with Iraq. Through their efforts, 2000 tons of high-protein food, emergency medicines, 52 tons of milk powder, 7300 medical books and journals, 54,000 hospital sheets, 50,000 hospital blankets, 5000 school kits, 8000 health kits, and many other relief supplies have been distributed on behalf of the global ecumenical community to the people of Iraq.

But, as a WCC report noted in 1998, the churches in Iraq, while appreciating humanitarian assistance from North American and European churches, "want not just charity but also the support and solidarity of Christians around the world".

"What Iraq needs today," Nahhal explains, "is a sincere attitude, and understanding. To achieve this, great efforts should be invested to bring long-lasting peace to an area that has endured a lot of suffering and pain in the last decades. This peace can be achieved only if it is based on respect and understanding."

Mel Lehman lives in New York City and is writing a book about the effects of sanctions on the people of Iraq. He visited Iraq in May-June 2000.

Two photographs are available to accompany this Feature:
1 Michael Nahhal (center) from the MECC with street children who have just received new clothing form the MECC. Christmas 1998.
2 Dr Basim Al Abdili and Ali Haki, an 8-year-old leukaemia victim. Baghdad, 2000.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.