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Journey to the heart of Iraq's darkness

28 May 2002

Cholera was virtually unheard of in Iraq before the Gulf War. Now it is commonplace - as Kiwi observer Tony Maturin found out first-hand.

He visited Iraq with an international delegation of 120 observers earlier this month to witness the effect of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. Three days into the two-week trip he contracted cholera, probably as a result of consuming contaminated water or food.

Mr Maturin was lucky: he could return home to Wellington, where medical care and medicine, clean drinking water and sanitary conditions saw him recover. Thousands of Iraqis are not so fortunate. There were no cases of cholera in Iraq in 1989; last year there were about 20,000 cases - and many thousands of people have died from drinking contaminated water.

Malnutrition and a host of preventable diseases connected with it - such as tuberculosis and polio - have rocketed in Iraq since the Gulf War. In 1989, 7110 children under five died of respiratory infection, diarrhoea, gastro-enteritis and malnutrition; by 1999 that figure had risen to 73,572.

For Mr Maturin - a Quaker and a peace activist - much of the blame for Iraq's shocking standards of public health can be laid at the door of economic sanctions imposed by the West on Saddam Hussein's regime in an effort to make him comply with United Nations weapons inspection programmes.

The United States and other Western allies have insisted that sanctions must remain for as long as Saddam continues to frustrate attempts to check on Iraq's arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The New Zealand Government's policy is to support "smart sanctions" against the political and military elite (such as freezing foreign bank accounts and arresting Iraqi leaders when they travel overseas) rather than the existing wide-ranging sanctions.

For Mr Maturin, though, nothing short of the complete lifting of sanctions will do after a visit that he said had many observers in tears. He recalls a visit to the Saddam Hussein Children's Hospital in Baghdad - "a terrible place" where the lifts did not work, many areas were unlit, and electrical fittings had been stripped to be used elsewhere. Medical supplies and equipment were sparse, and many children were tiny and malformed.

"A child died while we were there, about four or five years old. I heard this piercing scream coming down the corridor, and it was a woman who had just been told that her child had died and she lay down on the bed and fainted.

"It was the usual: malnutrition and gastroenteritis and lack of medicine. The doctor said he saw 10 or 20 or 30 such cases a week and it was the same all over Iraq."

He also visited Basrah Children's Hospital in the south, where conditions were even worse - about 40 per cent of the water was contaminated with sewage, and death rates were higher.

"I saw one little boy who had a brain tumour that caused him to have one eye of gross diameter, and his shoulder was swollen to about four times its natural size because of leukaemia. He had come to the hospital but there was no treatment for him, they could not give him chemotherapy because there was none.

"The doctor said the other children were all the same, and would die in a few months, but they couldn't do anything about it."

The Gulf War destroyed almost all Iraq's vital services: water, sewerage, roads, communications, food supply, electricity, industry, hospitals and schools. Opponents say the effects of sanctions have been just as devastating.

This month the UN Security Council approved a US-sponsored resolution easing sanctions. The resolution will allow in billions of dollars of civilian and humanitarian goods, but still bans "dual use" goods with potential military uses.

The US and its allies argue that the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq is of Saddam's own making, because money made available by the UN is not being spent on food and medicine. At least one drug company has complained that medicines it sent to Iraq under the UN oil-for-food programme were smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market to fund the lavish tastes of Saddam and his supporters.

LAST year British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain wrote that NZ$37 billion was being made available to Iraq by the UN to buy humanitarian goods. That was more than Egypt, Syria or Jordan had to spend in equivalent areas, yet they did not suffer the privations Iraq did: "Could the answer be to do with Saddam's brutal indifference to the condition of his people?"

There is no doubt Saddam's regime is repressive, Mr Maturin admits, but he says Iraq has been demonised by the US and given little credit for tremendous rebuilding in the face of sanctions.

Despite the desperate situation, doctors are making determined efforts to improvise. "The conditions were absolutely terrible and unacceptable, but they were not going to be beaten by it."

A rationing system delivers food containing 1100 calories a day for every person in Iraq - in 1989 daily calorie intake averaged 3400. "The diet is horrendous," says Mr Maturin. "There is no animal protein like eggs or meat in the food baskets, no fruit or vegetables. It's very basic: rice, lentils, cooking oil, tea, sugar, salt and that's about it."

His commitment to pushing for sanctions to be lifted is driven by "a general abhorrence of bullying", he says, adding that he has been heartened by the strength of will of the Iraqis he met. "Everyone in Iraq knows the word `welcome' and we heard it everywhere. Their hopsitality was tremendous. There is a real will to survive."

He is writing a report on his trip for Disarmament Minister Matt Robson, and will also report to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. He is seeking to raise awareness of the plight of the Iraqi people and says New Zealanders would be horrified if they knew how desperate conditions were.

He believes New Zealand should take a stand against sanctions, as it did in the nuclear debate. "The New Zealand Government should stop pussyfooting around and stand up to the UN and say these sanctions are terrible, a disgrace, and they should be lifted."

Weapons inspections, and the threat ofof Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, are not the real issues, he says. "This is all about control of the second largest oil reservoirs in the world and US power."

Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff has said existing sanctions allow Saddam to build palaces while his people starve, and that New Zealand favours targeted sanctions. But these will not help Iraqis, says Mr Maturin.

"While we support the sanctions, we are at least partly responsible for what is happening. Children are dying and we are responsible."

Helen Bain
Published in The Dominion © Wellington Newspapers Limited 2002

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