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Iraq: Misery and hardship: the darker side of UN sanctions

Children are dying as doctors find it impossible to buy drugs to cure them

Robert Fisk in Baghdad, THE INDEPENDENT 02/25/1998

Not long before Christmas last year, UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday - the bearded and balding Irishman who heads the UN's oil- for-food programme in Iraq - paid a visit to four small Iraqi children suffering from leukaemia in the Saddam Hussein City Hospital.

"The doctors told me they couldn't get the drugs to treat them and I got involved with them," Mr Halliday says in his cramped Baghdad office, the walls hanging with cheap Arab rugs. "With a World Health Organisation colleague, I managed to get the drugs they required - some from Jordan, one from northern Iraq, which means it was probably smuggled in from Turkey. Then I dropped in on Christmas Eve to see the children in their ward. Two were already dead. You know, the doctors who look after these children are incredible characters - you can imagine the effect on them of not having what they need to heal their patients."

Mr Halliday is palpably torn by his task of distributing food and medicine to 23 million Iraqis, all of whom are being punished and some of whom are being left to die in appalling hospital conditions because of Iraq's refusal to submit to full UN arms inspections. At the same time as he was seeking drugs for the leukaemia children, Halliday wrote an impassioned letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, complaining that what the UN was doing in Iraq was causing untold suffering to innocent people.

"I wrote that what we were doing was undermining the moral credibility of the UN," he says. "I found myself in a moral dilemma. It seemed to me that what we were doing was in contradiction to the human rights provision in the UN's own charter." It was Halliday's idea to permit Iraq to export more oil - to increase it from US $2bn every six months to $4bn. "I started selling the idea to the Russian, Chinese and French ambassadors here and they were quick to take it up and convey it to their capitals. The fact that this was accomplished makes my conscience a bit easier."

But Iraq, whose UN sales are strictly monitored - 30 per cent goes to compensate individuals, companies and countries which suffered from Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait - has not been allowed to use its oil income to repair or maintain the decrepit and war-damaged machinery in its oil fields. Allowed to export more oil - it might have been permitted to sell more than $5bn every six months - it is deprived of the means of doing so. When Mr Halliday accompanied Mr Annan to see the Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan at the weekend, Mr Ramadan complained bitterly that he had no spare parts to increase the oil flow.

Now a commission of experts is to enter Iraq to see how much it will cost to restore Iraq's pumping and refining facilities. But a far more terrible fate awaits the Iraqi people. With its electrical power stations producing less than 40 per cent of capacity, water and sanitation systems are on the point of breakdown. Hospitals in Basra are filthy, their doctors forced to re-use rubber gloves during operations, their wards without air conditioning or clean water. Without electrical pumps, water is falling in the pipes and sewage is being sucked into the vacuum. To restore full electrical current will cost a further minimum $6bn.

"The government here used to encourage the use of infant formula, and infant formula with contaminated water is a real killer," Mr Halliday says. "In the south, water and sanitation have broken down. Some of the damage was done by American bombing [in 1991], probably other damage during the Iran-Iraq war. The reason the Iraqis were slow to move on the oil- for-food programme [it was almost two years before Iraq agreed to the system] is because they see this as a national humiliation. They're being given handouts, and it's their own money."

Mr Halliday is a Dublin-born Quaker who worked in Kenya and Iran before joining the UN's bureaucracy in New York; and he is a man who has no great trust in the sanctions which he is helping to impose. "I think the international community has got to find some alternative to sanctions," he says. "... we need to find a way of separating the leadership from the people. One way is to stop arms sales. If there could really be control on sales of arms, there could really be controls."

Most of the rejected Iraqi industrial requests are turned down by the UN because of possible dual purpose use. "The Iraqi director general of railways was telling me the other day that he ordered some spare parts for his diesel locos in 1988 and paid 4 million French francs for them. Because of the sanctions, he hasn't got them yet. It's a typical dual purpose problem - trains can be used to transport soldiers." Area electric power generators in Iraq are desperately in deed of turbine parts, each of which has to be custom-manufactured. The UN has been delaying supplies.

But Mr Halliday worries more about the long-term future of Iraqis, those who survive the UN's punishing sanctions. "There are men and women now in their 20s and 30s and 40s who have known little more than the Iran- Iraq war, the Gulf war and the sanctions. They see themselves as surrounded by unfriendly people, and a very unsympathetic America and Britain. They are out of touch ... They have no access to Western television. And these are the people who are going to have to run this country in the future. They are feeling alienated and very Iraqi-introverted. Their next-door neighbours are going to have a tough time dealing with these people."

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