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The Deaths He Cannot Sanction

Ex-U.N. Worker Details Harm to Iraqi Children

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page E01

NEW YORK, There is no easy way to make this argument as bombs and missiles rain down. No fashionable way to rebut those intent on vengeance against a nation run by the likes of Saddam Hussein.

So Denis Halliday offers only a quick instruction in the mathematics of death, of the pure and deadly efficiency of the United Nations sanctions he helped oversee in Iraq.

Two hundred thirty-nine thousand children 5 years old and under.

That is the latest -- and most conservative -- independent estimate of the number of Iraqi children who have died of malnutrition, wasting and dysentery since sanctions were imposed at the behest of the United States and Great Britain in 1990.

Halliday, a tall and proper Irishman, is by temperament uncomfortable with emotion. But the deaths and suffering -- and he'll hate this word – haunt him.

"We need to talk ugly: We are knowingly killing kids because the United States has an utterly unsophisticated foreign policy," Halliday says. "No matter how bad this bastard Saddam is, how can we justify that?

"And the catastrophe of more bombing will only make matters much worse."

Halliday is an outcast, as close to stateless as an international civil servant can be. He announced his resignation as the U.N.

humanitarian coordinator in Iraq in August, a dramatic move that met with wide media coverage almost everywhere except in the United States. In careful, clinical language, he offered a most compelling narrative of destruction:

The allied bombing in the Persian Gulf War devastated Iraq's infrastructure, systematically destroying power stations and water purification systems. Uranium-tipped armor-piercing shells further contaminated the water supply in the southern part of the country. And the American and British-led decision to clamp U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq compounded the problems.

"No one wants to acknowledge the amount of nonmilitary damage, the destruction of cold food and medicine storage, the power supply," Halliday says. "I went there to administer the largest humanitarian challenge in U.N. history. I didn't realize our level of complicity in the suffering."

According to preliminary numbers in a study conducted by Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist at Columbia University and a specialist on the health effects of the embargo, the death rate for Iraqi children age 5 and under has spiraled up, nearly tripling since sanctions were imposed in 1990. At that time, child deaths in Iraq were on a par with much of the Western world.

"There is almost no documented case of rising mortality for children under 5 years old in the modern world," Garfield says. "When the U.S. hit a bomb shelter in the Gulf War, it admitted a grave mistake and changed its rules . . . yet these sanctions are resulting in about 150 excess child deaths per day."

U.S. officials usually dismiss such talk of American responsibility as so much agitprop. They say that Iraq is a conspirator in its own decline. And they add that the country is now allowed to pump enough oil to stave off the worst suffering. Under the oil-for-food program, Iraq can sell $5.2 billion worth and use some of that money to buy food, medicines and limited medical technology.

That allows Iraq to buy about one-third of the food and medicine it purchased before the war, according to Halliday.

Then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright went on CBS's "60 Minutes" in 1996 and assayed a defense of the toll taken by sanctions.

A reporter stated that some estimates placed child deaths in Iraq at half a million (Halliday uses the same figure), and asked if the price was worth it. "I think this is a very hard choice," she replied, "but the price -- we think is worth it."

More recently, Albright returned to "60 Minutes" as secretary of state and advised reporters that "you can't lay that guilt trip on me. . . . I believe that Saddam Hussein is the one who is responsible for the tragedy of the Iraqi people."

Halliday wades warily into this moral calculus of blame. He is not inclined to defend Saddam Hussein and senior Baath Party officials, and he acknowledges problems in the distribution of food and medicine. And Iraqi officials have, on occasion, insisted on ordering sophisticated medical machinery when wiser people would zero in on basic medicines and foodstuffs. There are a few streets in downtown Baghdad, he concedes, that seem strikingly cosmopolitan, full of well-fed shoppers.

That, however, is but to concede the obvious: In all tragedies, even more so in authoritarian nations, the poorest and most rural suffer worst. What's more to the point, say two other U.N. inspectors who spoke on condition of anonymity, is that even the best-run sanctions program could not deliver enough food and medicine to ameliorate all the suffering.

Halliday seizes on that point, extends it. Let's suppose that sanctions have contributed, through poor nutrition, stunting and dysentery, to but 100,000 deaths. "I've been to hospitals where they have enough heart medicine for two patients and there are 10 who need it. How do you count that? How do you spread it?" He leans across the table toward a visitor. He uses a word he has hitherto danced around.

"These are criminal calculations."

He refused to talk about them at first, the four leukemia kids. It seemed one of those maudlin stories the press favors, Dickensian puff pastry that will only encourage those who favor a more punitive policy to dismiss Halliday as a "damn bunny-hugger."

He relents, finally, and tells of his visit to the Saddam Hussein Medical Center in Baghdad. Once a modern hospital, it's now filled with dust, baking in the heat of an infernal summer. The air conditioning rarely works. He found four children there, three girls and a boy, gravely ill with leukemia.

There was not enough medicine for all of them. So he broke his first rule in Iraq: He searched for medicines on the black market, traveling by car on the hot dusty track to Amman, Jordan.

He describes his next steps in a clipped, weary monotone.

"I walked back into the hospital. . . . We went to the ward, we had picked up some presents for Christmas. We found that two of the children were already dead."

He didn't go to hospitals much after that. He had no solutions. And he "didn't want to be one more foreigner gawking with no answers."

He recounts this in his sun-filled apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. He is 57, with bred-in-the-bone reserve. He was an assistant secretary general at the United Nations. It's considered bad form to publicly rebuke a member nation.

"I used to lecture my staff about such things." He chuckles at himself. "Now I talk a lot about ends justifying means."

The leukemia incident wasn't the only time he bent the rules. Frustrated at the rising death toll in late 1997, worried that the United Nations lacked the will to stand up to the United States, he took the highly unusual step of lobbying France, Russia and China to relax sanctions. And one long night in Baghdad, he typed and retyped an uncharacteristically passionate letter to his boss, Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"I wrote a very nasty letter, probably too nasty," he says. "I said that we were managing a process that was resulting in thousands of deaths. I told him you have to stand up and speak."

The letter fed a growing sense that he needed to leave. But he refused. His staff needed a leader, and enough could be done in the margins of sanctions policy to save thousands of lives.

Since his departure he's traveled a lot -- on his own dime, he says – to New Zealand, Iceland and all over Europe. He was invited even to Great Britain to sit on a government-sponsored panel and criticize that nation's policy toward Iraq. He has refused to return to Iraq, though, even when invited by Saddam Hussein. He doesn't want to appear sympathetic to the regime.

In this country, he's found himself appearing mainly on talk radio shows and college campuses. The establishment press and Congress paid far greater attention to the resignation of a different U.N. official: UNSCOM arms inspector Scott Ritter.

Ritter's narrative of Iraqi deception and the apparent willingness of the Clinton administration to look the other way resonated in a nation that has lived with the unfinished business of Saddam Hussein and Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. Ritter, the war hero, has come to function as sort of a doppelganger, his outsize personality and tougher prescriptions overshadowing Halliday's.

"You can't match Ritter. He's a hero, he's got a great message to sell," Halliday says. "I play as just some jaded U.N. official. I can't match his sex appeal."

The jokes conceal a tension that ran through relations between the humanitarian staff and the arms inspectors in Iraq. The arms inspectors are convinced, based on voluminous documents and intelligence sources, that Iraq still harbors at least the raw stuff of weapons of mass destruction: poison gas, biological weapons, perhaps worse.

It's a history best paid notice: Saddam Hussein has used some of these weapons on his own people.

But Halliday says he found it nearly impossible to get the arms inspectors to work with his staff, and to persuade them to allow some technology into the country, to repair energy and water systems.

"I would drive home through raw sewage, watching children all but bathe in it," Halliday says. "But they wouldn't meet with us. They seemed worried we'd convert their cowboys into bunny-huggers."

His doubts about the UNSCOM mission run deeper. It's a dangerous world, in which companies and nations across the so-called civilized world hawk the most murderous weapons, legally and illegally. To insist on staying inside Iraq until every weapon is destroyed seems a fool's errand, he says.

"The inspectors destroyed tons and tons of arms and that was great," he says. "But they need a timetable."

Nor is getting rid of Saddam Hussein necessarily the answer, he argues. The dictator's son, for one, is far worse, he believes. As are the many thousands of young Iraqis who have no access to Western thought and education, and who increasingly believe that Saddam Hussein is too moderate.

"Beware what you ask for," Halliday says. "Killing Saddam does not necessarily solve anything."

Some American officials argue that there is an exile movement with hooks deep into Iraq, and that a carefully coordinated guerrilla movement could establish power someday.

Weeks after that interview, Halliday called again. He's worried that the United States appears intent on war, he's flying to Washington to hold a few meetings. Hours later, he's in Washington.

The civil servant's reserve is slowly falling away. He confesses he's getting radicalized, that he feels the need to speak more deeply, more passionately. Of late, he's taken to asking American audiences if they could survive on some beans, some rice, a little yogurt and impure water.

"I feel somewhat guilty for abandoning my colleagues in Iraq during this talk of bombing," he said a week ago. "Now I see the American generals talking about possibly 10,000 more Iraqi deaths. This is not a strategy, it's simply to the point of madness.

"One day, we'll all be called to account and clobbered in the history books."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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