Straight Talk From the White House

The bells and whistles on Bush's propaganda machine are ringing and tooting all over the place to make us feel good about the war. First we get to see a free fireworks display as our boys bomb Baghdad night after night. However, we are barely allowed to see the Iraqi TV shots of dead Americans and U.S. POWs because it might make us sick of war.

We have been told time and again that we're going to have a regime change in Iraq, if possible by decapitating Saddam and avoiding wide-scale bloodshed. Just as the war opened, we got to see this Darth Vader rallying his people on TV from a bunker. Next, we are informed President George W. Bush almost killed the guy when our intelligence caught Saddam in a hideout along with his two vicious boys. Bush drops a whopper on them. Oh, boy! Saddam is dead. But just as we start feeling relieved and happy about his demise, there he is on TV again. Not to worry: our supersmart intelligence agents say it's not him. The very fact they're using a double means he must be dead. Thank God! A few hours later, the dead Saddam appears on TV in another pep talk, this time in the midst of battle.

For all his bluster, Bush has spent less than $1 million on humanitarian aid for the people being bombarded in Iraq. In fact, the administration has gone out of its way to delay or outright block aid groups from getting into Iraq. And it has pointedly banned American specialists (like doctors and technicians) from going in.

Instead of allowing these experienced groups to get to work, Bush insists they must go through the military, which in turn won't tell them its plans because they are classified. "We've been asking for more than six months for access," said Sandra Mitchell, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee. Added to the military secrecy is the continuing red tape by U.S. agencies administering export laws that ban anything with a "dual purpose."

"It's a lot of red tape, licenses and review processes," Mitchell said. "There's no way you can coordinate a fast-moving humanitarian response with those kinds of limitations in place." By contrast, the group quickly negotiated the red tape to get into Kashmir over the summer. She said the group has had "high-level discussions" with the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (the U.S. Treasury division that enforces economic and trade sanctions). But, she adds, "we weren't successful. Their response was to point the finger at one another. It was just passing it on, passing it on."

The small amounts of money made available by the U.S. government barely cover logistical costs, said Mitchell. "There's no way there's any funding left to buy resources, shelter, food, medicine, water, sanitation equipment or emergency equipment; $900,000 doesn't get you very far when you're trying to set up an operation," she added.

Rudy von Bernuth, a vice president at Save the Children USA, said the group has received a small planning grant, allowing it to set up a small headquarters in Jordan. But the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control won't approve licenses to allow skilled U.S. citizens to enter the area.

Clean water is essential to any serious aid project in Iraq. Most of the country depends on pumped water from two rivers; Baghdad is dependent on the Tigris.

One in 10 children die in Iraq before the age of five, most because of diarrhea or malnutrition. Until very recently, less than half of Iraq's water and sanitation works have been in operation. The Iraqi pumping system is electrically powered, said Nathaniel Raymond, a spokesperson for the relief group Oxfam America, so if the U.S. and British bomb power stations, the pumps are likely to be knocked out. If that happens, Raymond said, "sewage could flow into the streets, and there may be a wildfire spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery." Like other aid agencies, Oxfam complains that the Office of Foreign Assets Control won't approve licenses to get into Iraq. "Many services don't work because they need working pumps," Paul Sherlock, Oxfam's chief water engineer, reported from Baghdad last year. "Trucked systems aren't working properly because there are no spares, no tires and no batteries. Sewage flows back into people's houses. People put the sewage in open storm drains or just into the street. There are pools of raw sewage in the cities. Whichever way you look at it, it's a public health disaster."

Richard Garfield, a professor of nursing at Columbia University who has been back and forth to Iraq during the past seven years, points out that children are dying in Iraq because of a complex of factors—bad nutrition, infections caused by unsanitary conditions and second-rate medical care. The situation had begun to improve since the Oil for Food program began in 1998, and Iraqi officials have ordered generator machinery and parts. "By January this year," Garfield said, "the pumping situation was considerably improved from the '91 to '97 period. Even if you're not targeting water stations, if you're bombing a lot, water pipes will get broken. . . . Supply and wastewater pipes are dug shallow, so even Iraqi tanks rolling over them will cause leakages."

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