Facts and Shivers

Much of the world already views the United States as a dangerous global bully. Some even see us as war criminals in violation of the Geneva Conventions. They say we committed an act of aggression, invading Iraq and killing civilians, many of them children.

But the actual effect of two wars and a 12-year regime of sanctions on the 26 million people who live in Iraq is hard to gauge. Both the United Nations and Saddam Hussein's government have published high estimates of civilian deaths.

But independent experts question the methodology and accuracy of these numbers. We know that in the first Gulf War, 293 American military personnel died (our allies lost 50 more people). Beth Osborne Daponte, a respected demographer, estimated in 1993 that 3,500 civilians died during the Gulf War fighting. In addition, coalition forces killed about 56,000 Iraqi soldiers. In the immediate post-war period, including a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq, she said, 30,000 civilians and another 5,000 soldiers died.

Though sanctions and sporadic American and British bombing runs would continue right up until the second Gulf War, the first Gulf War halted with a February 1991 cease-fire. Through the end of 1991, Daponte reported, health problems caused by the war led to 111,000 more deaths, of which 70,000 were kids under 15. "I found that the mortality impact from the indirect effects of war was far more severe than the mortality impact from the direct effects of war," she said. "Is that what we are going to see with wars now? Maybe."

When she was working for the U.S. Census Bureau, Daponte's earlier assessment of casualties had been controversial. This was, in part, because she had contradicted then-Pentagon boss Dick Cheney. He declared at the end of the war, "We have no way of knowing precisely how many casualties occurred," adding that we "may never know." Even though Daponte's work was widely judged to be the most reliable on the subject, rumors flew in official Washington that her days were numbered. Indeed, Daponte recalls, she was threatened with a sacking, but after she brought in a team of attorneys, the department retracted its threat. Instead, the Census Bureau put out its own whitewash, replete with lower figures. "They weren't giving me work," she said. "That's no way to start a career." So she left, going to work at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Richard Garfield, a Columbia University nursing professor whose work is also highly regarded, recently estimated that 345,000 to 530,000 excess deaths of children under five occurred between 1990, when the UN sanctions began, and 2002. That comes down to about 100 kids per day dying due to the Gulf War and the sanctions. His figures do not include the recent war. Garfield will soon head to Iraq, where he will work on retooling the country's educational system.

In Daponte's view, "high-quality data has not yet become available" for the second Persian Gulf War. "Much planning is to be done," she said, but there are no estimates at this point. What makes the task especially difficult, she added, is the possibility that "you might see precise bombing of targets, minimizing the direct effects of war, but [not] see the impact on the civilian population of the indirect effects of war."

The number of children who already have died or will die because of the recent American invasion is unknown. Experts say it's too early to tell. The availability of electricity will be key in determining what happens.

"Everything hinges on it," said Colin Rowat, a lecturer in economics at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain and an Iraq expert. "Food and medicine cannot be properly preserved without electricity. Things go off in the course of a day in the summer. It really is a very hot environment."

The UN sanctions imposed in 1990 made life rough in Iraq because, from then until 1996, the country could not sell oil to generate income. There was no foreign investment. With oil the only big business, income fell dramatically.

The UN's Oil for Food program, which began in 1996, generated $27 billion for humanitarian purposes. It provided the financial equivalent of 50 cents per day for every Iraqi. The money might have been much higher, but the U.S. extracted reparations for the 1991 war and now has $200 billion in outstanding claims. (Of Iraq's debt, just 5 percent is owed to private business, and companies currently are scrapping claims in hopes of getting into business dealings in Iraq.)

Below is a bare-bones breakdown—drawn from Garfield's recent studies and supplemented by other sources—of the state of Iraq before the recent invasion and what it needs to maintain existence:

Electricity. Electric power pumps irrigation water to farmland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, pumps sewage, and brings clean drinking water to cities and towns. Under Saddam and with U.S. help, agriculture transformed from small subsistence farming to large-scale agribusiness operations. This set-up requires a lot of power.

The 1991 war crippled the electric power system, reducing generating capacity from 5 gigawatts to 1.8 gigawatts, according to a report in Middle East Economic Survey. But by clever patching and rigging of equipment, Iraqi technicians got the power grid up and running, and by 1994, the system's capacity was 3.6 gigawatts.

Water.Before the 1991 war, most of Iraq's urban pumping stations were putting out drinkable water. After that war, the system crashed. Much of the pumping equipment was stolen. But again after Oil for Food, the water system improved with new equipment and pipes laid in Baghdad.

Food and Nutrition. Relative affluence allowed many Iraqis to eat well from the 1960s through the 1980s. In 1991, war led to an immediate drop in food supplies. About one-third of the country's children under the age of five were malnourished by the mid-1990s. However, food production soon increased, leading to a surplus that lowered prices by as much as 40 percent. Chicken had come to provide a key source of protein; chicken production began to rise, leading to a decline in prices.

Public Health. The 1991 war cut in half the activities of the public-health system—such as prescriptions, surgeries, lab tests and hospital visits.

Before the war, there were 148 ambulances in the country. In 1996, there were just four in Baghdad. The number of diarrhea episodes in children under five quadrupled from 1991 to 1996. "Informal estimates suggest that 70 percent of child deaths in the mid-1990s were due to preventable diarrheal or respiratory diseases," Garfield said.

Education. Before the first Gulf War, virtually all children went to grammar school. But after the war, attendance fell, teaching quality declined and the number of pupils graduating from grammar school dropped. As a consequence, the literacy rate declined.

"It's going to a tough couple of years," said Rowat. "I don't think there's going to be a real Marshall Plan because Iraq is seen as a rich country, relative to countries in Africa."

With their weak economies, neither the U.S. nor Britain will be inclined to do much. In the U.S., emphasis is expected to shift from Iraq to the domestic economy and the 2004 presidential election.

Additional reporting by Phoebe St. John and Joanna Khenkine.

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