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A Policy Aimed At Saddam Helps Kill Iraqi Children
by Mindy Cameron
 

Last week, two United Nations officials responsible for getting food to Iraqi citizens quit in frustration over U.N. policy in Iraq.

Their resignations follow similar action two years ago by the previous director of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

All three quit for the same reasons: a humanitarian disaster fostered by a failed policy of economic sanctions, and unwillingness of U.S. leadership to do anything about it.

For years, opponents of the sanctions were dismissed as fringe leftists, a collection of well-meaning, passionate, but politically naive activists.

Finally, they are being heard. The anti-sanction movement may be on the verge of entering the political mainstream.

It's time.

I'm in the mainstream, and like most Americans, I've shut out much of the news about Iraq.

Sure, it was too bad that evil guy, Saddam Hussein, was still around. And gosh, I did cringe at those reports about malnourished children and rising child death rates. But that was Saddam's fault, wasn't it?

Gradually, my inattention gave way to interest.

Rarely have I been so relentlessly lobbied on an issue. Last month, after the latest - and gentlest - bombardment of letters and pleas, I said yes to meeting with a delegation from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

Their stories are compelling; the facts are convincing.

Gerri Haynes, Evan Kanter and Jonis Davis are among the growing numbers of doctors, nurses and peace activists who have visited Iraq since the Gulf War ended in 1991 and sanctions were imposed.

Each of them was in Iraq last year. I asked them why they went.

Haynes, a Children's Hospital nurse, is a pediatric hospice consultant and grief counselor. She is the mother of six, has four grandchildren and three more are on the way.

"Children are the focus of my life," she said. In Iraq she saw the grim toll on kids of a policy aimed at one man. Meanwhile, the target - Saddam Hussein - was unscathed.

Kanter is a psychiatrist who specializes in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders and teaches at the University of Washington medical school.

In Iraq he saw physical and psychic evidence of a policy that dehumanizes and kills slowly, taking out the poorest and weakest.

For Davis, the trip was part of her job. She is on the staff of the Quaker pacifist organization, AFSC, founded in 1917 to "prevent war and alleviate its effects."

Together and separately, Haynes, Kanter and Davis are on a mission to inform Americans and change a policy that has failed in its original intent - to bring down Saddam Hussein - and is now widely seen as causing a humanitarian catastrophe.

Each echoed the same thought: "The more you know, the more unthinkable it becomes."

A decade ago, Iraq had one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world; children were among the healthiest in the region. Then came the Gulf War, which destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, and economic sanctions that severely limited recovery.

In the '90s, education spending plummeted, the drop-out rate skyrocketed.

The death rate among children under five has doubled. A variety of international humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, estimate that 5,000 children die each month of preventable diseases such as diarrhea and dehydration. Nearly a third of surviving children are malnourished and face physical and mental challenges if they survive to adulthood.

Finally, Congress is paying attention. Seventy members have signed a letter urging President Clinton to "de-link economic sanctions from the military sanctions currently in place against Iraq."

A recent signature was that of Rep. Jim McDermott, Seattle Democrat.

Opposition from elsewhere on the political spectrum comes from Scott Ritter, the controversial former U.S. Marine captain who fought in the Gulf War and later led the U.N. disarmament team in Iraq. A supporter of John McCain, he's no anti-war protester or soft-hearted humanitarian.

Ritter believes anti-sanction arguments have been easily ignored because of their embrace by the left, including "radical elements." In a recent interview published on iviews.com, a Web site about issues of importance to Muslims, Ritter said opponents too often are careless with facts.

"The facts are irreconcilable," Ritter said. "What America's doing with Iraq today is criminal . . . a violation of international law." But because Saddam has been so demonized by American politicians and media, it's political suicide for a politician to oppose sanctions.

McDermott agrees, and is not optimistic that anything will change. "It's time to get off the neck of the Iraqi people, but I don't see a way out of it," he said last week. As long as any change in policy is dependent on the departure of Saddam Hussein, national leadership is stuck.

Stuck, unless more of us start to pay attention and speak up.

Opposing current sanction policy is no sop to the brutal Saddam, though sanction supporters try to paint it that way.

One way out is to follow last month's recommendation by Human Rights Watch, which called for establishment of an international criminal tribunal to try Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There are other paths out of this mess. The problem is not figuring out what to do, but finding the will to do it.

Last month, Gerri Haynes asked me the question that lingers:

Someday, when the world knows what went on in Iraq after the Gulf War, they will say to Americans, "Where were you guys?"

###

Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company

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