The Grim Recent History of Iraq


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 because they say we recklessly embarked on an invasion of Iraq that killed 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 their methodology and facts have been questioned by independent experts.

We know that in the first Gulf War 293 American military personnel were killed (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, about 56,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed. In the immediate post-war period, including a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq, she said, 30,000 civilians and 5,000 soldiers died.

The fighting in the first Gulf War halted with a February 1991 cease-fire. Through the the end of 1991, Daponte went on to report, 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,” she told the Voice Monday, “was far more severe than the mortality impact from the direct effects of war. Is that what we are going to see with wars now? Maybe.”

Daponte’s earlier assessment of casualties, when she was working for the U.S. Census Bureau, had been controversial, in part because she had contradicted then Pentagon boss Dick Cheney. He had declared at the end of the war, “We have no way of knowing precisely how many casualties occurred” and added 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, estimates in a recently completed report that there were from about 345,000 to 530,000 excess deaths of children under five between 1990, when the UN sanctions were put in place, through 2002. That comes down to about 100 kids a day dying due to the Gulf War and the sanctions. His figures do not include the recent war. Garfield is soon to depart for 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 U.S. war in the Persian Gulf. “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 still 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 American invasion is unknown. Experts point out it is just too early to tell. The availability of electricity will be key in determining what happens. “Everything hinges on it,” says 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, soon became all-important. It generated $27 billion for humanitarian purposes. It provided the financial equivalent of 50 cents a 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, relatively little—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 largely from Garfield’s recent studies and supplemented by other sources:

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 was transformed from small subsistence farming to large-scale agribusiness operations. Mass agriculture of this sort requires heavy use of energy in the form of electricity and oil and gas.

The 1991 war crippled the electric power system, reducing generating capacity from around 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 war, most of Iraq’s urban pumping stations were putting out drinkable water. After the war, the system crashed, with broken pipes causing leaks that resulted in losing half the water they transported. The equipment had been stolen. But again after Oil for Food,the water system improved with new equipment and all new pipes being 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 activities of the public health system—such as prescriptions, surgeries, lab tests, and hospital visits—were cut in half by the war.

Before 1990 there had been 148 ambulances in the country. In 1996 there were but four in Baghdad. The number of diarrhea episodes in children below five quadrupled from 1991 to 1996. Garfield reports that “informal estimates suggest that 70 percent of child deaths in the mid-1990s were due to preventable diarrheal or respiratory diseases.”

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 be a tough couple of years,” said Colin 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 economies weak, neither the U.S. nor Britain will be inclined to do much of anything, and in the U.S. emphasis will shift from Iraq to the domestic economy and the presidential election.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine

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