Counting the dead children

Critics blast U.S. sanctions that kill Iraqi babies, but leave Saddam fat and happy.


Jeff Stein
January 16, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

"Well, I'm unemployed," Denis Halliday quips.

"But I am busy," he adds, and he brightens as he lists the places he's going and all the people he's talking to. None of them are American officials.

Halliday, a tall, proper Irishman, is not given to self-pity, or to public expressions of sentiment of any kind. But there is an edge in his voice today. Not because he's been without a job since last August, when he resigned in protest as the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. And not because he's a pariah among American officials. It's because another 200 or so children died of malnutrition in Iraq today. And the day before. And the day before that. And tomorrow, with their stick arms and drooping heads, crying until they fall asleep and die, eyes open.

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Somewhere between 300,000 and a half-million Iraqi children have expired from the effects of the U.S.-led sanctions that were imposed on Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991, Halliday says. Of course, Saddam and his pals are eating just fine. He's stamped out his opposition like a cigarette, and even after the latest spasm of U.S. cruise missiles in December, the mustachioed strongman in the black beret seems plump and happy as ever.

Which is dawning on the American people, who enjoy a display of military might as much as the next country -- but only so long as it works. The evidence coming in is that it didn't. And meanwhile, the news is slowly seeping out of Iraq that children are dying in huge numbers thanks to the sanctions, which have been as useless as last month's cruise missile attack in challenging Iraqi leadership.

This is not something the Clinton administration, threatened with eviction by the Senate, wants to hear. Or, so far, that the American media generally want to write about. The growing chorus of boos has focused on the military and strategic failures of the Iraq campaign, the toothless bombing and the CIA's bumbling efforts to dislodge Saddam. When sanctions come up, the discussion is usually businesslike, as if the issue had merely to do with sales of farm machinery and fertilizer. It is seldom mentioned that the sanctions are killing 200 children a day -- children who bear no responsibility for Saddam's misdeeds.

"A high percentage of the deaths are of infants less than 1 year old," Halliday says. "There are a number of reasons for it. The health of the Iraqi mother is, generally speaking, greatly depleted after the eight years of sanctions. They're not breast feeding, they're using formula. The formula is mixed with water that is no longer potable and extremely dangerous."

As the conversation continues, Halliday's voice thickens. After a while, it takes on the steel of an Irish street fighter. He spent a year in Iraq watching children die, until last October, when he'd had enough. He emits a caustic cough, clears his throat. "You know, the coalition forces did a good job. They destroyed the sewage and water system throughout the country. So you've now got raw sewage in the water, in the street. It's a total disaster. It was tremendously effective bombing, but it's killing a lot of kids, because the water is carrying typhoid and other communicable diseases that are hard to deal with, and which kill infants very quickly."

Facts like these discomfort people. It's one thing to kill civilians as collateral damage, as an unfortunate side effect of taking down a megalomaniac like Saddam. It's another thing to countenance a policy in which all the damage is collateral, none of it apparently hitting its intended target. Saddam and his cronies have brushed off the American-led sanctions like a swarm of flies over their broiled mutton. It's the children who are dying, hundreds of thousands of them, mostly infants, almost all under 5 years of age; 259,000 people in all, Halliday figures, since the embargo began in 1991. The World Health Organization and UNICEF say the figure may be much higher -- a half-million or more dead since 1991.

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Halliday came to Washington last week, virtually invisible as he passed through the throngs of reporters and camera crews jostling over the capital's impeachment circus. He received no coverage from the capital media, merely an interview with a television station out of Qatar, and a session on C-SPAN with the Arab-American Antidiscrimination Committee. The Washington Post published a feature piece on Halliday in December. National Public Radio has had him on "six or seven times," he says. Otherwise, his message has slipped through the radar. "The New York Times has been pretty cautious," he notes, cautiously.

When Halliday quit the Iraq job last summer, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., invited him to Washington and later produced a letter to President Clinton signed by 42 congressmen that criticized the sanctions. That's as much political muscle as he could raise.

"I think impeachment has derailed a lot of further work on this," Halliday said, with understatement.

While Washington obsesses over impeachment, however, things move forward -- or backward, as may be the case -- in Iraq.

In the wake of December's bombing, the West is faced with the worst of all alternatives -- sanctions but no inspections, says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. Albright thinks Iraq is closer to building a nuclear bomb now than it was in 1991. What Saddam needs is the fissionable material from Russia, he says, "which is in an economic collapse, plus they're pissed off at us," Albright says. Unemployed Russian scientists, in other words, might be in a mood to sell it. And without inspectors on the ground in Iraq, "Saddam could build a bomb and we'd never know about it. Given a choice between no inspectors or no sanctions, Albright said, "I'd choose no sanctions."

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Meanwhile, a food fight broke out last week among U.N. chief Kofi Annan, U.N. inspection chief Richard Butler, the White House and the CIA, over revelations that the U.S. placed spies and listening devices in Iraq under United Nations cover. Wags noted the news was as shocking as the discovery of gambling at Rick's Cafe. For the moment, however, the spy caper served only to hand Saddam a propaganda victory and a pretext for keeping the inspectors out.

Large cracks have been opening in what for years has been near unanimity over Iraq strategy, however. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., took the unprecedented step of hammering Clinton on the December bombing even as American warplanes were in the air over Baghdad. Right-wing columnist Pat Buchanan, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, has slammed the sanctions as immoral. Friday, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a Chicago-based group called Voices in the Wilderness will kick off a march from the Pentagon to U.N. headquarters in New York, hoping to draw attention to the punishing effect of the sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. The group has been fined $160,000 by the Treasury Department for shipping medicine and toys to Iraq.

Keeping a stiff upper lip, the White House insisted it had Saddam "in a box" last week, and began comparing its strategy against Iraq to the 40-year-long Cold War policy of containment against Moscow, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That, however, was a political and military strategy. The West abandoned its economic embargo of Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

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"Washington has so successfully demonized Saddam Hussein -- and, you know, he may deserve it, I'm not questioning that -- but they've demonized the entire Iraqi population," Halliday argues. "And the American people can't identify with the Iraqis as people like themselves, with families, with kids, with gardens and cars. So they're dying? Nobody cares. When Madeleine Albright can go on '60 Minutes' and justify 5,000 [children dying] a month, which is what she did, that is quite revolting."

The isolation of Iraq -- the closing of its borders and prohibitions against its students studying abroad -- may have even more insidious ramifications for the West, Halliday argues. He raises the specter of Iraq turning into another Afghanistan, a country cannibalizing itself in a religious hysteria, by closing its borders and prohibiting its students to travel to the West. Already, he says, there are signs that militant youth are pushing Saddam into more aggressive confrontations with the United States.

"We are isolating an entire generation or two, we're isolating and alienating these people," Halliday says. "We're in danger of creating a sort of Taliban, and for the future that's got to be very dangerous."

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For the moment, though, he is most haunted by the picture of starving children.

"Malnutrition leads to stunting, both physical and mental stunting, which is a frightening thought," Halliday says, "because it means we are hurting or destroying an entire generation of kids who are someday going to run this country. And believe me, that's something to think about. We think it's bad now."

Halliday tolerates a journalist's quizzing him on the methodology behind his morbid numbers, and why there is a gap between his own figures and UNICEF's higher estimate. He is patient, to a point, but he grows weary.

"If it's 200,000 or 500,000 really doesn't matter," he says. "It's still a criminal activity. It's illegal, it's inappropriate, it's disgusting."

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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