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A tragic anniversary of Iraq’s children

In this season of political theater, the Gulf War is turning out to be everyone’s favorite script for military posturing.

The Clinton administration is using it to show its muscle and military resolve, proclaiming Saddam Hussein an “emperor in a weak, dispirited country … a captive in his own country” on the 10th anniversary of the invasion that led to the war ordered up by former President George Bush to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

For Clinton, a president who needed to show his military worthiness, Iraq has been a perfect prop. Clinton was able to coattail on the elder Bush’s military adventure, order up his own bombing sorties and make his claims to quelling tyranny abroad.

The Republicans at their convention in Philadelphia, of course, are virtually swimming in Gulf War “heroes” and legend.

Offstage everywhere are the real victims of the war, the children that continue to die in inordinate numbers because of the long and continuing assault on Iraq.

The Gulf War, spoken about in the past tense from the political stage, has never actually ended. For this month also marks the 10th anniversary of the imposition of the grinding sanctions -- the most comprehensive economic sanctions in history -- against the population of Iraq. The sanctions and the bombings -- conducted on an average of every fourth day -- continue. That reality is but one element offered up on the altar of sacrifice to a great American fiction. It is part of a wider pattern that shows to what degree we have become a Teflon culture, inoculated, it would seem, against recognizing the sheer brutality of some of our actions.

In Philadelphia, the Gulf War connections crisscrossed the convention proceedings. Vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney earned his national reputation when, as defense secretary for the elder Bush, he was credited, along with retired Gen. Colin Powell, for having masterminded the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Powell himself, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was leadoff speaker at the convention. Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm fame was beamed in from the deck of a nearby ship for a big-screen appearance.

The dying children in Iraq will not poke through the ceremonies in the convention hall.

Nor will their cries penetrate the Democrats’ proceedings in Los Angeles in mid-August.

The Democrats, after all, claim Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Back in 1996, when Albright was still U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, she was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes”: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima … is the price worth it?”

Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

The figures were off a bit in 1996. It was not until 1999 that the United Nations, in a detailed report, estimated that 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 had died as a result of the U.S./U.N. sanctions. And they continue dying -- reportedly as many as 4,000 per month.

Those figure are made all the more bitter by the fact that infant mortality in Iraq had dropped substantially in the decade before the Gulf War.

Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, remains a threat. The sanctions have done little to affect his power. He may now be isolated, but it is pertinent to recall that the United States supported his brutal regime during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s and that the Bush administration itself approved the sale of biological and chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, under license of the commerce department, until about six months before the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War.

The conventions will paint the U.S.-Iraq saga in far simpler and stark terms. But the only clear matter at this point is that we are complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent children. It is a cruel act, and it must stop.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000