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Blame game allows children to die

In publishing the moving account of life in Iraq (see story), we risk appearing to be intent on a relentless telling of a story that already has claimed significant space on our pages.

The ugly reality, however, is that the people of Iraq are being crushed under a relentless assault from forces against which they can mount no defense and from which they have no protection. Few outside Iraq are paying any attention.

In a year when discussion of the moral issues stemming from our involvement in Iraq is almost impossible to find on the political landscape, courageous reporting such as that done by the Hartford (Conn.) Courant reporter/photographer team of Matthew Hay Brown and Brad Clift is reassuring. The most vulnerable victims of the ongoing war in Iraq have not been forgotten.

During the recent campaign season, neither candidate said anything of note about Iraq. Gov. Bush, predictably, repeated the war-making rationale of his father and other Gulf War notables such as Dick Cheney and retired Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

Vice President Al Gore repeated at opportune moments that he was the lone Democrat to jump the party divide and vote for the Gulf War during the senior Bush’s administration.

On at least one occasion, a college student confronted Gov. George W. Bush with a question about the dying children in Iraq and the conclusion of an August 1999 U.N. report that more than 500,000 children under the age of 5 had, to that point, died as a direct result of sanctions maintained at U.S insistence.

Bush responded that Saddam Hussein was the culprit and that U.S. sanctions were not to blame.

That sort of reflexive dismissal of any U.S. culpability in the suffering of the Iraqi people is the kind of sound bite, in the words of Columbia University epidemiologist Richard Garfield, that “may play in Peoria, but doesn’t help fix the situation in Iraq,”

For a decade, the United States has allowed itself to turn from the suffering, blaming the problems on Iraqi leadership. That conclusion, however, ignores the experience of U.N. professionals on the ground in Iraq. Two of them, experienced leaders in the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts throughout the world, resigned their posts in Iraq in protest of the sanctions. That conclusion also ignores the observations of international journalists and the assessments of religious leaders, including the Catholic archbishop of Basra and the papal nuncio to Iraq.

There is more to this wrenching agony than meets the ear in State Department spin or the bravado of a campaign sound bite.

So we keep returning to Iraq in our pages. We are not out to excuse or dismiss the brutality of Saddam Hussein. Nor do we suggest that he is not complicit in the suffering of his own people. The hope is to inject a bit of reality into the somewhat deluded and incomplete picture that emerges in national discussions of the situation in Iraq.

The reality is that we did not win a war; the war has gone on for 10 years in varying degrees of intensity, including regular bombardment.

The war continues in its most insidious form in sanctions maintained at U.S. insistence. One of the most effective weapons of mass destruction, economic sanctions, has been employed without letup against the noncombatant population, against the most vulnerable and defenseless in Iraqi society.

Blaming Saddam Hussein for being the brute that we always knew he was-- even during the years that we armed him in his war against Iran -- does not excuse our descent to his level of behavior. For it was not Saddam Hussein, but the sanctions, especially during the earliest years of the punishment, that caused the greatest degradation to Iraqi society.

A culture that once provided universal health care and education that was among the best in the region, a culture that was widely viewed as the most progressive and secular of the Arab states, did not suddenly deteriorate of its own doing.

A culture is being shattered, half a generation of young Iraqis is being destroyed.

Our politicians may not want to discuss, beyond glib one-liners, the U.S. role in the horrors being visited on the children of Iraq. But that does not diminish our culpability.

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000