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Old 05-23-2003, 05:31 AM
thedrifter thedrifter is offline
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Cool Blood of Innocents

Blood of Innocents
Doctors say Hussein, not UN sanctions, caused children's deaths

By Matthew McAllester
Staff Correspondent

May 23, 2003

Baghdad -- Throughout the 13 years of UN sanctions on Iraq that were ended Thursday, Iraqi doctors told the world that the sanctions were the sole cause for the rocketing mortality rate among Iraqi children.

"It is one of the results of the embargo," Dr. Ghassam Rashid Al-Baya told Newsday on May 9, 2001, at Baghdad's Ibn Al-Baladi hospital, just after a dehydrated baby named Ali Hussein died on his treatment table. "This is a crime on Iraq."

It was a scene repeated in hundreds of newspaper articles by reporters required to be escorted by minders from Saddam Hussein's Ministry of Information.

Now free to speak, the doctors at two Baghdad hospitals, including Ibn Al-Baladi, tell a very different story. Along with parents of dead children, they said in interviews this week that Hussein turned the children's deaths into propaganda, notably by forcing hospitals to save babies' corpses to have them publicly paraded.

All the evidence indicates that the spike in children's deaths was tragically real -- roughly, a doubling of the mortality rate during the 1990s, according to humanitarian organizations. But the reason has been fiercely argued, and the new accounts by Iraqi doctors and parents will alter the debate.

Under the sanctions regime, "We had the ability to get all the drugs we needed," said Ibn Al-Baladi's chief resident, Dr. Hussein Shihab. "Instead of that, Saddam Hussein spent all the money on his military force and put all the fault on the USA. Yes, of course the sanctions hurt -- but not too much, because we are a rich country and we have the ability to get everything we can by money. But instead, he spent it on his palaces."

The U.S. government and others long have blamed Hussein's spending habits for the poor health of Iraqis and their children. For years, the Iraqi government, some Western officials and a vocal anti-sanctions movement said UN restrictions on Iraqi imports and exports were at fault.

"Saddam Hussein, he's the murderer, not the UN," said Dr. Azhar Abdul Khadem, a resident at the Al-Alwiya maternity hospital in Baghdad.

Doctors said they were forced to refrigerate dead babies in hospital morgues until authorities were ready to gather the little corpses for monthly parades in coffins on the roofs of taxis for the benefit of Iraqi state television and visiting journalists. The parents were ordered to wail with grief -- no matter how many weeks had passed since their babies had died -- and to shout to the cameras that the sanctions had killed their children, the doctors said. Afterward, the parents would be rewarded with food or money.

The propaganda campaign was organized by the ministries of health and information and by the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the mukhabarat, according to the doctors and a former agent in another of Iraq's security agencies, the General Security Service.

"The mukhabarat would go all over Iraq gathering the dead bodies, put them in coffins, make a whole line, put them on top of taxis and make big propaganda out of it," said the former agent, who asked that only his first name, Walid, be published.

With many friends and relatives in the mukhabarat, Walid has detailed knowledge of its workings. "They would bring the women from the Baath Party and make them stand in the street and start screaming and yelling. They would make a big scene out of it. The truth is that there are people suffering and dying from the embargo, but the mukhabarat were taking advantage of it and making a bigger story out of it."

The government minders who accompanied the journalists and translated for them were employed by the mukhabarat, said Dr. Amer Abdel Al-Jalil, Shihab's deputy. Their presence at interviews added to the intimidation of already terrified doctors, he said.

"I am one of the doctors who was forced to tell something wrong -- that these children died from the fault of the UN," Shihab said, sitting in his hospital's staff room with his deputy, another doctor and one of the hospital's administrators. As recently as just before the start of the war, he said, he had told visiting journalists and peace activists that the sanctions were to blame for the high death rate among infants at his hospital.

"But I am afraid if I tell the true thing ... " Shihab paused and laughed with a mixture of relief and shame. Using the present tense in English to describe the pre-war past, he continued: "They will kill me. Me and my family and my uncle and my aunt -- everyone."

The two doctors interviewed by Newsday in 2001 no longer work at the hospital and could not be located.

Before Shihab came to Ibn Al-Baladi 10 months ago, he worked at the Al-Alwiya hospital, where he went through the refrigeration ritual. He cannot remember how often he participated.

"These babies were dying, and we kept them in the refrigerator and collected them monthly," he said. Recounting the story, he alternated between nervousness and resignation in a way that suggested he was caught between impulses to tell the truth and to avoid admitting conduct unbecoming a doctor.

"We gave the families food and milk so that we can make them do this -- the movies with them crying, making it the fault of the UN for the dying of their babies." After each demonstration, the parents of the dead children "came to us to get what we had offered them. Sometimes it was money, sometimes milk, sometimes food."

The last baby parade involving Ibn Al-Baladi was in 2001, said Kamal Khadoum, an administrator at the hospital since 1983. He said he did not know why the practice was stopped.

The authorities would take 20 to 30 babies from the hospital each time, he said, adding that he did not know how many in total would be gathered for what he and the others usually referred to as "the taxi parade."

"I felt I was doing wrong, but I was so afraid not to follow orders," Khadoum said.

The refrigerators have been replaced by a more modern morgue. Khadoum opened the old ones on Wednesday afternoon and stared at them quietly.

What troubles him most, he said, was not being allowed to release the children's bodies to Muslim parents who wanted to follow the Islamic practice of burying the dead as soon as possible. In the hospital's neighborhood, a religiously observant, Shiite Muslim district long called Saddam City, bereaved parents took the policy hard.

"Some of the families tried to take their children by force, so sometimes we needed to call the police to persuade them to keep them here for the parade," Khadoum said. "They went crazy."

Now that Iraqi health-care workers can speak openly about Hussein's exploitation of their youngest patients, the courageous words of one doctor, who took his life in his hands to speak in hushed English out of the hearing of the government minder in another Baghdad hospital in May 2001, can be seen as a majority viewpoint.

"The people can't say what they really feel," the doctor mumbled two years ago. "It's the political regime that's the problem. Of course they blame the government."
Copyright ? 2003, Newsday, Inc.


SSgt. Roger A.
One Proud Marine
Once A Marine............Always A Marine.............
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