- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 20 (UPI) — Baghdad still shows traces of a prosperous past. Large avenues, great monuments, 12 bridges spanning the Tigris River, fine buildings, numerous five-star hotels, and mosques with blue-colored mosaic domes testify to its former wealth and beauty. But two destructive wars and a dozen years of economically crippling sanctions have left deep scars, and the Iraqi capital seems to be in the grip of a gradual process of corrosion.

Now Iraqis are bracing themselves for a new U.S.-led war, and one that threatens to be more devastating than the other two.

"We always hope that there will be no war," said Daniel Bellamy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Baghdad.

"But we need to be professional in case of war, which could result in a human and humanitarian catastrophe."

Bellamy told United Press International that Iraqis were able to survive the 1991 Gulf war because "they had more money then." This time facing a war would be more difficult.

According to an UNHRC report, the socio-economic conditions in Iraq have sharply deteriorated because of continued U.N. sanctions. All sectors of health and nutrition, education, water, communication and transportation have been undermined, and vital services are "near collapse."

The report also noted that the capacity of Iraq to provide services to its citizens has dramatically declined since 1991.

Food rations — recently doubled to encourage Iraqis to stockpile the basics — and free access to health and education provided by the government are allowing the Iraqis to survive. For about 10 cents, every member of the family receives rice, sugar, milk, tea, beans and cooking butter.

Iraqi sources calculate that some 60 per cent of the population relies entirely on such a food baskets for subsistence. In the event of a war, food reserves were expected to last for no more than six weeks.

Already, 1 million children under five are chronically undernourished, and 5 million Iraqis lack access to safe water. Electrical power is inconsistent, and power outages are a certainty should hostilities begin.

U.N. officials in New York have recently estimated that up to 10 million people might require food assistance during and in the immediate aftermath of the expected war, while about 2 million would be internally displaced and up to 1.45 million would be either refugees or asylum-seekers.

Bellamy said preparations were under way in neighboring countries to provide shelter for an estimated 600,000 refugees who would be able to flee the country once the U.S.-led attacks start.

He said some $60 million have been allocated to assist those refugees for the first months, but some $154 million more would be needed.

He noted, however, that the UNHRC will not be responsible for those who would be displaced inside Iraq. Chaos, riots and looting are feared once the military operations start, raising deep concern about how to control the mobs.

Another concern was how to provide medical care for tens of thousands of expected casualties from air strikes on Baghdad and other cities. Hospitals are already operating under difficult conditions due to the impact of the U.N. sanctions.

At Saddam's Hospital for Children in Baghdad, a frustrated medical staff struggles to treat the patients.

"I can't describe my feeling while I stand in front of a sick child in pain and I can do nothing to cure him," said Dr. Nawfal Suleiman Daoud. "I only wish to take revenge on those who are doing this to our people."

A pediatric surgeon who joined the hospital in 1992, Daoud told UPI the number of cancer cases among children has been on rise "in an abnormal way" in the past eight years.

"Why? It is because of the chemical weapons the U.S. forces used during the 1991 Gulf War — as many Western experts have confirmed — and because of a shortage in medicines." Daoud says almost all cancer patients come from southern Iraq where water has been proven polluted with chemical materials.

An expert U.S. source, however, said Thursday that chemical weapons were not used by the United States or other coalition forces in the Gulf War. However, there were published reports that Iraqi chemical weapons might have been present when U.S. troops blew up an ammunition dump in southern Iraq immediately after the wear ended, and the soldiers were unaware of it.

Lamia Nahi, a 5-year-old girl from the southern al-Muthanna region, has been diagnosed with acute leukemia.

Next to her was Amal, a 7-month-old baby girl who appeared more like a skeleton. Her heart-broken parents were staring at her helplessly, fighting back their tears. Because of shortages of cancer medications, Amal simply has to wait.

Daoud explained that supplies of medicines largely depended on U.N. approval in line with the 1996 oil-for-food program.

"Many diseases, like leukemia, lymphatic cancer and kidney diseases, could be cured by 90 percent but we always have shortage in medicines," he said.

"That's why, we have patients repeatedly returning to hospital. The only thing we can do for them is to treat them with what's available. In other countries, you can have the medicines you need by a simple phone call."

He sadly noted that the 400-room Saddam Hospital for Children, built in 1986 and equipped with the most advanced equipment, was no longer operating at full capacity because of broken equipment that couldn't be repaired or replaced.

Iraq, which floats on a lake of oil, has all the potential to be a rich and modern country. Instead, it is burdened by huge debts — estimated at more than $100 billion — and the prospect of further suffering and privations.

As a foreign visitor in Baghdad remarked: "The Iraqi people are paying the price at the end."

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