- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

BAGHDAD — The United States aims to cut the death rate of children younger than 5 in half within a year, primarily through far better water supplies, said Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“That’s an objective, not a promise, but we’re confident we will achieve it because we’re dealing here with a major Saddam-imposed scandal,” Mr. Natsios told The Washington Times yesterday.

Surveying the legacy of despair left by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mr. Natsios charged that Iraqi officials under Saddam pumped dirty water into Shi’ite Muslim sections of Baghdad to kill children and create international pressure against international economic sanctions.

Figures obtained by USAID showed that under Saddam around 130 Iraqi children out of every 1,000 died before they reached the age of 5, which was 30 percent more than in India, he said. In neighboring Jordan, 50 out of every 1,000 children die, he said.

Saddam uttered “absolute nonsense” by saying for more than a decade that United Nations’ sanctions caused high death rates among children, presenting pathetic scenes of bedridden boys and girls for the television cameras. In fact, the country’s health and water services had been used as instruments of state control, and should not have been affected by import restrictions, he insisted.

Mr. Natsios said the coalition is involved in a race to avoid serious civil strife.

“We simply cannot withstand temperatures in the country that soar next month … if we do not have a functioning water system,” he said. “It’s a recipe for violence stirred by coalition opponents.”

He pointed out that at those temperatures, well above 100 degrees, chemicals normally used to treat sewage don’t work.

The key to improving the water supply is restoring uninterrupted electricity, he said, calling reliable power the “first priority” of Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer.

Mr. Natsios said the former regime denied clean water to certain parts of the country as a form of punishment or discrimination against the majority Shi’ite Muslim population. That caused severe levels of diarrhea and dysentery, the main causes of Iraqi children’s deaths, he said.

This had been part of an effort by the old regime to keep potentially dissident elements dependent on the regime’s rations and largess, Mr. Natsios said.

“For example, in one village our people visited, the local chief engineer said his people had had to get all its water from the river, although it would have been quite easy to fix the main water supplies. But he said Saddam’s regime had forbidden them to reconnect them,” Mr. Natsios said.

Since the 1991 war that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, most Iraqis lived on basic rations of flour, rice and other staples. These rations were manipulated to reward regime functionaries and punish potential or actual dissidents, he added.

“In one village I visited, 20 percent of the population had had their ration cards removed, while security personnel and other regime functionaries usually had double or triple rations.”

USAID is drawing up lists giving equal rations to all, he said. It is battling the water problem on four fronts: by restoring and radically improving sewage-treatment plants, providing much more regular electricity to power water-treatment plants, providing far better health care and clinics, and providing nutritional supplements.

“None of the country’s 14 sewage plants is presently functioning,” Mr. Natsios said. “Totally untreated sewage is pumped into the rivers,” he said, referring to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Many cities lack potable water, he added.

Mr. Natsios said the United States is progressing in its efforts to prevent popular frustrations about services from turning into sustained violence. The agency’s aid program is “far further advanced” seven weeks after the main conflict ended than any other of its 10 previous emergency-aid programs had been in similar time frames.

One USAID effort involves a contract for ABT Associates Inc. to provide free machinery to the country’s five big cereal-milling factories. This is designed to add micronutrients to cereals, as was done in the United States 50 years ago, he said.

Two annual treatments of vitamin A would have a “profound effect,” he said. Iron tablets once a day could dramatically reduce stillborn births and death rates among pregnant women. He said 50 percent of pregnant women are anemic.

Simple oral rehydration packs containing crucial salts used by development agencies worldwide for the past 25 years were banned by Saddam’s regime, he said.

Other key projects would be to upgrade and add health clinics to help children and pregnant women.

He said that under Saddam’s regime, there was a dearth of such clinics, especially in the Shi’ite-populated south, while lavish resources were spent on some hospitals for the party and elite.

“Change will be dramatic,” Mr. Natsios said.

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