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Counting Iraq's victims

Dead babies always figure heavily in atrocity propaganda, and Osama bin Laden is merely the latest to exploit them. But what is the truth?

David Leigh and James Wilson
Wednesday October 10, 2001
The Guardian


Just as Germans in the first war were said to have tossed Belgian babies on their bayonets, and Iraqis were said during the Gulf war to have thrown Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators, so - according to Osama bin Laden - the Americans have been baby-murdering on a grand scale. He replays this theme repeatedly. Yet the number of "dead babies" varies somewhat.

This week, Bin Laden went out of his way to announce in his obviously pre-prepared videotape: "A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt."

The same accusation was used for self-justification in the US trial of a Bin Laden associate, convicted of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

There had been more than a million deaths in Iraq, the defence claimed this June in New York. The 24-year-old prisoner, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owali, told the FBI he had been prepared to die as a martyr to "wipe away the tears of the mothers whose children have been murdered from American policy".

Three years previously, in February 1998, the text of Bin Laden's fatwa urging jihad against the Americans was published in al-Quds. Bin Laden described "the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and... the huge numbers of those killed, in excess of 1m".

Eighteen months prior to that, his estimate had been slightly more modest. In an interview with Nida'ul Islam magazine in October 1996, Bin Laden was quoted as referring to: "America and Israel killing the weaker men, woman and children in the Muslim world and elsewhere... the death of more than 600,000 Iraqi children because of the shortage of food and medicine... resulted from the boycotts and sanctions against the Muslim Iraqi people."

It seems chillingly clear that, in the training camps and round the campfires, Bin Laden's young Muslims have it dinned into them again and again that the Americans kill babies.

One way of looking at these very deliberate evocations by Bin Laden of dead Iraqi infants is to say that they merely provide confirmatory evidence of a long-standing unholy alliance between Saddam Hussein, the atheistic "Butcher of Baghdad", and Bin Laden, the mad mullah of the Afghan mountains.

This would no doubt be the position of hawks such as former foreign secretary, David Owen, who argued in the Mirror this week that intelligence links between Iraq and Bin Laden's al-Qaida justify second wave action to finally remove Saddam.

But the awkward fact is that it was not Bin Laden who originated these claims of baby-killing in Iraq. It was America's critics in the west.

The film-maker John Pilger has been among the most trenchant. Writing in the Guardian last year he said: "This is a war against the children of Iraq... the most ruthless embargo in modern history. According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, the death rate of children under five is more than 4,000 a month - that is 4,000 more than would have died before sanctions. That is half a million children dead." Bin Laden took Pilger's figure but doubled it.

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But are Pilger and his western colleagues correct? In part the answer is that there were never any dead babies at all. The "dead babies of Iraq" are a statistical construct.

The half-million figure can be traced back to a World Health Organisation report published on March 25 1996: The health conditions of the population in Iraq since the Gulf crisis. The WHO sent a consultant epidemiologist to Iraq in 1995 and, relying on Iraqi figures, said infant death rates had soared by 600% over the four years from 1990 to 1994. The New York-based Centre for Economic and Social Rights then extrapolated, saying: "These mortality rates translate into a figure of over half a million excess child deaths."

And so, on the US 60 Minutes TV programme on May 12, the then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was asked: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And - and you know, is the price worth it?"

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

In July 2000 a more thorough Unicef survey suggested the previous figure was double the truth, ie 250,000 children might have died. But as sanctions had been going on twice as long by then, the statistical totalremained the same.

Unicef said: "If the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in the country as a whole in the eight year period 1991 to 1998."

Saddam blames sanctions, while the US blames Saddam. But however theoretical the figures, and however debatable the reasons, it seems hard to dispute that babies are dying unnecessarily. Last year, Dr Peter Pellett, professor of nutrition at Massachusetts University, who served on three UN food and agriculture missions to Iraq, wrote : "All recent food and nutrition surveys have reported essentially the same story: malnourished children... increased mortality, and a general breakdown in the whole fabric of society".

Bin Laden's propaganda may be exaggerated and one-sided. But he does perhaps have a point.

david.leigh@guardian.co.uk

jamie.wilson@guardian.co.uk



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