Iraq: The Human Toll

Iraq: The Human Toll

The humanitarian crisis is further evidence of the abysmal failure of US policy.


Living conditions for the people of Iraq, already poor before the war, have deteriorated significantly since the US invasion. This is confirmed in a new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation. Based on a survey of 21,000 households conducted in 2004, the study shows that the Iraqi people are suffering widespread death and war-related injury, high rates of infant and child mortality, chronic malnutrition and illness among children, low rates of life expectancy and significant setbacks with regard to the role of women in society.

Malnutrition among small children in Iraq is widespread. Nearly one-quarter of Iraqi children now suffer chronic malnutrition, and 8 percent suffer acute malnutrition. Illness levels among Iraqi children are also high, which is partly the result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. According to the report, “compared to other countries in the region and to the earlier data from Iraq…the supply of safe and stable water…has deteriorated.” There has also been “a steep deterioration in the sanitary situation.” Forty percent of urban households report sewage in the streets of their neighborhoods.

The UNDP study found that infant and child mortality rates remain high, although there is much uncertainty about the exact numbers. The evidence “indicates a progressive worsening of the situation for children.” High infant mortality rates in Iraq contrast with declining infant mortality rates in neighboring countries. In most of the world, including the surrounding countries, mortality rates for children have steadily fallen over the decades. In Iraq, however, child mortality rates have climbed. This translates into thousands of “excess” infant deaths every year. These are the quiet, unseen victims of the continuing tragedy in Iraq.

The new report sheds light on the total number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to the war. As of mid-2004, according to the survey, the war had caused approximately 24,000 Iraqi deaths. The death toll in Iraq has continued to climb, so these numbers are larger now than when the survey was conducted. At the time of the UNDP survey, the Iraqi Body Count website estimated total deaths at 14,000-16,000. In May of this year the Body Count website estimate stood at 21,000-24,000. This would suggest that the comparable figure for war-related deaths using the UNDP methodology is more than 30,000. Many of the victims in the current war are women and children. The number of children injured since the US invasion is higher than the number of military-age men. The report said that in the ongoing war, it is members of “the civilian population that are most affected.”

There is striking evidence of the insecurity of daily life in Iraq. Gunshots and weapons fire are a common occurrence. When asked about the frequency of weapon shots in their neighborhood, 37 percent of respondents said “every day,” and 23 percent said “several times a week. Public insecurity has especially serious consequences for women. The survey found that nearly half of Iraqi women “think that the security in their area has worsened compared to one year ago.” This has prompted an increasing number of women to stay at home, thus reinforcing a trend over the last decade of declining levels of education and literacy among women. According to the report, “the security situation is a major obstacle to individual freedom in women’s everyday life.”

Years of war and sanctions have devastated Iraqi society and caused widespread malnutrition, illness and premature death. The resulting public health crisis has lowered life expectancy for the entire population. According to the UNDP report, “the probability of dying before the age of 40 for Iraqi children born between 2000 and 2005 is estimated at 18 percent…approximately three times the level in neighboring Jordan and Syria.”

The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is further evidence of the abysmal failure of US policy. The destruction and turmoil sparked by the invasion have led not only to widespread violence and incipient civil war but to widespread civilian suffering, especially among the most vulnerable. A war justified partly on humanitarian grounds has increased humanitarian hardships. During the 1990s a worldwide humanitarian outcry rose in response to stories of Iraqi babies dying because of sanctions. It is time for a new public outcry, to demand a change in US policy and urgently needed humanitarian relief for the Iraqi people.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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