The fate of Iraq lies in the balance. US Republican Hawks are seeking to launch a further massive attack against the people of Iraq. It won’t happen if politicians sense sufficient public opposition – journalists play a key role in influencing that public opinion.

In an Observer article, John Sweeney describes “Saddam’s efforts to portray… children as victims of Western sanctions, which he claims have cost hundreds of thousands of young lives.” (Sweeney, ‘How Saddam ‘staged’ fake baby funerals’, The Observer, June 23, 2002)

Media Lens will recognise this classic mainstream tendency to misattribute arguments from earlier Media Alerts. Nick Cohen, also of The Observer, wrote:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there).” (‘Blair’s just a Bush baby’, The Observer, March 10, 2002)

These, as we pointed out, were not Chomsky and Pilger’s “claims” at all.

The BBC’s Ben Brown said:

“He [Saddam] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens to near starvation – pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and despairing mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which he’ll now have to give up.” (Ben Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)

ITN’s John Draper said:

“The idea now is targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions to help ordinary people while at the same time preventing the Iraqi leader from blaming the West for the hardships they’re suffering.” (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20, 2001)

One way of dismissing damning evidence of Western responsibility for mass death is to trace the origins of that evidence to an utterly incredible source, such as Saddam Hussein.

Sweeney employs this same smear tactic repeatedly, for example in his sub-title:

“The Iraqi dictator says his country’s children are dying in their thousands because of the West’s embargoes. John Sweeney, in a TV documentary to be shown tonight, says the figures are bogus”.

Further into the article, Sweeney repeats the claim, while managing to hint at the truth:

“It is an absolute of the government of Iraq – and others – that thousands of Iraqi children are dying every month because of sanctions”.

The mysterious phrase “and others” in fact refers to the individuals and organisations that are the reason Sweeney and other mainstream journalists are addressing the issue at all – it is quite obvious that no one would feel any need to refute claims made by the Iraqi dictator. Since he became an official enemy of the West, no Western media entity has ever reported Saddam’s claims with anything other than derision, and no rational person would dream of taking seriously claims made by him on these issues.

Sweeney manages to cite just one of the missing sources of credible argument and evidence when he refers to Unicef:

“In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet.”

Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN’s oil for food programme in Iraq, has this to say of Sweeney’s piece:

“Sweeney’s article is exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian, double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important figures. Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data analysis exactly because they did not want to politicize their work… This article is a very serious misrepresentation.” (Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002)

Reverting back to the deceptive idea that Saddam is at the heart of accusations of mass death in Iraq, Sweeney continues with one truly stunning misinterpretation of what is being argued by, in fact, the UN and human rights organisations:

“The dead babies are blamed by Saddam’s regime on cancer and birth defects which first appeared in 1991 and were, it says, caused by depleted uranium.”

Remarkably, Sweeney – having returned to ignoring serious sources and focusing on Saddam – is here claiming that the 500,000 excess child deaths are attributed to “cancer and birth defects”. Anyone who knows anything about the tragedy in Iraq knows that this is absurd.

The argument, in fact, is that sanctions have prevented the free flow of food and medicines, and that they have prevented the reconstruction of the huge quantities of Iraqi infrastructure destroyed by US bombing during the Gulf War – the water, sewerage, power-generation, transport, health care, agriculture and communication systems that are vital for the prevention of disease, the preservation of life, and for the basic functioning of society.

Curiously, in his BBC2 Correspondent programme on the same day, ‘The Mother of all Ironies’, Sweeney contradicted his Observer article, coming closer to the truth by questioning how lack of resources (not cancer) could be responsible for ongoing mass deaths. Sweeney said of the UN’s oil for food programme:

“The strong man’s [Saddam’s] sums don’t add up. Billions from oil are going into the economy, but the child mortality figures haven’t changed… So how can 7,000 children be dying every month in the midst of all this milk and honey?” (Sweeney, ‘The Mother of all Ironies’, Correspondent, BBC2, June 23, 2002)

Again, these are, conveniently, “the strong man’s sums”, not those of credible Western human rights organisations. Remarkably, Sweeney sought answers to his question from someone called Barham Salah, described as Prime Minister, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who said:

“The oil for food programme is a good programme, it must continue. It is the best thing that has happened to Iraq since the foundation of the Iraqi state. By the way, not only for the Kurdish areas but also for the rest of Iraq, because we never had it so good – all Iraqis, not just Kurds.”

Sweeney also sought answers from someone called ‘Ali’, citing a funeral taxi driver!

Why, in his search for answers, did Sweeney not consult Denis Halliday, who actually ran the UN’s oil for food programme, or his successor, Hans von Sponeck, who both resigned from the UN describing Western policy as “genocidal”? Halliday explained the problems with oil for food two years ago:

“Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the ‘oil-for-food’ programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN ‘expenses’, reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13 billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leaves some $190 per head of population per year over 3 years – that is pitifully inadequate.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 2000)

Further clarification is provided by other sources ignored by Sweeney. Eric Hoskins – a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq – reported that the allied Gulf War bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, ‘The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy since 1945’, Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)

The restriction of resources as a result of sanctions has made the large-scale reconstruction of this infrastructure impossible. In March 1999 an expert ‘Humanitarian Panel’ convened by the Security Council concluded the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme could +not+ meet the needs of the Iraqi people, “regardless of the improvements that might be brought about in the implementation of” the relief programme. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness website, March 2002:

The Panel continued:

“Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about – in terms of approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding levels – the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]… Nor was the programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people… Given the present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme.” (ibid)

Their conclusion being that:

“The humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts”.

This clearly sheds real light on the issue, and yet was ignored by Sweeney. Instead, Mr. Salah continued:

“Never in our history we had [sic] our government obliged by international law to spend the revenues of oil on the well-being of Iraqi people, civilian needs of the Iraqi people. In the past oil revenues were being squandered on weapons of mass destruction, on repression and on war.”

No sane person would deny that Saddam Hussein is a murderous dictator, but Mr Salah’s account of Iraqi history is simply false. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Country Report for Iraq, prior to the imposition of sanctions the Iraqi welfare state was “among the most comprehensive and generous in the Arab world”. (Iraq: Country Report 1995-96)

In a December 1999 report the International Committee of the Red Cross noted that “Just a decade ago, Iraq boasted one of the most modern infrastructures and highest standards of living in the Middle East”, with a “modern, complex health care system” and “sophisticated water-treatment and pumping facilities.” (ICRC, ‘Iraq: A Decade of Sanctions’, December 1999)

According to the Centre for Economic and Social Rights:

“Over 90% of the population had access to primary health-care, including laboratory diagnosis and immunisations for childhood diseases such as polio and diphtheria. During the 1970s and 80s, British and Japanese companies built scores of large, modern hospitals throughout Iraq, with advanced technologies for diagnosis, operations and treatment. Secondary and tertiary services, including surgical care and laboratory investigative support, were available to most of the Iraqi population at nominal charges. Iraqi medical and nursing schools emphasised education of women and attracted students from throughout the Middle East. A majority of Iraqi physicians were trained in Europe or the United States, and one-quarter were board-certified specialists.” (UN Sanctioned Suffering, May 1996

Why did Sweeney ignore all of these credible and expert sources and authorities in seeking answers for the causes of continuing mass death in Iraq? Does he seriously believe that Kurdish opposition groups and individuals based in Northern Iraq – with obvious and understandable motives for wanting to paint as grim a picture of the Iraqi regime as possible – are more credible than these independent and objective authorities? If not, why did he seek answers just from them?


Questions can be submitted to John Sweeney: Sweeney will be online at 15:00 today, June 24.

Write to Sweeney at the BBC:

Email: [email protected]

And at the Observer:

Email: [email protected]

Ask John Sweeney why, in seeking answers to the question of mass child deaths in Iraq, he failed to interview recognised and credible sources such as Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Unicef, and a range of human rights groups. Why not seek out these more objective and impartial individuals and organisations, rather than opposition groups involved in an armed struggle with the Iraqi regime? Why did he continuously refer to the mass deaths of children in Iraq as the claims of Saddam, rather than of these credible individuals and agencies?

Copy your letters to the Observer’s editor, Roger Alton.

Email: [email protected]