Media Indifferent as UNICEF Reports Worsening Catastrophe

On February 16, 2003, Tony Blair responded to the biggest protest march in Britain’s history the previous day:

“Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. … But there are also consequences of ‘stop the war’. There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule…” (Blair, ‘The price of my conviction,’ The Observer, February 16, 2003)

Blair was referring to the mass death of children under sanctions reported by the UN, human rights groups and aid agencies. In a Newsnight interview Blair argued, “because of the way he [Saddam] implements those sanctions [they are] actually a pretty brutal policy against the Iraqi people”. (BBC2, Newsnight Special, February 6, 2003)

In the late 1980s – before sanctions were imposed in 1990, and before the 1991 Gulf War – the mortality rate for Iraqi children was about 50 per 1,000 live births. By 1994 the rate had nearly doubled, to just under 90. By 1999, it had increased again to nearly 130 – 13% of Iraqi children were dying before their fifth birthday.

In response to this catastrophe, senior UN diplomats in Iraq resigned in protest. UN humanitarian coordinator, Denis Halliday, for example, resigned describing Western sanctions policy as “genocidal”.

On October 11, a new global report was published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Roger Wright, UNICEF’s representative for Iraq, said:

“Since 1990, Iraq has experienced a bigger increase in under-five mortality rates than any other country in the world and since the war there are several indications that under-five mortality has continued to rise.” (‘Little progress on child mortality,’ Integrated Regional Information Networks, October 11, 2004

UNICEF estimates that some indications showed improvement in Iraqi child mortality between 1999 and 2002 – the death rate dropped to 125 in 2002 (from 130 in 1999). However, this trend has +reversed+ under the occupation and child mortality is actually worsening as compared to 2002 levels. Wright added:

“Since the war more children in Iraq are malnourished, fewer children are protected from immunisable diseases and there has been an increase in the incidence of diarrhoeal disease.” (Email to Media Lens, UNICEF Iraq Information, October 19, 2004)

In other words, the “coalition” is now presiding over levels of Iraqi infant mortality +worse+ than those described by Blair himself as brutal. And this in the context of the “coalition” having spent just $29m of the allotted $18.4bn US tax dollars allocated for Iraq’s reconstruction on water, sanitation, health, roads, bridges, and public safety. (Naomi Klein, ‘Why is war-torn Iraq giving $190,000 to Toys R Us?’, The Guardian, October 16, 2004)

Quoting Iraqi Ministry of Health data, UNICEF reported last month that about three out of 10 children in Iraq are chronically malnourished or stunted. This is a consequence of underlying poverty and the inadequate intake of micronutrients. Acute malnutrition among children has almost doubled since the war began, moving from 4 per cent to 7.7 percent.

On September 3, Iraq’s Ministry of Health and other health professionals reported there was still “a chronic shortage of medicines in the country”. Intissar al-Abadi, chief pharmacist of Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad, told IRIN:

“We had a programme in which cancer and growth hormone drugs were available to patients according to their needs. The ministry used to offer a certain quantity to us every year, so there could be controlled assistance to the patient, but now all that is gone. You cannot imagine what effect the shortage of such drugs has had on patients.” (‘Medicine shortage continues,’ Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 3, 2004,

The first comprehensive study on the condition of schools in post-conflict Iraq shows that one-third of all primary schools in Iraq lack any water supply and almost half are without any sanitation facilities.

All of these horrors are a direct result of the illegal US-UK invasion, of the “coalition’s” incompetence in failing to plan for the occupation, and of the minimal spending on health care and public works. Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times:

“As for the rebuilding of Iraq, forget about it… It’s hard to believe that an administration that won’t rebuild schools here in America will really go to bat for schoolkids in Iraq.” (Herbert, ‘A War Without Reason,’ The New York Times, October 18, 2004)

The list of horrors goes on. Dr Thikra Najim, a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics, reports that the number of cases of cancer in Iraq appears to be rising rapidly, especially for breast cancer. Dr Najim said:

“Now we’re seeing three or four cases every week. I think the number is increasing. This is disastrous. We have to study it.” (‘Iraq: Cancer cases increasing, doctors say,’ Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 29, 2004)

Doctors are now seeing many more cases of cancer in general. About 4,000 patients per year used to be seen at the radiation hospital in Baghdad. Dr Ahmed Abdul Jabhar, deputy director of the hospital, reports that 7,000 patients have been seen so far this year.

A September 21 Iraqi Ministry of Environment report revealed that Iraq is afflicted by widespread radioactive pollution, especially at Tuwaitha nuclear research site, south of Baghdad. Immediately following the US-UK invasion, residents of the area looted containers holding radioactive materials. The radioactive contents were dumped on the ground at the site and the containers used to carry water, milk and other household materials and foodstuffs. The survey reported:

“This site was polluted by looting and destroying research materials. We found a number of containers which had traces of radiation. We also found it in houses and villages nearby.” (‘Radioactive material and pollutants widespread,’ Integrated Regional Information Networks , September 21, 2004,

As the occupying power, the “coalition” is accountable under international law for this looting and lawlessness. Former US Proconsul, Paul Bremer, told a conference of insurance agents that Baghdad was already in chaos by the time he arrived:

The Iraq survey also found depleted uranium in large amounts in southern Iraq, including in Hilla, the port city of Basra, and Karbala and Najaf.

Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Project, who was tasked by the US department of defence with organising the DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War, is himself ill:

“I am like many people in Southern Iraq. I have 5,000 times the recommended level of radiation in my body. The contamination was right throughout Iraq and Kuwait… What we’re seeing now, respiratory problems, kidney problems, cancers, are the direct result of the use of this highly toxic material. The controversy over whether or not it’s the cause is a manufactured one; my own ill-health is testament to that.” (Quoted, Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2002, p.48)

The Media Response

So what kind of response would we expect from our media to the appalling news that an improving trend in child mortality has reversed under the Iraqi occupation, and that our government is presiding over genocidal levels of child deaths?

We recall, after all, that the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote in March 2002:

“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).” (Cohen, ‘Blair’s just a Bush baby’, The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The Sunday Telegraph declared, “it is the neighbourly duty of the West to liberate the Iraqis from their captivity at the hands of Saddam: the war would be just because of the suffering it would end.” (Matthew d’Ancona, ‘The Pope’s disapproval worries Blair more than a million marchers’, Sunday Telegraph, February 23, 2003)

A search using the Lexis-Nexis website shows that the UNICEF report received brief mentions in four British newspapers.

The Financial Times reported matter-of-factly:

“In 11 countries, under-five mortality has risen since 1990, the report notes. They include Cambodia, Iraq, Ivory Coast and four southern African nations – Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe – where Aids has been most rampant.” (Frances Williams, ‘Unicef warns on child mortality targets,’ The Financial Times, October 8, 2004)

That was that! No mention of the tragedy that has befallen Iraq under the British and US occupation. Not a word of comment on the significance of the disaster for the claims that the invasion would relieve the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

In the Guardian, Rory Carroll wrote:

“Unicef said that even… ‘alarmingly slow progress’ had bypassed southern Africa, Iraq and countries of the former Soviet Union… In addition to southern Africa, infants were now more likely to die in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Iraq, Cambodia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” (Rory Carroll, ‘Bucking world trends, Africa’s child death rate is rising,’ The Guardian, October 8, 2004)

Iraq was presented as just another item on a list. Of the fact that Britain invaded Iraq illegally and is therefore morally responsible for the mass death of children, not a word appeared in the paper.

The Independent’s Jeremy Laurance noted of the report:

“It charts the drastic decline in the health of the [Iraqi] population and the catastrophic deterioration in health services during Saddam Hussein’s era, one which has accelerated since the war.”

Again, no attempt was made to highlight the significance of the fact that the decline in health services “has accelerated since the war”.

Laurance continued:

“One third of the health centres and one in eight of the hospitals was looted of furniture, fridges and air conditioners or had equipment destroyed in the immediate aftermath of the war.”

Laurance then reviewed child mortality figures in the 1990s, adding:

“Adult death rates have risen and life expectancy has fallen to below 60 for men and women. Overall, Iraq’s state of health is now rated on a par with the impoverished countries of the Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, where once it was ranked alongside Jordan and Kuwait, the report says.” (Jeremy Laurance, ‘Iraq: the aftermath: Iraq faces soaring toll of deadly disease,’ The Independent, October 13, 2004)

Again, no conclusions were drawn on the moral status of the ‘liberators’ of Iraq.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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