Iraqis Already Pay the Price of One 'Weapon' While US Bombs May Soon Drop on Iraq, the Country Buckles under Years of Sanctions

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For many Iraqis, American bombs would be only one more "weapon" bringing tragedy to their lives.

In daily life for seven years, people here in Iraq have paid a very real human cost. Millions lack enough food and medicine. Death rates, especially for children, have risen dramatically.

The "weapon" causing all this is political: UN economic sanctions - or rather, as US officials say, the refusal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to meet UN demands to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. "Sanctions are unbearable, inhuman," says Moyassar Hamdon Sulaiman, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. "They {in the West} speak about 'weapons of mass destruction,' but we call this a 'weapon of mass suffering.'" The suffering of Iraqis, either from sanctions or possibly next week by American firepower, has become part of the diplomatic equation in the tense standoff over UN inspections of suspected weapons sites. Years of sanctions have caused widespread malnutrition and overburdened the health system, Western and Iraqi relief workers say. One-third of Iraqi children under 5 - 960,000 children - are chronically malnourished, the UN says. "Sanctions have turned Iraq into a ruin," says a senior UN official. "The impact has been horrendous." American officials say their top priority is to make the world safe from Saddam's weapons and sanctions, for now, are the best way. The sanctions were never designed to last so long - or to have such a negative human impact. United States-led allies victorious in the 1991 Gulf War believed that the backlash from Iraq's defeat would bring the downfall of Saddam within one or two years. Officially, sanctions are to be lifted when Iraq complies with UN Security Council resolutions to give up weapons of mass destruction. But American officials say Saddam lacks peaceful intentions and the sanctions may have to last as along as he's in power. Washington claims that sanctions are meant to harm the regime, not Iraqi civilians. But the result so far appears to have been exactly the opposite. Critics wonder aloud if the current American threat to launch airstrikes - ostensibly to force Iraq to open up sensitive "presidential sites" to UN inspectors - will again yield contrary results that will hurt Iraqis and strengthen their leaders. In apparent recognition that the UN is not the only one responsible for their plight, for example, hospitals seem to hang few portraits of Saddam Hussein that are ubiquitous everywhere else. Citing reasons of national sovereignty, Iraq agreed only in December 1996 to accept a UN-monitored "oil-for-food" program, which enabled Iraq to sell $2 billion of oil every six months and spend most on food and the health system. …