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The Iraq War and the Health of Children

As we lead our daily lives, it is too difficult for most people to think about what is happening to children in Iraq.  Though we are naturally concerned about the physical and psychological health of our own children, many of whom have been sent to fight and participate in a seemingly endless occupation, we must also be concerned about the direct and indirect consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation on the Iraqi people.

What about the children of Iraq?

Prior to the U.S. invasion of 2003, there had been post-Gulf war economic sanctions implemented against Iraq which, according to the United Nations, led to the death of 500,000 children.  When asked about the number of children’s deaths during a television interview in 1996, Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” One in eight children in Iraq died during that period from malnutrition, disease, and lack of medicine.

With the 2003 invasion, and subsequent occupation and war, conditions for children have only gotten worse.

The mortality rate in Iraq for children under five is now the highest in the world. According to the 2007 State of the World’s Mothers Report by Save the Children, Iraq’s child mortality rate has increased by a staggering 150 percent since 1990. Some 122,000 Iraqi children died in 2005 before reaching their fifth birthday. More than half of these deaths were among newborn babies in the first month of life. The most serious issue is diarrhea from water contamination and lack of sewage facilities. Over 50% of the country’s water supply is currently contaminated because the infrastructure and water purification systems were destroyed during the war. According to an Oxfam Report, the number of Iraqis without access to an adequate water supply has risen from 50 per cent in 2003 to 70 per cent today, while 80 per cent lack effective sanitation.

About 4.2 million Iraqis are now refugees — this includes over 500,000 children. Some two million Iraqis have fled the country and live as refugees mainly in Syria and Jordan. Another two million have been internally displaced partially in response to an escalation of sectarian violence. These internal refugees  constitute the most rapidly growing refugee crisis in the world. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, about 270,000 are considered “recently displaced,” with 80,000 people displaced between the end of 2006 and March, 2007 – about 70% of whom are women and children. The displacement of children fundamentally undermines a sense of safety in the world for the displaced children and for the children of host communities. Many of these children have been exposed to unimaginable levels of violence. Many have lost the main wage earner of the family, contributing to ongoing poverty, instability, and an uncertain future.  Increasing numbers of children resort to begging, selling chewing gum and other attempts to eke out survival, making street children an increasingly visible phenomena in Iraq’s central cities.

Children are orphaned by violence almost daily, and the number of female-headed households is rising as more families lose their primary wage earner in the conflict.  An “orphanage” was discovered last June where 24 children aged 3 to 15 were found in a dark room naked, tied to their beds and severely malnourished; some had mental retardation.

The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of Iraqi children are suffering from psychological problems. In March 2007, The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a  survey conducted by the Iraqi Society of Psychiatrists and the World Health Organization.  Of the 10,000 primary school students in the Shaab section of north Baghdad that were examined, the study found that 70 percent of students were suffering from trauma-related symptoms.  Those numbers appeared so high that the survey was redone, only to come up with similar results.

For some Iraqi doctors, the increase in the number of children traumatized by violence is apparent at the workplace and at home. “I look into the eyes of children whose parents have been killed or are imprisoned every day,” said Dr. Nadal al-Shamri, a pediatrician at the Medical City health complex in Baghdad. “The psychological trauma is so deeply ingrained in some children that they may never lead a normal life.” Al-Shamri said his 7-year-old son suffered an apparent nervous breakdown last year and stopped eating after the slaying of a close friend’s father.  There are training and service shortages. No psychotherapy or crisis centers exist, and Ibn Rushd is the only psychiatric hospital in the capital of 6 million people.

Ending the war and occupation is the overriding priority to end the disaster that has devastated the lives of the children of Iraq. The horrific price that those children have paid has been effectively concealed from the American people. The great Greek dramatist Aechylus famously wrote that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  Never has this been more true than in the Iraq war. But the exposure of the horrific effects of the war on the children of Iraq cuts through deceit, revealing a truth of the barbarity of war known to the rest of the world but never disclosed in the American media.

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