Are 1 Million Children Dying in Iraq?

In his videotape broadcast, Osama Bin Laden said, “A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt.” What’s he talking about? Are 1 million Iraqi children dying?

The origin of the oft-cited numbers on Iraqi child mortality is an August 1999 United Nations Children Emergency Fund survey, which showed that Iraqi children under the age of 5 were dying at more than twice the rate they had been 10 years before. In a press release, UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said that if the reductions in child mortality in Iraq in the 1980s had continued into the 1990s, a half million fewer children would have died from 1991 to 1998.

UNICEF’s data on Iraqi child mortality rates haven’t been disputed. The numbers: From 1984 to 1989, 56 children under the age of 5 died for every 1,000 live births. From 1994 to 1999, there were 131 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Why did more children die? Specifically, mostly malnutrition, the lack of clean water, and a shortage of medicine. More generally, UNICEF says, war, U.N. sanctions, economic collapse, and the Iraqi government share blame. Epidemiologists agree that per-capita income is the single most important factor affecting child mortality rates. (A World Bank study released in the wake of the terrorist attacks estimated that the reduction in economic growth–and the concomitant increase in poverty, childhood disease, and malnutrition–after Sept. 11 could cause 20,000 to 40,000 children to die worldwide next year.) But other factors are nearly as important, particularly education, especially among women. Poor countries with high education levels often have lower child mortality rates because their citizens know, for example, when to boil water, or when to go to the hospital, or when to use medicine. UNICEF also believes that an Iraqi government-sponsored campaign to encourage breastfeeding would save many children’s lives.

More controversial than the increase in the child mortality rate is how many children actually died as result of the increase. (That’s because the child mortality rate is discovered by surveying a random sample of households. An actual census of how many Iraqi children there are is more difficult to undertake.) UNICEF says the number is 500,000. But even using conservative estimates, Iraq has had about 350,000 excess deaths among children under the age of five since 1991.

Whose fault is it? Iraq has long blamed the U.N. sanctions regime, and the U.S. State Department has long blamed Saddam Hussein. In a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted there was a “human tragedy” occurring in Iraq. But Albright accused Hussein of building 48 presidential palaces since the Gulf War, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Albright also said that Iraq wanted to import goods such as “Italian marble, videos, perfume, leather jackets,” and not food and medicine.

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it,” Albright said. “It is a moral question, but the moral question is even a larger one. Don’t we owe to the American people and to the American military and to the other countries in the region that this man not be a threat?” Albright added that her “first responsibility is to make sure that United States forces do not have to go and refight the Gulf War.”

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Explainer thanks Richard Garfield ofColumbiaUniversityand Liza Barrie of UNICEF.