A SENIOR UN official said last night that about half a million children under five had died in Iraq since the imposition of UN sanctions 10 years ago.
Anupama Rao Singh, country director for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said: ``In absolute terms we estimate that perhaps about half a million children under five years of age have died, who ordinarily would not have died had the decline in mortality that was prevalent over the '70s and the '80s continued through the '90s,'' she said.
A UNICEF survey published in August showed the mortality rate among Iraqi children under the age of five had more than doubled in the government-controlled south and centre of Iraq during the sanctions.
Baghdad said the UNICEF survey proved that the sanctions were killing thousands of children every month and called for an immediate end to the embargo.
Iraqi exports of crude oil and products are only allowed under the terms of a UN-authorized oil program, which now permits Baghdad unlimited sales provided that the proceeds go to a UN escrow account and used to buy food, medicine and other urgent needs.
Any other form of foreign trade by Iraq beside the one under the UN-approved deal is prohibited.
Iraq's revenues under the program are expected to reach $18 billion this year if current high prices on international oil markets hold.
Rao Sigh blamed malnutrition for the high mortality rate among children.
``Nutrition was not a public health problem in Iraq in the 80s. It emerged as a major problem in the 90s and it increased steadily till about 1996,'' Singh said.
She said since the start of the UN oil-for-food programme, malnutrition rates among children had stabilised, but death rates remained extremely high.
``One in four children below five suffers from some form of malnutrition or other and most of them are chronically malnourished,'' Rao Singh said.
Sanctions were imposed on Iraq as punishment for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, although the UN has allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies.
Rao Singh said the sanctions also have affected the quality of education, with many children forced to leave schools to hustle a living on the streets.
``There has been a drop in enrolment, an increase in drop- outs ... children working, children in the street all of which, we believe, is going to affect the quality of human resources that Iraq will have in the future,'' she said.
According to Rao Singh, the sanctions have caused massive impoverishment except for a small proportion of the elite. ``The majority of middle class people in Iraq, for instance, now find themselves having to do all sorts of mean and insecure jobs to survive,'' she said.