war in iraq


Gauging the Human Toll

From casualties to a possible refugee crisis, new reports suggest a war's health consequences could be devastating

January 26, 2003

By Geoffrey Cowley

Saddam Hussein is clearly a health hazard to his country and the world, but war poses risks of its own. How grave are they? As the Bush team plans for a military assault, outside experts are struggling to assess the likely toll, not just on U.S. troops but on the 26 million people who happen to live in Iraq. The best estimates of deaths, injuries and humanitarian fallout -- contained in new reports from the United Nations, the World Health Organization and independent medical experts -- are by no means definitive. But none of them is attractive.

Body counts are hard to predict, but they would no doubt extend beyond the battlefield. The 1991 gulf war killed an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Iraqi soldiers, along with 3,500 to 15,000 civilians. Studies show that an additional 110,000 civilians -- nearly half of them young children -- died from war-related diseases, food shortages and other hazards in the first year alone.

How would W's war compare? The projected death tolls range from 48,000 up to 260,000 (the high number includes 21,000 deaths from chemical and biological weapons). And once again, civilians are likely to bear most of the brunt. The new reports predict that as bombs destroy Iraq's transportation networks and electricity grids, millions will lose access to basic medicine, adequate food and even potable water. The likely health consequences range from malnutrition and dysentery to deadly outbreaks of measles and meningitis. Experts agree that a U.S. invasion could also trigger a refugee crisis, an economic meltdown and years of civil unrest in Iraq and neighboring countries.

The most chilling of the new reports is not a published monograph but an internal United Nations memo assessing the practical challenges a war will pose for relief agencies. The U.N. document, obtained by The Times of London in December and made public this month by a humanitarian group called CASI, notes that Iraqi civilians are far more vulnerable today than they were during the 1991 gulf war, when most had jobs and basic assets. A decade of economic sanctions has since left 60 percent of the population dependent on food baskets distributed by the Iraqi government, the memo explains. If military combat paralyzes that system, some 3 million mothers and young children will face dire food shortages, and relief workers may not be able to reach them all.

Drawing on data from UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the memo predicts that 7.4 million Iraqis will require some kind of humanitarian assistance in the event of a U.S.-led invasion. More than 5 million will need "food and necessities," and 2 million will "require some assistance with shelter." At the same time, 39 percent of the population will "need to be provided with potable water," the memo predicts -- and 500,000 people may require treatment for injuries. The Bush administration says that its postwar plans include humanitarian relief as well as major efforts to rebuild Iraq's economy and civic institutions. There will certainly be plenty of work to do.

By Geoffrey Cowley Newsweek


war in iraq