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Obscure the tragedy. Deflect the blame. Dehumanize the victims.

<From an open letter to the New York Times>

A disturbing pattern of inaccuracy runs through four recent New York Times
articles on Iraq.  The cumulative effect of these distortions is a) to
obscure the severity of Iraq's humanitarian tragedy, b) to deflect blame for
this disaster from U.S. policies, and c) to diminish the emotional impact of
the tragedy by dehumanizing the victims.

These are serious charges, but shouldn't be taken as blanket condemnation of
the paper nor of the reporters involved.  The Times remains a flagship of
mainstream American journalism, and it continues to report news on this
topic others miss, such as Douglas Jehl's informed report on the UN's
humanitarian coordinator for Iraq (September 20).  

However, given the stature of the Times - and its vast reach through the
syndicated market - it's vital that it cover Iraq fairly and with an
intellectual honesty commensurate with its reputation.  The articles of
concern are:
"Children's Death Rates Rising in Iraqi Lands, Unicef Reports"
     (by Barbara Crossette, August 13, 1999)
"Do More to Aid Nourishment of Very Young, U.N. Tells Iraq" 
     (by Barbara Crossette,  August 24, 1999)
"As Iraqis Starve, U.S. Asserts, Their Leaders Live in Luxury"
     (by Philip Shenon, September 14, 1999)
"Major Nations Report Progress on Pact to Ease Sanctions on Iraq"
     (by Alan Cowell, September 15, 1999)

     (by Barbara Crossette, August 13, 1999)

Background: On August 12, UNICEF released their preliminary report on "Child
and Maternal Mortality" in Iraq, the first large-scale independent survey
since 1991.  The Times' story summarizing the report ran 19 paragraphs and
was widely syndicated.  The distortions in this report are:

The most notable distortion is an omission.  UNICEF - in their press release
and in their report - estimated that 500,000 excess deaths occurred among
Iraqi toddlers and infants since sanctions began[1].   

Yet somehow, the Times chose not to report this number.  Instead, the report
includes a chalkboard full of more obscure and bloodlessly clinical data:
mortality rates.  The figures were valid, though obfuscatory and unscaled
(only the ratios were reported, not the corresponding population estimates).
A question for your staff: Can they define the calculations implicit in
morbidity rates, mortality rates, and fertility rates?  Can your readers?

The report not only hid the extent of the Iraqi disaster; it also masked its
emotional consequences.  The following statement is both offensive and
insidious: "When important foreign visitors go to Baghdad, funerals of
children are staged in the streets." 

What precisely is the point being made here?   How better to mask the
emotional impact of the death of half a million children than by invoking
the "other" and implying their grief is somehow false and not deeply felt.
As commentator Ali Abunimah has noted in another context, the "information
can roughly be paraphrased thus:  'The emotions, feelings and perceptions
these Arabs have are usually not real (unlike 'ours,' which are real), and
so we can discount them. ...   ... If it is just a frenzy, or 'staged' by an
undemocratic government, then (the policies are) okay ... because they do
not really suffer like 'us' .'[2]"

Girded with two undeniable facts (that Saddam Hussein is brutal and that
conditions in UN-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan are better than in the
UN-monitored, Saddam-controlled south), the Times allows the State
Department's James Rubin an unchallenged assertion: Saddam has manipulated
conditions, causing depredation to force an end to sanctions.

Unfortunately, the full story is not this simple -- nor as comforting to the
American conscience.  Sanctions are simply *not* the same in the north and
south.  In releasing the report, UNICEF's executive director, Ms. Carol
Bellamy, explained the differences in Iraqi mortality rates as follows: the
Kurdish north has been receiving humanitarian assistance for longer than the
remainder of Iraq, agriculture in the north is better, evading sanctions is
easier (the northern borders being far more porous)[3]; in addition, the
north receives 22% more per capita from the Oil for Food program than the
center/south, and the north gets about 10% of all UN-controlled assistance
in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities.[4]

The Times should have carried the explanatory comments of the agency
authoring the report.

The article notes "... with oil sales blocked, (Saddam) chose to spend what
money was available on lavish palaces and construction projects."  In
addition to using a loaded code phrase ("lavish palaces" is favored by State
Department publicists), this statement is historically inaccurate.  

In the years before oil-for-food, it's important to remember that the Iraqi
government was distributing food to its civilian population. The rationing
system that began in September 1990 was described by the FAO in 1995 as
follows: "... The food basket supplied through the rationing system is a
life-saving nutritional benefit which also represents a very substantial
income subsidy to Iraqi households ... "

Therefore - even in these early years - the claim that Saddam diverted all
funds to personal use is simply not true.  And of course, since the
implementation of oil-for-food, Saddam has absolutely no control over the
program's monies.  

Saddam's palaces (and, yes, they do provide an obscene contrast with the
country's impoverishment) are likely financed by smuggling and black market
operations; ironically, but not unexpectedly, these have flourished under
the embargo.

The article states "... Iraq appears to be warehousing medicines ..." in a
context that implies malicious intent, stockpiling and diversion.  This is

The warehousing of medicines is heavily monitored by the UN and is
acknowledged by local UN administration and staff to be caused by logistical
problems stemming from 9 years of sanctions and lingering Gulf War damage.  

Periodic UN reports[5] on the humanitarian programs in Iraq list many
technical issues that complicate providing medicine to a country of 22
million people.  Obstacles to efficient distribution include[6]: low wages
of Iraqi warehouses workers, insufficient transport, and the poor condition
of Iraqi warehouses in the provinces hinders distribution of medical
supplies. A lack of cash in the hands of Iraqi authorities also makes it
difficult to insure shipments will be paid for and therefore go through. The
Iraqi government has to overcome numerous obstacles put up by the sanctions
to even find suppliers of medicines. In addition, the Iraqi government did
not do a good job finding the right-sized companies to distribute medicine.
In addition, the UN Security Council has delayed for months approving the
distribution contracts.  The UN Security Council has not approved the
refrigerator trucks required to transport the medicine nor the computers
necessary to run the inventory system.  Inefficiencies in the Iraqi Ministry
of Health also hurt efforts to distribute medicines.

     (by Barbara Crossette,  August 24, 1999)

Background: On August 23, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan released his
latest report on the Iraqi oil-for-food program.  The press-watch group FAIR
has exhaustively criticized the Times' coverage of this report.  See

     (by Philip Shenon, September 14, 1999)

Background: On September 13, the U.S. State Department began a publicity
offensive to argue that Saddam Hussein remained repressive and dangerous,
and that he alone was responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people
under sanctions.  The opening salvo was a State Department report and a
briefing by spokesman James Rubin and Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk[7].  

To their credit, the State Department's report - while grossly misleading in
its analysis and self-serving in its conclusions - was (generally) factually
accurate.  However, the Times' coverage of this event was error-riddled,
containing charges beyond even those made by the State Department.  

The article states, "And billions of dollars made available to Iraq to buy
food and medicine under the program have gone unspent."  

This statement is simply untrue, and the State Department did not make this

The article states Iraq has "stockpiled" food and medicine -- a loaded term,
as it implies government hoarding and diversion.  For this reason, the word
"stockpiled" was assiduously avoided by the State Department in both their
briefing and report.  

The UN *has* reported significant quantities of warehoused medicines in Iraq
(see above discussion), but this is laid to logistical problems - not to
hoarding.  Further, the State Department's report correctly notes this
warehousing occurs for medicines, only - not for food (as the Times
incorrectly states).

As background, the article claims "UNSCOM was thrown out of Iraq".  This is
untrue.  UNSCOM head Richard Butler withdrew the inspectors just prior to
Desert Fox at a time when cooperation with UNSCOM was on hold amid spy
charges, later proven true.

     (by Alan Cowell, September 15, 1999)

Background: In an effort to break the stalemate on Iraq, the five permanent
members of the Security Council held a pre-session meeting in London.  The
Times' report on this meeting has been criticized for its bias by
commentator Ali Abunimah; see his report at


In summary, an epic disaster has occurred for which U.S. policies share
blame; however, the scope, cause, and emotional impact of this tragedy have
been obscured by the New York Times.

This story won't remain hidden and it won't go away.  There are tens of
thousands of concerned, informed readers of your paper (armed with,
literally, hundreds of web sites[8]) who are increasingly aware of the
failures in your paper's coverage.  And unlike the old days, the Internet
now makes the original sources available to us all.

Please do a better job covering this story.


Drew Hamre 
Golden Valley, MN 


[1] For the UNICEF estimate (500,000 excess deaths of children under five),
see (paragraph 4, beginning "Ms.
Bellamy ..."), and also ("A note on
estimation of under-five deaths").

[2] See

[3] Reported by the Associated Press, August 12, 1999

[4] Communication with Professor Richard Garfield of Columbia University.
Garfield is an epidemiologist who studies the health effects of sanctions,
and this information was in an unpublished letter to editor of the Times.

[5] The UN's Office of the Iraq Program issues reports quarterly and in
response to specific events.  See

[6] Refer to the transcripts of conversations with the current and former UN
Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq, available at

[7] The State Department's report and briefing transcript are available
> Report:
> Transcript: 

[8] See, for example, the web directory at 

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