BAGHDAD, Iraq — Tahseen rested his frail young frame on an ancient handcart in the wicked heat of the Shorja Market here one recent afternoon. He paused for a moment to explain why his parents forced him into a growing street army of children--one of the many living symbols of Iraq's looming economic disaster.
Tahseen's father is a driver, his brother a soldier. But in the hyper-inflation of sanctions-bound Iraq, their combined income simply could not keep pace with prices that have soared 50-fold in just three years and pushed their middle-class family of five to the brink of starvation.
So, at age 13, Tahseen dropped out of school and became a coolie at the downtown market. For two years, he has jockeyed with scores of other Iraqi children, sweating and struggling through the market's narrow lanes, pushing loads of hundreds of pounds of food that only a tiny percentage of the super-rich here can afford.
He earns a daily wage of about 75 dinars, almost double the salary of a well-educated Iraqi civil servant these days. Yet Tahseen's food intake remains just above starvation level.
"Sure, I wish I could go back to school," Tahseen said, shrugging and wiping the dirty sweat from his face with the back of a blistered hand. "Maybe next year."
Tahseen represents an alarming national trend toward child labor and malnutrition, just two of several indicators in recent U.N. reports that conclude that today's Iraq--still home to the second-largest oil reserves in the world--is on the brink of famine.
The reports liken the majority of Iraq's 19 million people to "the populations in disaster-stricken African countries."
"A grave humanitarian tragedy is unfolding" in Iraq, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared in its yet-unpublished Iraqi crop and food assessment, completed six weeks ago.
The report, obtained by The Times, "confirms a substantial deterioration in the food supply situation in all parts of the country." It stressed "the prevalence of the commonly recognized pre-famine indicators, such as exorbitant prices, collapse of private incomes, soaring unemployment, drastically reduced food intake, large-scale depletion of personal assets, high morbidity levels, escalating crime rates and rapidly increasing numbers of destitute people."
While Iraq clearly is suffering the effects of international trade sanctions, imposed three years ago last week by the United Nations to punish Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, it has also labored under the harsh, inflation-fueling edicts imposed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to ensure his regime's survival.
But the U.N. food organization blamed the emerging human nightmare in Iraq squarely on the trade sanctions, "which have virtually paralyzed the whole economy and generated persistent deprivation, chronic hunger, endemic undernutrition, massive unemployment and widespread human suffering."
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund also criticized the sanctions. In a July report, UNICEF stated that the continuing U.N. ban on Iraqi oil exports has left Hussein's government and people without the resources to import food and medicine; both are technically permitted under the sanctions.
The result: skyrocketing typhoid, measles, infant mortality, malnutrition and primary-school dropout rates, as well as widespread child labor and deepening psychological disorders.
Despite both alarming reports, the U.N. Security Council last month brushed aside Iraq's appeal for an easing of the sanctions, voting to extend the embargo for at least two more months. Led by the United States, the council decided that the sanctions still serve as a useful tool to force the Iraqi regime to comply with the array of U.N. resolutions it signed to end the Persian Gulf War, in which a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait after seven months of brutal occupation.
"To understand this apparent contradiction is to understand the bureaucracy of the U.N.," one U.N. official said. "The U.N. agencies like UNICEF and FAO are tasked only to look at and report the facts on the ground. They may well see famine coming, but it's up to the Security Council to weigh the political considerations."
The Security Council is trying to force Hussein's sometimes defiant regime to accept long-term U.N. monitoring to prevent him from resurrecting programs to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and to force his formal endorsement of a new border agreement with Kuwait.
Without the sanctions, the United States has argued, the United Nations will have little leverage over Iraq. Several U.N. officials also stressed that the Iraqi regime has pursued a reconstruction policy that has contributed to economic disaster.
It has, for example, rebuilt every bridge in Baghdad and every highway in the countryside. Using vast stockpiles of spare parts, the regime also reconstructed dozens of factories in its military-industrial complex.