WASHINGTON — As Iraq this week tries to persuade the United Nations to lift economic sanctions punishing the country, Iraqi leaders are facing a growing public relations dilemma: New indications of lavish spending by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his inner circle undercut their claim that the embargo has brought severe hardship.
The sanctions come up for review at the U.N. on Monday, and they are expected to be renewed because Iraq has not destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction, as required under the cease-fire agreement that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Although the debate will focus on compliance with the weapons requirements, some allies view the suffering caused by the sanctions as a reason to try to ease the embargo.
Eight years after the U.N. imposed the toughest sanctions ever slapped on any nation, Iraq has lost an estimated $115 billion in oil revenue. Iraqi leaders argue that the sanctions are responsible for food shortages, malnutrition and premature deaths.
To be sure, the sanctions have taken an enormous toll on the Iraqi people. Yet Western diplomats and experts on the region say that many other factors are also responsible, including government inefficiency, domestic repression, ethnic discrimination--and spending by Hussein on such comforts as new presidential palaces, which envoys were given access to for the first time this month.
Inside the compounds, envoys found palaces featuring imported marble, posh furnishings and elaborate landscaping--all paid for during the period the sanctions have been in effect.
There are other examples as well. When Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz journeyed from Baghdad to New York in November to complain to the U.N. Security Council about the sanctions, he made the last leg from Paris on the world's most luxurious jetliner.
The Air France Concorde offered Aziz and his team of seven aides pampered service, haute cuisine and wines from the cellars of the best French chateaux.
The round-trip fare per head, according to the airline, was $8,453.20.
Clearly, diplomats and observers say, Hussein and his inner circle have escaped the most punishing restrictions.
Yet in the battle to influence world public opinion, they have exploited the hardships of ordinary citizens who have felt the squeeze.
For example, about the same time that Aziz was flying to New York, Iraqi officials in Baghdad escorted U.S. and European journalists through the fly-infested pediatric ward of a hospital, blaming a growing list of malnutrition cases and medical shortages on the sanctions.
In addition, government-organized demonstrators paraded empty children's coffins through the streets to dramatize the death rate among children under age 5, which rose from 7,000 to 57,000 a year between 1989 and 1996, according to statistics Iraq gave to UNICEF.
"Iraq has been utterly brilliant in the way it has played the sanctions card," said a Western diplomat who recently left Iraq. "It has turned punishment into a virtual asset in winning back acceptability and even helping the regime survive."
A top U.N. official who accompanied Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Baghdad in February said that "Iraq is winning the propaganda war."
The next crisis with Iraq may even erupt over the dispute pitting the United States against Russia, China and France over easing the embargo.
For the time being, however, no one disputes the endless imagery of wasted or diseased toddlers.
UNICEF estimates that more than 1 million children under age 5, nearly one-third of the youngsters that age in Iraq, are chronically malnourished. But diplomats and aid workers are raising questions about why these children are in trouble.
Many children in Baghdad hospitals are from Shiite Muslim and Kurdish areas, which have deliberately been deprived of food and medical care by the largely Sunni Muslim government, diplomats say.
In desperation, families use their limited resources to bring ill children to clinics in Baghdad--often too late to save them.
"What Iraq has done in both the [Kurdish] north and [Shiite] south is not just benign neglect," said an envoy with long experience in Iraq. "It's: 'Let us help you die.' And children are often the first to go."
The problems with food are also made worse by deeply ingrained inefficiency, say envoys familiar with Iraq.
"The system was hopelessly inefficient without a war," one diplomat said. "Add a war and the callousness of the regime, and you get dead and dying children."
Last year, Iraq blamed a shortage of infant formula on inadequacies in the U.N. program designed to ease the hardships of sanctions by allowing Baghdad to sell oil to pay for food. Aid officials later discovered that the Iraqi government had simply failed to order enough formula, diplomats said.
Just how Iraq has spent a share of its limited resources was discovered this month by diplomats who escorted U.N. weapons inspectors through eight presidential palaces.
"They were beyond grandiose," one participant said.