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Child Mortality in Iraq since 1990

This paper examines the evidence on child mortality in Iraq, with particular reference to the period 1991-2003. It questions recent work which has suggested that excess mortality in the years that followed the first Gulf war was only relatively modest in scale. An integrated account of child mortality trends is assembled. This indicates that mortality rose sharply in the early 1990s. It is likely that the United Nations Oil for Food Programme had a limited beneficial effect during 1998-2001, but this was lost in 2002 and 2003 with the build-up to war and the subsequent US/UK invasion. The dominant picture is one of greatly elevated mortality between 1991 and 2003, with very many excess child deaths.


Child Mortality in Iraq since 1990

This paper examines the evidence on child mortality in Iraq, with particular reference to the period 1991-2003. It questions recent work which has suggested that excess mortality in the years that followed the first Gulf war was only relatively modest in scale. An integrated account of child mortality trends is assembled. This indicates that mortality rose sharply in the early 1990s. It is likely that the United Nations Oil for Food Programme had a limited beneficial effect during 1998-2001, but this was lost in 2002 and 2003 with the build-up to war and the subsequent US/UK invasion. The dominant picture is one of greatly elevated mortality between 1991 and 2003, with very many excess child deaths.


he number of child deaths that have occurred in Iraq since 1990 because of conflict and economic sanctions is a matter of controversy. Following the first Gulf war in 1991, a group of researchers – known as the International Study Team (IST) – conducted a nationally representative household survey. The results suggested that there had been a very sharp rise in child (i e, under-5) mortality. Indeed, the researchers estimated that between January and August of 1991 there were roughly 46,900 excess deaths compared to what would have happened if the child mortality rate had remained constant at the level indicated for 1985-90 [Ascherio et al 1992]. During the early 1990s reports increased about the extremely difficult living conditions that were being endured by the Iraqi people. It seemed that by any measure – e g, food availability, water supply, waste disposal, healthcare provision, etc – conditions in the country were dire [Garfield 1999]. Yet despite the controversy, no further direct data on mortality that could claim to be fairly reliable and nationally representative were collected until the late 1990s.

Then in 1999 – and in cooperation with the government of Iraq – UNICEF conducted a major national survey focused on child mortality. The survey collected birth histories from a representative sample of adult women. A birth history involves asking a woman to provide detailed information about each of her live births separately (e g, the date of birth, sex of the child, and if dead the date/age at death). An analysis of the birth history data by Ali and colleagues produced annual estimates of child mortality rates [Ali, Blacker and Jones 2003]. It concluded that the under-5 mortality rate (i e, the probability of dying between birth and the fifth birthday) had almost doubled in 1991, and that it had subsequently remained high. Looking at the period 1991-98 as a whole, the authors estimated that there had been between 3,80,000 and 4,80,000 excess deaths. The first figure resulted from the counterfactual assumption that child mortality would otherwise have remained constant at its 1986-90 level; the second resulted from the assumption that mortality would have continued to fall at the rate estimated for 1960-1990.

In fact, there is another direct source of information on child mortality which slightly pre-dates the 1999 UNICEF survey. In 1997 the government of Iraq held a census in 15 of the country’s 18 governorates that remained under its control (three, predominantly Kurdish, northern governorates had become autonomous). The 1997 Census asked women simple questions on the number of children they had ever borne and the number of these children that were still surviving, i e, so-called CEB/CS questions. However, it took several years for the census data to be processed and for the resulting report to be published in Arabic in Iraq. Furthermore, it was not until after the US/UK invasion in 2003 that a copy of the census report was obtained by the US Census Bureau, and subsequently the United Nations. Indeed, the existence of the report only became evident to the wider world through a UN press briefing in 2003 [United Nations 2003]. The briefing gave little information on the census results, and no specific data on child mortality. However, in a New York Times report on the briefing, a US Census Bureau demographer was quoted as saying that “on a preliminary basis it looks like child mortality may not have been quite as high during the mid- to-late 1990s as has been thought” [Barringer 2003].

The 1997 Census CEB/CS data eventually became more generally available in 2005. This occurred in the report of a working group set up in 2004 by the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) established by Kofi Annan to investigate the UN Oil for Food Programme (OFFP) [Working Group 2005]. The working group was concerned with child mortality because the OFFP was intended to improve the circumstances of Iraqi children. The working group also uses CEB/CS data from the 1987 Census. And it refers to – and largely dismisses – birth history data collected by the Iraq Living Conditions Survey (ILCS), a major investigation conducted in 2004. The ILCS – which, of course, was conducted the year after the US/UK invasion – was a nationally representative household survey, financed by UNDP and run jointly by Iraq’s Central Organisation for Statistics and Information Technology, and the Norwegian research institute, FAFO [UNDP 2005a,b,c].

Although the working group says that it cannot conclude anything with much confidence, in arriving at its conclusions it puts substantial weight on the 1997 Census CEB/CS data – which, in the group’s view, suggest that there was only a modest rise in child mortality in the early 1990s amounting to about 10 per cent


[Working Group 2005:53]. The working group concludes that the 1997 Census data make a sharp rise in mortality around 1991

  • such as was indicated by both the IST and UNICEF survey data – “somewhat implausible”. Moreover, in discounting the UNICEF survey results the group raises the possibility that the Iraqi government may have tampered with the survey data so as to produce a false rise in the child death rate [Working Group 2005:136]. Not surprisingly, then, the group concludes that the scale of any excess child mortality was comparatively modest
  • amounting to between 45,000 and 68,000 deaths during 1991-96 [Working Group 2005:50-55]. The first figure results from the counterfactual that child mortality would otherwise have remained constant at a level estimated for the 1980s, and the second from assuming that there would have been a slow decline.
  • With this as background, the purpose of this paper is to assess the level and trend of child mortality in Iraq. The paper also gauges the scale of excess child mortality during 1991-2003. In contrast to the working group, the view taken here is that, all things considered, the IST and UNICEF data are of fair quality, and that they provide a reasonably consistent account of what has occurred. Furthermore, it will be argued that it is unwise to discount the ILCS data. Indeed, if appropriately interpreted, these data can themselves be seen as supportive of the same general account of what has happened. The working group’s interpretation of the 1997 Census data is probably flawed. It is likely that there was a sharp rise in child mortality in 1991. And a high-level of mortality was probably then sustained until at least the end of 2003. A reasonable rough estimate of excess under-5 deaths during 1991-2003 is somewhere between 6,70,000 and 8,80,000.

    A Brief History

    Trends in child mortality must be seen against Iraq’s grim recent history (Table 1). Saddam Hussein became president in 1979. Two years later he launched an invasion of Iran – leading to eight years of war. Saddam Hussein’s regime mixed political repression with efforts to improve social welfare [Marr 2004]. And it seems that, despite the war, the general socio-economic and health conditions of Iraq’s population did not deteriorate. Nevertheless, at the war’s end the country was deep in debt, and this was one factor behind the attack on Kuwait just two years later [Towle 2005:172].

    The invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led immediately to strict economic sanctions on Iraq imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC). Because about 70 per cent of Iraq’s food was imported, the government reacted quickly by instigating a system of household food rationing – the Public Distribution System (PDS). The five months before the start of the first Gulf war was a time of mounting food shortages, increasing prices, and rising rates of malnutrition [Harvard Study Team 1991]. The war itself lasted for just a few weeks, but especially through the aerial bombing campaign it badly affected Iraq’s infrastructure (e g, transport, electricity, water). Following the ceasefire, Saddam Hussein’s regime faced major uprisings – among Kurds in the north, and Shiites in the south. The latter rebellion was suppressed. But fighting with Kurdish forces continued, until in late 1992 the army withdrew completely from the three northern governorates, leaving them to administer themselves. That said, the sanctions originally imposed under UNSC Resolution 661 (UNSCR 661) remained in place. The Iraqi economy was very badly affected because the sanctions hit at its core – i e, the capacity to export oil in exchange for a wide range of crucial imports. The UNSC set as the main condition for the lifting of sanctions that Iraq should scrap its weapons of mass destruction.

    Reports about the hard living conditions that were being experienced by the Iraqi people were common following the first Gulf war [Harvard Study Team 1991; Drèze and Gazdar 1991]. But information about the extent and depth of the suffering increased in the years that followed. It was clear that, on top of the damage done by the war, all basic aspects of life – food, health, water, sewage, employment, etc – were being adversely affected by the operation of the sanctions. There was mounting international debate as to who was responsible – Saddam Hussein’s regime, or governments like those of the US and UK that most supported the sanctions. These developments led the UNSC to pass Resolution 986 in April 1995. It was intended to ameliorate the situation by allowing Iraq to sell oil so that it could import basic supplies – especially of food and medicine – under UN supervision. But the process of negotiating with the Iraqi government and implementing UNSCR 986 was protracted. The first supplies of food and medicine delivered under the OFFP only arrived after a delay of about two years. By early 1998, however, there were some signs of improvement. Thus Garfield (1999:4) observed that “[s]ince March 1998 the oil for food programme has greatly increased access to essential supplies and the mortality rate [of children under five] has surely declined, but data are not yet available to estimate the magnitude of that decline.”

    The period 1998-2001 appears to have seen some limited improvement in living conditions. Due to the OFFP, the amount of food distributed each month to households through the PDS

    Table 1: Selected Events in the Modern History of Iraq

    Year Month Event
    1979 July Saddam Hussein becomes president of Iraq
    1980-88 The Iran/Iraq war (September 1980 to August 1988)
    1990 August 2 Iraq invades and annexes Kuwait
    August 6 Economic sanctions against Iraq are instigated
    under UNSCR 661
    September Government of Iraq introduces food rationing for
    all households
    1991 January 17 Start of first Gulf war to remove the Iraqi army from
    February 28 Cease-fire following the liberation of Kuwait and
    the defeat of Iraq
    March 2 UN Security Council sets conditions for the lifting
    of sanctions
    1992 September Government of Iraq withdraws from the three
    northern governorates
    1995 April 14 UNSC adopts Resolution 986 to set up the oil for
    food programme (OFFP)
    May 20 Memorandum of Understanding on UNSCR 986
    between Iraq and the UN
    1997 March First food supplies under the OFFP arrive in Iraq
    1998 Collapse of the UN process of weapons inspection
    December US/UK bombing of military targets in Iraq
    1998-01 Iraqi restrictions on UN weapons inspectors; US/
    UK air strikes
    2002 November Return of the UN weapons inspectors
    2003 March 19 Start of second Gulf war, i e, the invasion of Iraq by
    US/UK forces
    April 14 All major towns are brought under US control
    May 1 President Bush declares the end of major combat
    May 22 UNSC ends economic sanctions against Iraq
    December 13 US soldiers capture Saddam Hussein
    2004 June 8 UNSCR 1546 “transfers full sovereignty to the
    interim Iraqi government”
    2005 January 30 Elections are held to form a transitional government
    December 15 Elections are held for a four-year parliament

    Note: This list draws from many sources and is not meant to be comprehensive.

    increased somewhat. It was made easier for Iraq to import equipment so that it could rehabilitate its oil-producing capacity. Saddam Hussein’s regime also became more adept at circumventing the sanctions, e g, through covert oil sales. There were US/UK air strikes against military targets. UN weapons inspectors came and went – the renewal of their access by the regime at times resembling a bargaining chip that enabled some slight further easing of the sanctions [Falk 2004:27].

    The situation might have evolved gradually. But the attack on the US on September 11, 2001 led to its transformation. In January 2002 president George W Bush singled out Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”. “Regime change” in Iraq became a leading topic of public debate in the US [Marr 2004]. The year 2002 involved increasing US preparations for an invasion, and a tightening of the imposition of the sanctions. World Bank estimates suggest that per capita GDP fell from 1,068 US dollars in 2000 to 743 dollars in 2002 [World Bank 2006]. The US/UK invasion – the second Gulf war – took place during March/April 2003. On May 1 president Bush declared that major combat operations were ended. And the UNSC lifted the economic sanctions later that same month (Table 1). Nevertheless, given the invasion and upheaval that followed in its wake, 2003 was perhaps an even harder year for the Iraqi people than those that preceded it – estimated per capita GDP fell to 479 dollars [World Bank 2006].

    Clearly, the situation in Iraq has been extremely hard and unsettled in the years since 2003. The ILCS of 2004 revealed a very troubled picture. Whereas in 1980 Iraq had enjoyed living standards similar to the best in west Asia, by 2004 it had fallen far behind. And most Iraqi households remained heavily dependent on the PDS for their food supplies [UNDP 2005b:63].

    Child Mortality

    As already noted, both the UNICEF survey and the ILCS collected birth histories. These can provide comparable and detailed data on fertility and child mortality, and are our point of departure here.

    The UNICEF survey of 1999 was conducted in two parts. The first was undertaken in February/March in the south and centre of Iraq, i e, the area then still under the control of the government, with about 80 per cent of the population. The second part was conducted in April/May in the autonomous northern region, with around 20 per cent of the population. The respective sample sizes were 24,000 and 14,000 households. Considerable effort was spent on the training of field staff. Minor difficulties arose during the fieldwork which temporarily inhibited access to some areas, but these problems were resolved. Importantly, the UNICEF survey was focused specifically on estimating levels and trends in child mortality – with little additional information being gathered. The questionnaire used relevant parts of the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) core questionnaire. And, crucially, ever-married women aged 15-49 living in the sample households were asked questions on the number of children that they had ever borne and the number of these children that were surviving (i e, CEB/CS questions) before they were asked for their detailed birth history. In the country’s south and centre all the trained interviewers were women; the figure in the north was 80 per cent. Finally, an independent expert review panel was established to scrutinise the resulting data. It found no evidence of manipulation. Instead, it concluded that the data were of high quality – with no suggestion of deficiencies that sometimes occur in such material, like omission in the reporting of births and child deaths [UNICEF 1999; Ali et al 2003].

    The ILCS is perhaps the most important socio-economic survey to have been undertaken in Iraq since the US/UK invasion [UNDP 2005a,b,c]. It interviewed a representative sample of 21,000 households. Most of the fieldwork occurred in March/May of 2004. The questionnaires were similar to those used by the FAFO research institute in similar surveys in Jordan, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip [FAFO 2004a,b]. The ILCS household questionnaire contained many questions on socio-economic variables (e g, education, employment, income, etc) and it collected basic data (e g, age, sex) about all household members. Following the household questionnaire, there was a second, individual questionnaire. This was for all ever married women in the household aged 15-54, and it contained the birth history. About 70 per cent of ILCS interviewers were women (Jon Pedersen, personal communication).

    There is little doubt that the UNICEF survey is the better source of data on fertility and under-5 mortality. After all, its main purpose was precisely to provide such data. Moreover, given the controversy that was raging about the state of Iraqi children, every effort was made to ensure that the quality of the data was as good as possible. The suggestion by the IIC’s working group that the Iraqi government may somehow have fiddled the data to show a sharp rise in mortality in 1991 is far-fetched. Even in normal circumstances such a deception would require considerable demographic expertise. And this is even more true given the scrutiny of the expert review panel.

    The ILCS, however, suffered from three particular problems. First, it was conducted in extremely difficult conditions. Perhaps no major national socio-economic survey has ever been undertaken in more dangerous circumstances. Second, the ILCS was not aimed primarily at providing estimates of fertility and child mortality. Rather, it covered many topics in what the survey report describes as “a long and taxing questionnaire” [UNDP 2005a:9]. The median interviewing time per household was 83 minutes. Third, in the ILCS individual questionnaire, women were not asked CEB/CS questions before being asked for their birth history. Yet it is well known that doing this helps to minimise the underreporting of births – especially of those that have died – because it forces women to commit themselves to a specified number of births and child deaths before they are asked to provide detailed information about each one. Interestingly, the ILCS report notes that soon after the raw data began to come in from the field, it became clear that child deaths were probably being underreported in the birth histories. Efforts were made to improve their collection. But these efforts were not sufficiently successful. Therefore it was decided “to re-interview all households again with [a] small questionnaire” containing the birth history [UNDP 2005b:50]. The ILCS data examined below are those from the re-interviews, but it will be seen that their quality remains comparatively poor.

    The fertility and early age mortality estimates from the UNICEF and ILCS investigations are summarised in Table 2. It is clear that the total fertility rate (TFR) in Iraq began to fall in the 1980s. For the period when TFRs from the two surveys overlap, they suggest a similar rate of decline. However, the TFRs of the ILCS are generally about 85 per cent those of the UNICEF survey (87 per cent for 1985-93, and 83 per cent for 1994-98). The implication is that births were under-reported in the ILCS. Given that the TFRs from the ILCS are around 85 per cent those of the UNICEF survey, an adjustment factor of 1.176 is required to bring the former in line with the latter. The ILCSa (i e, adjusted) figures in Table 2 have been pro-rated upwards by this amount. The adjusted rates suggest that by 2003 the TFR was about 4.5 births per woman.

    The annual infant (i e, under-1) and child (i e, under-5) mortality rates in Table 2 are estimates of the probability of dying between birth and the first and fifth birthdays respectively, expressed per thousand live births. Several points arise from comparing these rates. First, in relation to both the UNICEF and ILCS estimates, it is clear that most child mortality is accounted for by infant mortality, i e, mortality in the first year of life (at age zero). Only a modest proportion occurs at ages 1-4. Second, and relatedly, the trend in child mortality is dominated by the trend in infant mortality. Again, this is true for both sets of estimates. Third, the ILCS mortality rates are much lower than the UNICEF rates. Thus whereas only a modest adjustment is required to bring the TFRs of the ILCS up to those of the UNICEF survey, the corresponding adjustment needed in relation to child mortality is far greater. A strong implication – reflected in the ILCS report (UNDP 2005b:50-51) – is that, despite having re-collected all the birth histories, the resulting data are still very deficient in the reporting of child deaths. Fourth, while they generally increase between 1990 and 2003, the ILCS mortality rates do not show an abrupt rise in 1991. In contrast, however, the UNICEF under-5 death rate increases from about 66 per thousand in 1990 to around 118 in 1991. Moreover, if the UNICEF under-5 mortality rates are decomposed into infant mortality rates and mortality rates at ages 1-4, then only a small rise is indicated for ages 1-4. Put differently, most of the rise in child mortality indicated for 1991-98 is due to a rise in infant mortality.

    Several questions arise from these comparisons. Is the rise in mortality in 1991 indicated by the UNICEF data real? If it is, then why is it not reflected in the ILCS data? And why was the rise largely restricted to infants? Finally, can the UNICEF and ILCS data be reconciled?

    As noted, it is fanciful to argue that the UNICEF data were fiddled. But there is other evidence supporting a sharp rise in child mortality in 1991. The circumstances that affected the survival chances of children (e g, in relation to food, birth weight, nutrition, drinking water, prevalence of diarrhoea, etc) definitely underwent an abrupt deterioration at this time [Garfield 1999]. Child death rates derived from hospital data also suggest a sharp rise – although such rates are admittedly unrepresentative, difficult to calculate, and they could conceivably have been manipulated by the Iraqi government [Garfield 1999:34; Working Group 2005:135].

    Most importantly, however, the International Study Team survey of 1991 provides independent support for a sharp rise in child mortality. Despite difficult working conditions, the IST survey appears to have been well done. All the interviewers were fluent

    Table 2: Estimates of Fertility and Early Age Mortality from the UNICEF Survey and the ILCS

    Year Total Fertility Rate (TFR) Infant (under-1) Mortality Rate Child (under-5) Mortality Rate
    (Per Cent) (Per Cent)
    (i) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (ix) (x) (xi)
    1974 78.7 115.9
    1975 75.3 118.5
    1976 7.14 64.1 88.7
    1977 63.2 91.0
    1978 62.5 89.1
    1979 54.8 71.3
    1980 64.5 35 54.3 66 85.1 53 62.3 89
    1981 7.09 51.6 28 54.3 53 71.7 45 62.8 75
    1982 62.9 27 42.9 51 83.9 40 47.7 67
    1983 52.1 29 55.7 55 67.2 40 59.5 67
    1984 53.7 33 61.5 63 68.9 45 65.3 75
    1985 5.74 6.75 50.4 26 51.6 49 61.4 41 66.8 69
    1986 6.59 5.84 6.87 48.5 17 35.1 32 62.0 30 48.4 50
    1987 5.53 6.51 53.2 32 60.2 61 64.1 43 67.1 72
    1988 5.77 6.79 50.9 32 62.9 61 62.9 43 68.4 72
    1989 5.81 6.84 45.0 23 51.1 44 59.8 32 53.5 54
    1990 6.25 7.35 52.0 26 50.0 49 65.9 36 54.6 60
    1991 6.43 5.47 6.44 99.6 27 27.1 92 118.4 38 32.1 119
    1992 5.23 6.15 92.9 29 31.2 98 110.4 40 36.2 125
    1993 5.26 6.19 91.5 22 24.0 75 109.2 32 29.3 100
    1994 4.99 5.87 93.9 27 28.8 92 112.2 35 31.2 110
    1995 4.85 5.71 97.2 31 31.9 105 119.0 38 31.9 119
    1996 5.69 4.55 5.35 100.2 29 28.9 98 124.1 37 29.8 116
    1997 4.75 5.59 96.9 28 28.9 95 117.9 35 29.7 110
    1998 4.37 5.14 100.8 35 34.7 119 125.9 44 34.9 138
    1999 4.21 4.95 32 109 41 128
    2000 4.22 4.96 30 102 37 116
    2001 4.16 4.89 28 95 34 107
    2002 3.97 4.67 33 112 40 125
    2003 3.78 4.45 37 126 46 144

    Notes: The UNICEF TFRs are quinquennial and have been allocated to the central years of the five-year periods to which they correspond most closely. The ILCSa (i e, adjusted) TFRs in column (iii) were pro-rated by 1.176 (see text). The infant and child mortality rates correspond to 1q0 and 5q0 values in life table terminology, and are expressed per thousand live births. As noted in the text, the ILCSa child mortality rates in column (xi) were adjusted first by 1.87 (for 1991 and later years) and second by 1.67; the corresponding adjustment factors for the ILCSa infant mortality rates in column

    (vii) were 1.79 and 1.90.

    Sources: Columns (i), (iv) and (viii) Ali et al (2003:219); columns (ii), (v) and (ix) Pedersen (personal communication), but see also UNDP [2005b:49-52; 2005c:15].

    in Arabic, and most were women [Ascherio et al 1992]. The survey collected what were in effect “partial” birth histories from adult women living in about 8,000 households. The histories were “partial” in that births occurring before January 1985 were excluded. The analysis related to 16,076 births and just 768 child deaths. The resulting estimates suggest that the under-5 mortality rate rose from about 43 child deaths per thousand live births during 1985-90 to 128 in 1991. The corresponding estimated rise in the infant mortality rate was from 33 to 93 [Ascherio et al 1992]. The UNICEF rates of Ali et al (2003) shown in Table 2 suggest that the IST survey underestimated child mortality during 1985-90. Thus the average UNICEF under-5 death rate for 1985-90 is 63 (compared to 43). This may help explain why the IST results imply a tripling in child mortality, rather than a near doubling. Nevertheless, when allowance is made for the much smaller sample size of the IST survey, the appreciably larger confidence intervals that attach to its estimates, and the particular period to which the IST rise in mortality pertains (i e, the first eight months of 1991, which includes the first Gulf war itself) then the two sets of estimates are reasonably compatible.

    Yet if the abrupt rise in child mortality in 1991 is real, why is there no sign of it in the ILCS data?

    The Role of the PDS

    The answer to this question probably lies in a hugely important feature of Iraqi life that began in September 1990 – the distribution to households of food rations (e g, cereals, pulses, salt) plus a few other basic supplies (e g, soap) through the PDS [Drèze and Gazdar 1991; FAO 1997; Garfield and Waldman 2003].

    Recall that the PDS was established in response to the massive and abrupt drop in food availability that followed the imposition of sanctions. It has been extraordinarily important for the food security of most Iraqi households – especially the 80 per cent that remained under the control of the government. In the early years of the PDS most of the food that was distributed was grown in Iraq. But from 1997 onwards additional food became available through the OFFP. In most years the calorie content of the ration has been extremely limited [Working Group 2005:137-41]. For most of the 1990s it was barely enough to prevent starvation [Garfield and Waldman 2003:9].

    The PDS works through a network of local agents, like grocery stores. Every household is entitled to a monthly ration for each of its members, and the ration has been the same irrespective of age or sex. The sole exception relates to infants – who from the start were entitled to a ration of infant formula (i e, breastmilk substitute) provided that the mother could produce a certificate stating that she was unable to breastfeed [Drèze and Gazdar 1991]. However, once a child reached its first birthday, and was no longer an infant, it was entitled to exactly the same ration as other household members. These circumstances provided a very strong incentive for the inclusion of new births on the ration cards. And an investigation in 2000 found that virtually all births were quickly registered in the rationing system [UNICEF 2002:8].

    If the sharp rise in child mortality is real, then the failure of the ILCS death rates to show a similar abrupt rise around 1991 must be indicative of a sudden deterioration in the level of reporting of child deaths in the birth histories that were provided.

    Table 2 shows that during 1980-90 the ILCS under-5 mortality rates were about 60 per cent those of the UNICEF survey, but that during 1991-98 their relative coverage fell to 32 per cent. The corresponding figures for the under-1 rates are 53 and 29 per cent. To explain such a sudden discontinuity in the reporting level of child deaths a response error is required that begins abruptly in 1991 and is sustained. The obvious explanation is that in the collection of the ILCS birth histories, women were especially reluctant to mention the deaths of children that had occurred since 1991 – since the names of many of these children had remained on ration cards and been used to obtain essential supplies. This sort of problem is well known to relief agencies. And there is little doubt that the food rationing system in Iraq has been inflated by the non-reporting of deaths. This was exemplified in the public debate regarding whether the ration card system could serve as a basis for voter registration in the elections of 2005 [Global Policy Forum 2004]. It was also highlighted by an Iraqi/US research team that undertook a small household survey of deaths in 2004 [Roberts et al 2004:1862]. It is worth stressing too that the adult women who provide birth histories are precisely the people who manage food within Iraqi households [Bhatia, Kawar and Shahin 1994:214-16].

    The reason why infant mortality was especially badly affected may also partly relate to the rationing system. Following the first Gulf war it was realised that there had been a marked decline in breastfeeding. The IST noted this, and also remarked that “[g]overnment rations of [infant] formula were insufficient for basic requirements, and mothers whose breastmilk was inadequate often resorted to solutions of sugar and water or sometimes the water left after cooking the family’s rice” [Harvard Study Team 1991:979]. That the PDS provided mothers with (inadequate) quantities of breastmilk substitute almost certainly encouraged bottle-feeding, and reduced the exclusive breastfeeding of infants during the first months of life. It was particularly unwise because water supplies were frequently contaminated due to damage inflicted by war. The great concern of international agencies like UNICEF and FAO that the PDS should not provide infant formula was reflected in the memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreed by the UN and the Iraqi government in 1995 (Table 1). The MoU specifically stated that households with an infant should be able to choose to have the basic food ration rather than the infant formula. For a while this seems to have applied, and about 75 per cent of households chose to take the basic ration, but unfortunately it appears that the option may not have been maintained [FAO 1997:11].

    One last conclusion can be tentatively adduced from comparing the ILCS and UNICEF mortality rates in Table 2. It is that, although the ILCS rates are very deficient in level, they share some features of the short run variation shown by the UNICEF rates. Thus both sets of rates suggest a similar, rather modest decline in mortality during 1980-90. This is significant because it suggests that the Iran/Iraq war may have indirectly slowed the pace of child mortality decline during the 1980s. In addition, both sets of rates suggest that there was a significant rise in under-5 mortality during 1991-98. There is also similarity in the annual fluctuations of death rates in this eight-year period. Thus, if one compares the annual ILCS and UNICEF infant mortality rates for 1991-98, variation in the former corresponds quite well to variation in the latter (R square = 0.45; F = 0.07). The correlation for the under-5 rates is somewhat weaker (R square = 0.35; F = 0.12). Nevertheless, these signs of correspondence are noteworthy because they suggest that the ILCS can provide an idea of child mortality trends after 1998 – for when it is the only data source available.

    The Working Group Study

    Recall that the working group concluded that (i) it was unlikely that there was a sharp rise in child mortality in 1991, (ii) any rise was modest – the group’s own estimates of under-5 mortality rates for 1986-90 and 1991-96 are respectively 85 and 95 per thousand, (iii) the Iraqi government might have tampered with the UNICEF data, and (iv) the ILCS data could be disregarded [Working Group 2005:50-55 and 129-36]. Enough has been said to cast considerable doubt on these conclusions. But recall too that in arriving at its estimates the Group placed most weight on its interpretation of CEB/CS data, especially from the 1997 Census.

    As the working group acknowledges, there are several difficulties involved in translating CEB/CS data into estimates of child mortality levels and trends [e g, see United Nations 1990]. The CEB/CS questions are very simple. They provide no information on dates of birth or dates of death. Child mortality estimates based on the reports of younger women tend to be biased upwards due to the operation of various selection effects (e g, women aged 15-19 are young, mostly having first births, and both of these considerations involve an enhanced risk of child death). Estimates based on the reports of older women can be too low, since such women may be more likely to under-report dead children. Also, CEB/CS data aggregate births and deaths across very broad ranges of age and time. Thus the births and child deaths reported by women aged, say, 35-39 could have occurred over a wide range of ages and times – and this tends to obscure the occurrence of a discontinuity. Indeed, inasmuch as time enters into the analysis of CEB/CS data, it does so primarily through the ages that are reported by the women respondents. Furthermore, estimates of mortality from CEB/CS data involve selecting a particular model age pattern of child mortality, which is then assumed to remain constant. This means that it is hard to handle circumstances involving an abrupt alteration of age pattern – e g, a sharp rise in infant mortality, with little change at older ages.

    The CEB/CS data and attendant mortality estimates summarised in Table 3 suffer from all of these difficulties. Since there is reason to believe that the age pattern of mortality changed around 1991, different patterns were used in deriving the child mortality estimates and dates from the 1987 and 1997 data. But this brings little benefit – given the magnitude of the other difficulties. Notice, in particular, the very large rises in child mortality indicated by the reports of younger women (especially those aged 20-24 and 15-19) in both 1987 and 1997. These rises are certainly spurious and reflect the operation of strong selection effects.

    However, there is another difficulty with the CEB/CS data from the 1997 Census. This relates to something that the working group is much concerned with – since it makes a “huge difference” to the resulting estimates [Working Group 2005:130]. But it is something that the group fails to explain. The problem is that there was: “a substantial level of non-response, not to the question about the number of children ever born, but to the question about the number of children surviving. The treatment of this nonresponse has a considerable effect on the estimates of child mortality derived from the data” [Working Group 2005:51]. The difficulty is much greater for 1997 than for 1987. Thus whereas in 1987 only 1.5 per cent of women failed to answer the question on surviving children, in 1997 this figure rose markedly to 3.5 per cent. The working group’s analysis of the 1997 data leads to an appreciably higher estimate of child mortality in the early 1990s, if it is assumed that those women who did not respond were those whose children had died. But the group regards this possibility as unlikely, and instead favours the view that most of the women who did not respond had lost no children. To be specific, they suggest that “for women none of whose children had died the interviewer simply put a dash in the relevant box … under this assumption most of the ‘missings’ would have lost no children” [Working Group 2005:130]. This helps to explain why the working group’s estimate of the rise in child mortality is so modest.

    Yet, of course, there is a ready explanation for why Iraqi women were less inclined to answer the census question on the number of surviving children in 1997. In all likelihood, many of the women who did not respond were precisely those who had lost a child in the previous few years. But the names of these dead children were still on the ration cards. Moreover, for the same reason it appears probable that – analogous to what seems to have happened in the ILCS – some of the women who did answer the question inflated their number of surviving children (i e, failed to report fully on those that had died). In short, the 1997 CEB/CS Census data probably reflect a systematic tendency to overstate child survivorship. Indeed, the substantially increased level of non-response to the 1997 Census question on surviving children, as revealed by the working group, constitutes further support that the food rationing system produced a downward bias in the reporting of child deaths.

    Child Mortality: An Integrated Account

    It remains to assemble an integrated account of child mortality. The UNICEF under-5 mortality rates derived by Ali and colleagues provide the benchmark. It is possible that these rates underestimate child mortality a little – e g, for the 1970s and 1980s – but they are unlikely to be overestimates. And even for the 1970s and 1980s the UNICEF figures seem reliable. Thus, for years before 1990, comparison with estimates from earlier surveys shows the UNICEF rates “to be in reasonably good

    Table 3: CEB/CS Data and Associated Estimates of Child Mortality, 1987 and 1997 Censuses

    Age 1987 1997 Group CEB CS Date Under-5 CEB CS Date Under-5 Mortality Mortality Rate Rate

    15-19 0.170 0.150 1986.7 176.5 0.118 0.103 1996.7 177.1 20-24 1.088 0.989 1985.5 112.8 0.815 0.728 1995.6 128.2 25-29 2.573 2.375 1983.8 84.8 2.031 1.834 1993.9 105.7 30-34 4.263 3.929 1981.8 80.5 3.491 3.167 1991.9 95.4 35-39 5.785 5.284 1979.5 83.0 4.825 4.393 1989.6 88.1 40-44 6.460 5.807 1977.0 90.1 5.887 5.296 1987.0 92.9 45-49 6.715 5.879 1974.1 100.8 6.482 5.787 1983.8 91.8

    Notes: For both censuses the Working Group gives CEB/CS data that are both unadjusted and adjusted for non-response. However, given the present argument, and reasons of space, the 1987 data above are those adjusted, while the 1997 data are unadjusted. The child mortality rates, and dates, above were obtained using standard estimation techniques [United Nations 1990]. Those for 1987 were derived assuming a west model age pattern, while those for 1997 assumed an east model; this was done because the sharp rise in infant mortality compared to mortality at ages 1-4 suggests a move from a west to an east model [Ali et al 2003: 221; Working Group 2005:154]. However, it should be stressed that these data, especially for 1997, have major limitations as indicators of child mortality.

    Source: CEB/CS figures from Working Group (2005:147).

    Figure: Comparison of UNICEF and Adjusted ILCS Under-5Mortality Rates, 1974-2003




    agreement with those from other sources” [Ali et al 2003:222]. And a notable feature of Table 3 is that the under-5 mortality estimates derived from women aged 30-49 in 1987 are close to the UNICEF rates in Table 2.

    With this as background, the ILCS under-5 mortality rates in Table 2 have been adjusted in two steps. The argument here has been that the logic of the PDS means that women were particularly reluctant to report child deaths if they had occurred in 1991 or more recently. It follows that, starting in 1991, there was an abrupt and sustained fall in the level of reporting of child deaths in the ILCS birth histories. Thus, whereas during 1980-90 the ILCS rates were 59.66 per cent of the UNICEF rates, during 1991-98 the average level fell to 31.90 per cent (Table 2). Accordingly, starting from 1991, the ILCS rates must be adjusted upwards by

    1.87 (i e, 59.66/31.90) to correct for an abrupt decline in the level of death reporting. The ILCS (first adjustment) series in the figure is the result. Although this first adjustment is sizeable in proportional terms, it is modest in absolute terms, and leaves the adjusted figures well below those of the UNICEF rates. This brings us to the second adjustment – which is needed because, for the several reasons mentioned, the general level of reporting of child deaths in the ILCS was poor. Again, the UNICEF under-5 mortality rates for 1980-90 provide the benchmark. They imply that a further upward adjustment of 1.67 (i e, 100/59.66) is required. The ILCSa series in the figure shows the result after this second adjustment. Analogous adjustments were made for infant mortality. Table 2 gives both ILCSa mortality series.

    20 40 60 80 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 Year ILCS (first adjustment)UNICEF ILCSa

    Under-5 mortality per 1000

    Lastly, recall that the ILCS household questionnaire collected information on all household members before the birth histories were collected. The population in the surveyed households was about 1,38,240 and of these 13.66 per cent were aged 0-4, i e, 18,886 children [UNDP 2005a:18]. As a cross-check on the present interpretation of the ILCS data, it is possible to estimate the size of the 0-4 population in the surveyed households from the birth history data. This can be done using the unadjusted fertility and infant and child mortality rates in Table 2. And it can also be done using the mortality rates prorated solely by the first adjustment, i e, that intended to correct for the reluctance of women to mention the deaths of children whose names remained on the ration cards. Using the unadjusted rates produces an estimate of 19,639 children aged 0-4 (i e, 4 per cent greater than the number derived from the household questionnaires). But using the rates adjusted for underreporting linked to food rationing produces an estimate of 19,082 (i e, only 1 per cent greater). Of course, all these figures may be influenced by other considerations (e g, general undercounting of children in the household questionnaires). Nevertheless, the ILCS survey data are more internally consistent if the birth history mortality rates are prorated according to the present rationale.

    Excess Child Deaths during 1991-2003

    Only a very crude estimate of excess child deaths is possible. Nevertheless Table 4 summarises some simple calculations on the issue [see also Dyson 2006]. Note that the time periods used allow comparison of the quinquennium immediately before the UN economic sanctions (i e, 1986-90) with later periods. Column

  • (i) gives estimates of the numbers of births occurring in each period. The figures were derived using quinquennial estimates of the numbers of births made by the United Nations (2005). The UN numbers were adjusted using ratios of the ILCSa (i e, adjusted) TFRs in Table 2 to corresponding UN estimates of the TFR, and annual estimates of the number of births occurring were then obtained using standard interpolation coefficients. It is worth noting that the UN has significantly revised its estimates of the number of births occurring in Iraq in recent years – a fact that underscores the rough nature of the present exercise. Column
  • (ii) of Table 4 gives average child death rates based on the present analysis, i e, summary estimates of what actually occurred. In calculating annual figures within each time period, for years 1986-98 the death rates used were simple averages of the UNICEF and ILCSa values in Table 2; and, of course, for 1999-2003 the ILCSa rates are the only ones available. Precisely the same procedure was employed for the infant mortality rates. Annual
  • Table 4: Estimates of Excess Child Deaths in Iraq under Three Counterfactuals

    Estimates of Actual Numbers/Rates Counterfactual-1 Counterfactual-2 Counterfactual-3
    Period Births (000s) Child Child Child Child Excess Child Child Excess Child Child Excess
    (Under-5) Deaths (Under-5) Deaths Deaths (Under-5) Deaths Deaths (Under-5) Deaths Deaths
    Mortality per Month Mortality per Month per Period Mortality per Month per Period Mortality per Month per Period
    Rate Rate (000s) Rate (000s) Rate (000s)
    (i) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (ix) (x) (xi) (xii)
    1986-90 3,918 62.3 3,877 62.3 3,877 0 62.3 3,877 0 62.3 3,877 0
    1991-95 4,423 114.2 8,192 62.3 4,427 225.9 50.8 3,606 275.2 56.6 4,016 250.5
    1996-00 4,493 122.0 8,941 62.3 4,529 264.7 41.9 3,053 353.3 52.1 3,791 309.0
    2001-03 2,825 125.2 9,658 62.3 4,720 177.8 35.5 2,701 250.0 48.9 3,710 213.9
    Total 15,659 - - - - 668.4 - - 878.5 - - 773.5

    Notes: For the approach of producing estimates of child deaths per month, see Working Group (2005:55).The child mortality rates for years 1999-2003 used in framing the second counterfactual were respectively: 40.2, 38.6, 37.0, 35.5 and 34.0 per thousand; the corresponding infant mortality rates were 33.5, 32.2, 30.8, 29.6 and 28.3 per thousand [see also Ali et al 2003:223]. The simple and illustrative nature of this exercise is reflected, for example, in the fact that the number of births stays the same in each set of calculations.

    estimates of single year of age mortality rates within the age group 1-4 were derived through interpolation. Estimates of the annual number of deaths occurring under age five in each year were then obtained by projecting the estimated number of births in each year forward by single years of age. For convenience, column (iii) gives estimates of the average number of child deaths occurring per month within each period.

    Three illustrative counterfactuals, all conducted on a single year basis, are summarised in Table 4. In the first, death rates corresponding to an average under-5 mortality rate of 62.3 per thousand estimated here for 1986-90 were held constant throughout. The resulting excess child mortality figure for 1991-2003 is 6,68,000. All previous estimates of excess child deaths in Iraq have incorporated such a “constant” counterfactual. But, other things equal, it will produce an underestimate to the extent that the child mortality rate might have continued to decline if the country’s tragic history – here starting with the invasion of Kuwait – had not occurred. After all, child death rates did fall in all neighbouring countries [United Nations 2005]. Accordingly, the second counterfactual assumes that child mortality rates would have continued to fall. Essentially it is an extension of that of Ali et al (2003) who examined various child mortality estimates for 1960-90 and produced a counterfactual based on the continuation of the long run downward trend. Column (ix) shows that this produces an estimate of 8,78,000 excess deaths. However, it might be argued that this counterfactual will produce an overestimate, since both the UNICEF and ILCSa time series suggest that the pace of child mortality decline slowed during the 1980s. Therefore, the third counterfactual represents the middle course, i e, it is the average of the other two. This counterfactual implies that by 2001-03 Iraq would have experienced an under5 death rate of 49, i e, similar to the UN estimate for Turkey. This implies 7,73,000 excess child deaths over the 13 years.


    The account of child mortality in Iraq that emerges from this work is quite clear, detailed, and well supported. The figure suggests that child mortality declined quite rapidly in the 1970s. In the middle of that decade the child death rate was either around or a little above 100 per thousand, but by the end of the decade it had fallen to about 80. However, the pace of decline slowed in the 1980s. Both the UNICEF and ILCS data suggest that such a slowdown occurred – and it probably reflected the Iran/Iraq war begun by Saddam Hussein. There is no good reason to doubt the estimates of Ali et al (2003) that, before the invasion of Kuwait, the child death rate was around 60-65. Nor are there convincing reasons to doubt that the first Gulf war, and the events that surrounded it, combined to produce a near doubling of the child mortality rate in 1991. The main component of this rise was a rise in infant mortality. And, among other things, a deterioration in breastfeeding practices probably played a significant part. Both surveys then suggest that, with the UN sanctions in full force, the child mortality rate rose further in the 1990s. People’s assets were run down, and the sanctions probably had a cumulative weakening effect. Both the UNICEF and ILCS data suggest that the highest under-5 death rate in the 1990s happened in 1998.

    The ILCSa rates suggest that under-5 mortality fell from about 138 per thousand in 1998 to 107 in 2001 – consistent with some recovery in living conditions. Of course, these estimates are tentative and rough. Nevertheless it seems possible that child mortality in 2001 was lower than in any year since 1991. The fall occurs when the UN oil for food programme seems at last to have had an effect – recall Garfield’s observation that this was so. The working group (1995:178) judged that it could not conclude anything about the effects of the OFFP on under-5 mortality. But that is not the position taken here. With other developments, such as increased circumvention of the sanctions, the OFFP may well have had a beneficial effect in the late 1990s.

    Finally, in this account, the ILCS data suggest that the child death rate rose in 2002, and that it rose further in 2003 (in the figure). This is plausible, given what we know about events on the ground. The ILCSa mortality rate of 144 for the invasion year of 2003 is higher than for any year since 1980. This is unlikely to be mere coincidence.

    Previous estimates of excess child deaths derived from direct data on mortality have varied widely. The IST estimate of 46,900 for the first eight months of 1991 was a reasonable first attempt. But it pertained to a special time, and was probably too high

    – since it underestimated mortality during its baseline period (i e, 1985-90). On the other hand, the working group’s estimated range of 45,000 to 68,000 excess child deaths for 1991-96 is unjustly low. The group’s analysis of child mortality pays scant attention to the conditions from which the data originate, and it is probably based on a misreading of, and over-reliance on, the 1997 Census CEB/CS data. There are no persuasive reasons to question the general range of excess child deaths estimated from the UNICEF data by Ali and colleagues – namely, somewhere between 3,80,000 and 4,80,000 for 1991-98. Inasmuch as criticism of these numbers is reasonable, it is that the higher number of the range arises from a counterfactual that embodies a long run rate of decline in mortality that may be a little too great. Finally, the present work has extended the time period to 2003. And in developing its counterfactuals it has tried to take some account of the slowing of the rate of child mortality decline in the 1980s. The resulting estimated range of excess under-5 deaths for the entire period 1991-2003 is between about 670 and 880 thousand, with a central figure of 770 thousand. The crude nature of these figures should require no emphasis. But there has clearly been a very large number of excess child deaths in Iraq.

    In concluding, one criticism of the present exercise might be to question part of its point. Estimates of excess deaths are usually made with respect to events that are relatively short and discrete (e g, famines). However, in the case of the greatly raised level of child mortality in Iraq in the years that have followed the invasion of Kuwait, there is no obvious end in sight. Therefore, fair comment on any exercise such as this is that the resulting estimate of excess deaths will almost certainly rise as year follows year. Perhaps a better way of describing things is to say that the country’s mortality trajectory has been shifted onto an entirely new and tragic plane.



    [I thank Athar Hussain, Mike Murphy, Yahia Said, and Jon Pedersen foradvice. The usual disclaimer applies.]


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    � �� � � � ��


    June 30, 2006

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