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The Iraq Sanctions Myth

Sanctions allegedly killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq and provided a rationale for invasion, a line still heard today. But those deaths almost certainly never happened.
Marching against sanctions and the invasion of Iraq. (PHOTO: DM2011/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Marching against sanctions and the invasion of Iraq. (PHOTO: DM2011/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Just over 10 years ago the United Kingdom followed the United States into the bloody Iraq War. George W. Bush and Tony Blair justified the invasion mainly with the claim that Iraq possessed, or was in the process of building, weapons of mass destruction. Most people now seem to be aware that this premise was false.

Yet a crucial myth surrounding the Iraq War still commands widespread belief—that economic sanctions aimed at Saddam Hussein and his regime killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the 1990s and early 2000s. The supposed lethality of economic sanctions was used as an argument for invading Iraq, as Walter Russell Mead would argue in March 2003: "Saddam Hussein is 65; containing him for another 10 years condemns at least another 360,000 Iraqis to death. Of these, 240,000 will be children under five."

And, as we shall see, the sanctions myth is still used to justify the war. There were no hundreds of thousands of extra deaths.

The claim that sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children originated in a 1995 letter to The Lancet which, in turn, was based on a Baghdad survey done by Sarah Zaidi and colleagues. After other researchers identified anomalies in the survey data, Zaidi, to her great credit, re-investigated the work from the ground up. Having sub-contracted the original interviews to the Iraqi government, she traveled to Baghdad and re-interviewed many of the original households. When Zaidi failed to confirm quite a few of the reported deaths in these follow-up interviews, she retracted her results.

For the rest of your life, whenever you see a survey, ask yourself a simple question: Who guarantees the integrity of the field work for this survey? It made a world of difference in the present case when Sarah Zaidi shifted this responsibility from some Iraqi government workers to herself.

Sadly, the retraction came too late—the genie was already out of the bottle. In May 1996, shortly after the publication of Zaidi’s original letter, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had the following rather shocking and fateful exchange on American national television:

On 60 Minutes, Stahl interviews Albright.


Lesley Stahl (of CBS News): "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

These remarks became a notorious example of extreme American callousness toward the Muslim world.

A few months later, in August 1996, Osama bin Laden cited the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children in a fatwa declaring war against the U.S. "More than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression (sanction) imposed on Iraq and its nation," he said. "The children of Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime are responsible for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children."

Over the years, bin Laden hammered the U.S. repeatedly on the theme of sanctions killing Iraqi children, citing “the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known” as one of his three main justifications for the 9/11 attack.

In fact, several years prior to 9/11, a new UNICEF survey of child mortality in Iraq appeared in The Lancet. Apparently learning nothing from Sarah Zaidi’s experience, UNICEF did not place itself in a position to guarantee the integrity of the field work underpinning its survey, again delegating this responsibility to Iraqi government workers. This survey, like Zaidi’s original one, found hundreds of thousands of child deaths. Once again, the storyline that sanctions were killing massive numbers of Iraqi children had scientific respectability.

Yet over the next decade this UNICEF survey also fell by the wayside as three subsequent surveys (one sponsored again by UNICEF, another by  the U.N. Development Progam, and a third by the World Health Organization) found no evidence to support UNICEF’s earlier claimed spike in child mortality rates in 1990s Iraq.


Nonetheless, Tony Blair cited the discredited UNICEF figures to retrospectively justify the invasion of Iraq in front of the U.K.’s Iraq Inquiry in 2010:

In 2000 and 2001 and 2002 they [Iraq] had a child mortality rate of 130 per 1,000 children under the age of five, worse than the Congo.... That figure today is not 130, it is 40. That equates to about 50,000 young people, children [alive today who would not be if Saddam Hussein had remained in power] ... that’s the result that getting rid of Saddam makes.

As an exercise before you read on try spotting the three (or more) errors in Blair’s testimony. If you spot one then you have outperformed the Committee of Inquiry.

Here is some help.

First, as the figure shows, during the three years before the invasion of Iraq, the child mortality rate was between 40 and 60 per 1,000 live births, according to the three surveys that came after the flawed UNICEF one. In fact, UNICEF did not even give figures for 2000, 2001, and 2002, although they did place the child mortality rate around 130 for the late 1990s.

Blair testifies that rolling back the terrible toll allegedly wrought by sanctions helped influence the decision to invade.


Second, the child mortality rates in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the time were much higher than 130. Clare Short, Tony Blair’s development minister, fed him this particular false comparison. Apparently she meant to convince him that if Iraq were doing worse than the Congo (which was generally considered to be doing very badly indeed) then invading the country could push it into a total disaster. Tony Blair seems to have concluded, to the contrary, that the occupying powers could hardly fail to improve upon the dire health crisis that Short had described to him. Blair has retained this false information on the pre-war situation and now uses it to justify the war.

Third, Blair gets his sums wrong, although this mistake actually weakens his case. If, indeed, the child mortality rate had plummeted due to the invasion by as much as he thought it had, then the invasion would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, much more than the 50,000 he claims in his testimony.

It’s not just Blair, and it’s not just long ago. Summarizing George W. Bush’s presidency this week as his presidential library opens its doors, the WashingtonPost—in an otherwise admirable piece—opens with this canard: “Might as well start with the big one. In 2003, before the invasion, Iraq was a brutal dictatorship suffering under a sanctions regime which, according to UNICEF, killed at least 500,000 children.”

It is easy to get lost in this hall of mirrors, so let me be clear. Iraqis did suffer a lot under the sanctions regime, but the child mortality rate was not highly elevated throughout the 1990s and just before the invasion of Iraq. Nor did the child mortality rate plummet after this invasion. Nevertheless, many people continue to be taken in by the sanctions myth.

Surveys are a ubiquitous part of modern life and a crucial research tool. Yet quality varies considerably from survey to survey and results are often wrong as recent, high-profile measurement fiascos in Iraq and the DRC demonstrate. When we see a survey all of us will now pause for a moment to reflect on the integrity of the field work. If more people had done this in recent years it might have made it more difficult to justify, excuse, or cite bogus reasons for some of the terrible violence that has plagued our world in the 21st century.