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Iraqis suffering, but Saddam never will

It is very difficult to grasp the immensity of the suffering of the Iraqi people. They are led by a madman who lurches from one ruinous war to another, who builds palaces while his people die by the tens of thousands in hospitals that barely have electricity, let alone adequate medicine and functioning equipment, who indulges his fetish for poison gases and other fiendish weapons even as depressed and hungry Iraqi children take to the streets to beg for a few pathetic mouthfuls of food.

The economic sanctions that were supposed to bring Saddam Hussein to his knees have helped put enormous numbers of Iraqi children in their graves, while Saddam remains as defiant as ever.So now we are going to bomb again. To what end is not at all clear. We are told that we cannot deliberately kill Saddam, that would be illegal. And hardly anyone believes the bombing will drive him from power. But there is a feeling in Washington that something must be done. So some Americans are going to have to perish, and many more Iraqis. And when the smoke clears, Saddam will still be standing. Probably laughing.

This is madness on a grand scale.

Iraq over the last couple of decades has been a land of unending nightmares: the catastrophic eight-year war with Iran in which Saddam displayed his willingness to use poison gases both on his enemies and his own people; the invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed; the barbaric treatment of anyone who rose up in revolt against Saddam, including the wholesale slaughter of Kurds and Shiites; and the devastation wrought by seven years of U.N.-imposed economic sanctions.

Much of Iraq's infrastructure has been wrecked. Much of the drinking water is contaminated. The once-formidable middle class has collapsed into humiliating poverty. Food is rationed and infectious diseases are rampant.

A growing phenomenon in Iraq is the unwillingness of young children to play - because they are ill, or weak from hunger, or because playing reminds them of playmates who have died.

A survey released last year by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that nearly a million Iraqi children under the age of 5 were chronically malnourished. The survey noted: "Chronic malnutrition (or stunting) results in poor physical child growth, often accompanied by substandard capacity for development and education. . . . Chronic malnutrition is difficult to reverse after the child reaches 2-3 years of age."

A UNICEF official described the situation as "quite frightening in terms of the children's future health and future lives."

There is a logical breakdown here. No one with any credibility denies that Saddam Hussein is a menace - a mass murderer and a perpetual threat to peace and stability. But the punishment for his sins is being visited tragically and overwhelmingly on the innocent. Our strategy for dealing with his defiance is to say that if he doesn't behave we will wreck more of his country and kill more of his people, as if he pays that any mind.

President Clinton said on Tuesday that if Saddam continued his refusal to permit full inspections by chemical and biological weapons experts, "He and he alone will be to blame for the consequences."

But it is not Saddam who will suffer the consequences. It will be Iraqi civilians and to some extent American G.I.'s. To continue the devastating economic sanctions and the periodic massive air attacks against Iraq without formulating an exit strategy for Saddam Hussein is to engage in an intolerable disregard for the value of human lives, Iraqi and American.

The stench of death, but never his own, is Saddam's constant companion. It won't be long before his next atrocity. But we haven't the will to force him from power, and so our response to his murderous challenge is incoherent. We will bomb and, if necessary, bomb again. And we will ignore the collateral damage, which is the euphemism for dead Iraqi civilians, including children. And since Saddam is most likely to remain in place, so will the sanctions, which means the wholesale suffering and dying will continue.

Humanitarian concerns? Be serious. This is war.