Perched atop cars and taxis, nearly 100 small wooden caskets were paraded through the Iraqi capital Sunday in a government-sponsored funeral procession for children whose deaths Iraq blames on U.N. sanctions.
As rain sprinkled down, thousands of Iraqis walked next to the caskets, shouting “Down with America!”
“There is no God but God, and America is God’s enemy,” the crowd chanted as the coffins - many decorated with photos - moved along Al-Rashid Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
Iraqi officials said the youngsters, some just babies, died for lack of food or medicine in the past two days. They blamed the deaths on U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The sanctions prevent Iraq from exporting its oil, its main foreign currency earner, and have devastated the country’s economy.
It was not possible to confirm independently the number of children dying or the cause of their deaths.
Also braving the rain were the U.N. arms inspectors who must certify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before the sanctions can be lifted.
Iraq maintains it has fulfilled the U.N. Security Council resolutions, but the arms inspectors have accused President Saddam Hussein’s government of hiding weapons or the means to make them.
Ten U.N. inspection teams visited 21 sites Sunday and also flew over in a helicopter for an aerial inspection, the official Iraqi News Agency said.
INA quoted Maj. Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amind, chief of Iraq’s National Monitoring Commission, as saying no one interferred with the inspectors during their visits.
Iraq issued a statement late Saturday urging the world to accept its invitation for U.N. experts and diplomats to visit dozens of Saddam’s presidential palaces, which arms inspectors believe may be used to hide weapons.
The statement defended Iraq’s refusal to allow the U.N. arms inspectors now in the country to take part, saying their presence in the palaces would threaten Iraq’s sovereignty.
The inspections were called off for three weeks after Iraq refused to allow American inspectors to take part, claiming they were spies. When Iraq threw out the Americans on Nov. 13, U.N. officials withdrew other inspectors in protest the next day. The government agreed to the Americans’ return Nov. 22 under a Russian-mediated plan.
Richard Butler, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, was expected to leave for Baghdad this week.
U.N. sources in New York said that Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to recommend today that the Security Council consider further easing sanctions to increase the amount of oil Baghdad can sell to buy food and medicine.
The 15-member council must decide by Thursday whether to renew the program under which Iraq can sell $2.14 billion worth of oil every six months to buy the needed supplies.
U.N. diplomats say that before the latest crisis, the Americans indicated they had no objections to a substantial increase in the amount of oil Iraq could sell.
The Iraqis have complained that the United States has used its seat on the U.N. Sanctions Committee, which approves each sale, to delay goods purchased with oil revenues.
U.S. officials deny this but acknowledge having held up shipments because of improper paperwork.
Iraq’s newspapers appealed Sunday for the world community and the Arab League to work toward lifting of sanctions, again blaming the United States for keeping the restrictions in place.
“The blockade which the U.S. administration tries to prolong is another kind of mass destruction weapon, or even worse in severity, since it is a war of genocide to kill more Iraqis,” the official Al-Thawra newspaper said in an editorial.