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UN official says Iraqi children worse off

GENEVA -- The situation for Iraqi children is getting worse and, in some respects, was better before the war began, a senior UN official said yesterday.

"Children today are much worse off than they were a year ago, and they certainly are worse off than they were three years ago," said Dan Toole, director of emergency programs for the United Nations Children's Fund. He said Iraqis no longer have safe access to a government-funded food basket, established under Saddam Hussein to deal with international sanctions.

Toole said conditions for women and children in Iraq had worsened significantly since the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, which triggered a wave of sectarian violence and displacement that continues today.

He added that gains made shortly after the United States toppled Hussein's government in 2003, when people were able to move around the country freely and had access to food markets and health centers, had been lost.

"Nutritional indicators, health access indicators are all changing for the worse," Toole said. He said recently published data showing improvement refer to the situation a couple of years ago and are outdated.

The system of government-sponsored handouts -- set up by Hussein's government to meet the basic needs of Iraqi citizens from 1991 to 2003, when the country was under UN sanctions -- started to fall apart last year, Toole said.

Apart from shortages of items such as milk and baby milk formula, "the basic Iraqi food basket was fairly secure under the regime because there was food coming in and the government provided the food basket to its citizens," he said.

Toole could not say whether malnutrition has worsened significantly, but he said UNICEF was concerned by reports it has received from refugees fleeing the country.

Toole said that because of the violence, mothers were too afraid to send their children to school or take them to health centers to get checkups and nutritional supplements.