Saddam's parades of dead babies are exposed as a cynical charade
UN sanctions did not kill the hundreds of infants displayed over the years - it was neglect by the former regime, Iraqi doctors in Baghdad tell Charlotte Edwardes
The "baby parades" were a staple of Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine for a decade. Convoys of taxis, with the tiny coffins of dead infants strapped to their roofs - allegedly killed by United Nations sanctions - were driven through the streets of Baghdad, past crowds of women screaming anti-Western slogans.
The moving scenes were often filmed by visiting television crews and provided valuable ammunition to anti-sanctions activists such as George Galloway, the Labour MP, who blamed Western governments for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children.
But The Telegraph can reveal that it was all a cynical charade. Iraqi doctors say they were told to collect dead babies who had died prematurely or from natural causes and to store them in cardboard boxes in refrigerated morgues for up to four weeks - until they had sufficient corpses for a parade.
Many of the children died, they say, as a result of the Iraqi government's own neglect as it lavished funds on military programmes and Saddam's palaces in the knowledge that it could blame sanctions for the lack of medicines and equipment in hospitals and clinics.
"We were not allowed to return the babies to their mothers for immediate burial, as is the Muslim tradition, but told they must be kept for what became known as 'the taxi parade'," said Dr Hussein al-Douri, the deputy director of the Ibn al-Baladi hospital in Saddam City, a Shia district in eastern Baghdad.
"The mothers would be hysterical and sometimes threaten to kill us, but we knew that the real threat was from the government."
Asked what would have happened if he had disobeyed the orders, Dr al-Douri replied: "They would have killed our families. This was an important event for the propaganda campaign."
Dr al-Douri, who has worked for 10 years as a paediatrician, said the parades were orchestrated by officials from the ministries of health, information and intelligence.
He said: "All 10 hospitals in Baghdad were involved in this and the quota for the parade was between 25 and 30 babies a month, which they would say had died in one day.
"We had to tell the babies' families that it was a government order and that they would be paid to keep quiet. The reward was sometimes in money, the equivalent of $10 per baby, or in food: rice, sugar and oil."
The government then ordered members of the Iraqi Women's Federation, an organisation funded by the regime, to line the streets of Baghdad and wail and beat themselves in mock grief.
"They portrayed an image of mothers in mourning for their recently dead children," he said. "It was too dangerous not to follow the orders. We were very afraid. The families were afraid, too."
Dr al-Douri showed The Telegraph the morgue where babies' bodies would be stored in cardboard boxes before being transferred to wooden coffins carrying their names and sometimes photographs.
Dr Amer Abdul al-Jalil, the deputy resident at the hospital, said: "Sanctions did not kill these children - Saddam killed them. The internal sanctions by the Saddam regime were very effective. Those who died prematurely usually died because their mothers lived in impoverished areas neglected by the government.
"The mortality rate was higher in areas such as Saddam City because there was no sewerage system. Infectious diseases were rampant.
"Over the past 10 years, the government in Iraq poured money into the military and the construction of palaces for Saddam to the detriment of the health sector. Those babies or small children who died because they could not access the right drugs, died because Saddam's government failed to distribute the drugs. The poorer areas were most vulnerable."
He added: "We feel terrible that this happened, but we were living under a regime and we had to keep silent. What could we do?"