I get the feeling, with the flurry of bloody new terrorist attacks in Iraq, that we’re watching the smoldering shell of a tanker carrying high-octane fuel that’s just run off the road — waiting for the climactic explosion that will perhaps finally blow the country apart.

The temptation is to blame it all on the Iraqis themselves — those corrupt, grasping politicians and sectarian leaders, those perverse, bloody-minded peoples — they deserve what they get. Enough American lives have been lost. If, after all the U.S. sacrifice, the Iraqis still want to slaughter one another, so be it. We’re out of there.

But the fact is that we in the West, and particularly the U.S., are more responsible for Iraq’s tragic plight and its foreboding future than the Iraqis themselves.

I’m not just talking about the past few years, but, as most commentators refuse to acknowledge, Iraq’s entire, sorry history.

Case in point: One of the most chilling reports about Iraq was produced by a group of Harvard medical researchers who found that the children of Iraq were “the most traumatized children of war ever described.”

The experts concluded that “a majority of Iraq’s children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives.”

Particularly appalling, that report was published more than 20 years ago, in May 1991 — almost 12 years before America’s disastrous invasion that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis.

From the very beginning, Iraq was an unstable, totally artificial creation. It was cobbled together out of disparate remnants of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French, as the Americans looked on with approval.

Now, fast-forward through 60 years of political turmoil, military coups, constant foreign meddling, Saddam Hussein and his ill-fated decision to invade Iran.

From September 1980 to August 1988, more than a million Iraqis and Iranians died in what was the longest war of the 20th century. As that conflict raged, Saddam also launched his genocidal attacks against the Kurds, which Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — then Saddam’s de facto allies against Iran — did their best to ignore.

Next came Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 (there again the U.S. played a hand), followed by an abortive popular uprising against Saddam. That revolt, which George H.W. Bush had called for, ended with Saddam’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites — as U.S. troops stood by.

At the same time, the United Nations Security Council was implementing a draconian embargo on all trade with Iraq. Indeed, when the Harvard study cited above was carried out, those sanctions had been in effect for only seven months. They cut off all trade between Iraq and the rest of the world. That meant everything, from food and electric generators to vaccines, hospital equipment — even medical journals. Since Iraq imported 70 percent of its food, and its principal revenues were derived from the export of petroleum, the sanctions had an immediate and catastrophic impact.

Enforced primarily by the United States and Britain, they remained in place for almost 13 years and were, in their own way, a weapon of mass destruction far more deadly than anything Saddam had developed. Two U.N. administrators who oversaw humanitarian relief in Iraq during that period, and resigned in protest, consider the embargo to have been a “crime against humanity.”

Early on, it became evident that for the United States and England, the real objective of the sanctions was not the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s WMD but of Saddam Hussein himself, though that goal went far beyond anything authorized by the Security Council.

The effect of the sanctions was magnified by the wide-scale destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure — power plants, sewage treatment facilities, telephone exchanges, irrigation systems — wrought by the air and rocket attacks preceding the war. Iraq’s contaminated waters became a biological killer as lethal as anything Saddam had attempted to produce.

There were massive outbreaks of severe child and infant dysentery. Typhoid and cholera, which had been virtually eradicated in Iraq, also packed the hospital wards.

Added to that was a disastrous shortage of food, which meant malnutrition for some, starvation and death for others. At the same time, the medical system, once the country’s pride, was careening toward total collapse. Iraq would soon have the worst child mortality rate of all 188 countries measured by UNICEF.

There is no question that U.S. planners knew what the awful impact of the sanctions would be. The health calamity was first predicted and then carefully tracked by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Its first study was entitled “Iraq’s Water Treatment Vulnerabilities.”

Indeed, from the beginning, the intent of U.S. officials was to create such a catastrophic situation that the people of Iraq — civilians, but particularly the military — would be forced to react. As Denis Halliday, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, put it to me, “the U.S. theory behind the sanctions was that if you hurt the people of Iraq and kill the children particularly, they’ll rise up with anger and overthrow Saddam.”

But rather than weakening Saddam, the sanctions only consolidated his hold on power. The government’s rationing system became vital to the survival of the people, even though it provided less than a third of a person’s nutritional requirements. Iraqis were so obsessed with simply keeping their families alive that there was little interest or energy to plot the overthrow of one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet. “The people didn’t hold Saddam responsible for their plight,” Halliday said. “They blamed the U.S. and the U.N. for these sanctions and the pain and anger that these sanctions brought to their lives.”

But rather than ending the sanctions or modifying them to target those items truly crucial to building WMD, the Clinton administration continued the futile policy, decimating an entire nation in order to destroy one leader.

Neither for the first nor the last time, the people of Iraq were victims of failed U.S. policy.

The Oil for Food program, which was introduced in 1996 and expanded over the following years, was billed as a major humanitarian measure by the U.S. It allowed Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of petroleum to pay for vital imports, not just food. But Hans von Sponeck, who also resigned his post as U.N. coordinator in Iraq, condemned the program as “a fig leaf for the international community.”

There is no question that Saddam ripped off money during the sanctions regime to attempt to rebuild his military and support his family’s lavish lifestyle, but that point hides the basic issue: Iraq’s needs were enormous. Even if Saddam had invested everything he skimmed from the sanctions into rebuilding his country and feeding his people, those sums would have never prevented the colossal devastation that sanctions brought about.

By the time the sanctions were finally removed, May 22, 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion, an entire generation of Iraqis had been ruined by the failed policy. A UNICEF study in 1999 concluded that half a million Iraqi children perished in the previous eight years because of the sanctions — and that was four years before they ended. Another American expert in 2003 estimated that the sanctions had killed between 343,900 and 529,000 young children and infants. The exact number will never be known. Either estimate is certainly more young people than were ever killed by Saddam Hussein.

(In a statement right out of Orwell in March 27, 2003, Tony Blair actually cited the dramatic increase in infant mortality in Iraq to justify the invasion.)

Beyond the death and destruction of infrastructure, the sanctions had another, equally devastating but less visible, impact, as documented early in 1991 by the group of Harvard medical researchers. They reported that four out of five children interviewed were fearful of losing their families; two-thirds doubted whether they themselves would survive to adulthood. The experts concluded that a majority of Iraq’s children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives. “The trauma, the loss, the grief, the lack of prospects, the feeling of threat here and now, that it will all start again, the impact of the sanctions, make us ask if these children are not the most suffering child population on earth.”

Those sanctions, I reemphasize, lasted for another 12 years after that study — terminating only with the American led invasion of Iraq, which unleashed its own horrors.

It is that generation of “the most traumatized children of war ever described” who have come of age. It is they who — if they had not fled the country — are the new military and police commanders, businessmen and bureaucrats and political and sectarian leaders and suicide bombers, all now confronted with the calamity that is Iraq.

It is also they, as the months pass, who will be increasingly blamed — along with Obama’s willingness to withdraw all U.S. troops — for the next, and perhaps final, cataclysm that awaits their country.

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