Iraq's health minister claimed Tuesday that 2,042 children under age 5 have died because of shortages in baby food and medicines brought on by the U.N.-ordered embargo on trade with his country.

The minister, Abdul-Salam Mohammed Said, blamed President Bush for the deaths in a statement distributed by the official Iraqi News Agency."Documented evidence of this high rate in children's death will stand to condemn the crimes committed by Bush and his partners," INA quoted the minister as saying.

He said 600 of the children died in hospitals this month, mainly due to shortages of vaccines that caused the spread of contagious diseases like measles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

Said claimed on Dec. 3 that 1,416 children had died because of shortages resulting from the sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed on Iraq as punishment for its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

Western diplomats in Baghdad have discounted the reports of shortages, noting that the Security Council decided in October to allow shipments of essential food and medicines to Iraq.

The diplomats note that since mid-October, nearly 120 tons of medicines have arrived from humanitarian groups worldwide, earmarked for Iraqi children.

Most of the shipments were in exchange for Western hostages helped by Iraq until President Saddam Hussein announced a blanket release on Dec.6.

Last week alone, Iraq's Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, announced it had received a shipment of 22 tons of medical supplies from Italy and another 28 tons of the same from the United Nations' Children Fund, UNICEF.

But government hospitals still report shortages of vaccines, antibiotics and baby formulas and tell patients they should bring their own.