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Weapons of Mass Destruction

01.16.2002 | BOOKS

Iraq Under Siege
Edited by Anthony Arnove
South End Press, 2000

Last October my neighborhood café in Prague screened a documentary about the embargo on Iraq. It was a devastating 90 minutes, and the lights returned to show a room thick with emotion. A group of strangers had just shared the experience of watching infants die in their mother's arms as voiceovers of US officials explained why it was necessary to block shipments of basic medicine. The mostly Czech audience seemed split into three groups: the heartbroken, the outraged, and the genuinely confused. The film made a strong case that everybody's favorite benign hegemon enforces a policy that amounts to the murder of innocent children--over 3,000 a month by UN estimates--and people were shaken.

Into this field of gravity walked Alexandr Vondra, former Czech ambassador to the US and invited guest for the post-film discussion. After removing his coat--thus letting everyone know he had better things to do than watch the documentary he was asked to comment on--the distinguished visitor said the film was no doubt one-sided and shouldn't be taken too seriously. He then apologized if his comments seemed rushed. There was a big soccer match on television that night, he explained, and he was eager to get home.

At this point myself and two friends stood up and headed for the exit. One of them, a girl, slammed the heavy iron door behind her with such force that the entire building shook to its medieval foundations. Unfortunately the walkout stopped at three.

This small gesture of dissent was a justified response to an expert display of asshole behavior. But the scale of arrogance in a two-bit errand boy like Vondra pales beside that of the American foreign policy elite, which for over a decade has kept devastating sanctions clamped on the civilian population of Iraq.

The sanctions date back to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which ended Saddam Hussein's status as a favored US client in the Middle East. The story of the sanctions since the end of Gulf War is one of shifting goalposts, with the US repeatedly changing the conditions for their lifting. This happens so often that nobody really believes the sanctions will end as long as Hussein is in power, and high-level US officials have said point blank that the sanctions won't end until there is a regime change to Washington's liking. Still, media in the West continue to ape the stale US line that the Iraqi government refuses to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, and thus "Saddam" alone is responsible for the sanctions.

This version ignores the fact that UNSCOM inspectors had access to virtually all of Iraq until they were found to include CIA moles in 1998. It also ignores the fact that the US forced the withdrawal of the UNSCOM team--they were not "thrown out" as is often claimed. Finally, it ignores numerous Iraqi offers to allow a neutral team of inspectors back into the country in exchange for ending the sanctions.

Because the embargo is not likely to end anytime soon, their effects and origins merit attention. Learning about the sanctions is important both morally as an act of bearing witness, as well as politically for the lessons they hold about the logic and priorities of US global strategy.

A good place to start is the recent collection of essays Iraq Under Siege, which brings together fifteen scholars and activists. Pundits in Washington are fond of calling the anti-sanctions lobby "Saddam's Fanclub", so it is important to state at the outset that all of the contributors agree that Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator. But unlike their establishment critics, they actually said this in the 1980s, when the pundits were mum on active US support for Hussein's reign of terror and biological weapons program.

Iraq Under Siege challenges several pillars supporting the conventional wisdom. One is that sanctions are an effective, nonviolent way of weakening Hussein's grip on power. In fact, the opposite has occurred. While strengthening Hussein's power base, the sanctions have lowered general health and nutrition in Iraq so much that over 500,000 children under five died between 1990 and 1998, according to UNICEF and World Health Organization estimates. Arabs have an expression for this kind of policy: smacking the donkey instead of the driver. Noam Chomsky even hints that the real purpose of the sanctions might be to decimate the population of Iraq, and thus lower the probability that one day Iraq's oil will be fueled back into Iraq's own internal development instead of going to the west. Chomsky says Saudi Arabia--oil rich, sparsely populated and compliant--is the Middle Eastern model preferred by Washington, and Iraq is being bent until it resembles this model.

So how do the sanctions kill so many people? During the Gulf War the US knowingly targeted civilian infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants, irrigation systems and water purification plants. Since reconstruction under the sanctions isn't possible, this means that Iraq's 22 million people have been struggling to find clean water for over a decade. This is hardest on the young, and hundreds of thousands of them have died from diseases such as simple diarrhea, typhoid, and other bacteria transmitted through contaminated water. The World Food Program estimates that access to potable water is currently at 50 percent of pre-1990 levels in urban areas, and 33 percent outside the cities.

It is important to remember that before the bombing Iraq had one of the most advanced health-care systems in the Middle East, and one of the most common problems faced by Iraqi pediatricians was obesity. The country has now been successfully pushed back into the Third World.

The air-conditioned trucks necessary to transport and house medicine in desert heat are restricted under the sanctions. This is because the US considers them potentially "dual-use", which means they could theoretically be used in a chemical or biological weapons program. This rationale has been used in denying everything from oxygen tanks to cancer medication. Especially in Southern Iraq, where the US used radioactive Depleted Uranium shells by the thousands, child leukemia treatments are more needed than ever.

Defenders of the sanctions deflect these facts by turning the tables. Saddam Hussein is to blame, they say, because he diverts funds from the UN's generous Oil for Food program and builds ornate palaces while his people starve. In fact, all money from the Oil for Food program is held in a UN escrow account in New York, and the Iraqi government never sees a dime of it. Furthermore, the purchasing, warehousing, and distribution of humanitarian aid in Iraq is closely monitored by the UN, and all relevant agencies have denied that the Iraqi government is diverting or withholding food or medicine from the Iraqi population. Rather, observers claim that hold-ups are the natural result of carrying out a massive aid operation in such a devastated country. The UN must painstakingly approve every order, and because so many requests are rejected or delayed by the US, important materials often trickle in at random. What's more, a full third of Oil for Food profits go to pay for war reparations, while another chunk pays UN administrative costs. What's left for Iraqis are metaphorical crumbs, with low oil prices only compounding the situation in recent years.

Nobody questions that the horror show sketched above is real. On the US television news show 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl asked then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if the deaths of 500,000 innocent Iraqi children were justified. Albright responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it."

The State Department has since put pressure on CBS to never screen or sell the rights to that clip ever again, but the transcript can be read in numerous places, including Iraq Under Siege.

This collection also clarifies issues tangential to the sanctions, such as the northern "no-fly" zone enforced by US and UK warplanes. Washington claims the zone is there to protect the Kurds, despite the fact that the US stood by when Hussein slaughtered Kurds there after the Gulf War, and even though Turkey currently uses the same airspace to conduct its own bombing raids on Kurdish villages.

Altogether these essays constitute a potent antidote to the distortions and outright lies that define so much Anglo-American coverage of Iraq. And with another brutal attack on Baghdad on the horizon, such antidotes gain a poignant urgency. The bombs will fall on many heads, but Saddam Hussein's is unlikely to be one of them.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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