Iraq Under Seige - Book review

The Unending War: Considering the Sanctions against the People of Iraq
by Rahul Mahajan; photographs by Alan Pogue

The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War.

Edited by Anthony Arnove.
Photographs by Alan Pogue.
South End Press.
216 pages. $16.00 (paper).

They made a wasteland and called it peace.
          - Tacitus

I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it.
          - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked by reporter Leslie Stahl whether U.S. policy objectives in Iraq were worth the death of 500,000 children


The war against Iraq is not over. The past decade, marked internationally by a ceaseless U.S. effort to force other countries to open their markets to First World multinational corporations, has simultaneously seen Iraq cut off from the world, under a state of siege known as "economic sanctions." The situation is not as paradoxical as it first seems, since both "free trade" and the sanctions involve control of the policies of other countries by the elites of the First World. The sanctions against Iraq constitute the most comprehensive economic blockade of any country in modern times: in actual effect, a war against civilians that preferentially targets children, the elderly, and the poor.

The effects of this blockade on a country that once imported 70 percent of its food requirements, whose entire infrastructure was reduced to rubble by possibly the most intense bombing campaign in history, have been devastating. The number killed by the sanctions alone since 1990, variously estimated by different United Nations agencies, is likely over 1 million in all. Half of the dead are children under the age of five. According to reliable international estimates, another 5,000 or more children under five die every month as a consequence of sanctions. These innocent victims are caught between two forces that have repeatedly shown their callous disregard for human rights: Saddam Hussein and the U.S. government.

The effects of the sanctions are becoming widely known. After years of silence, the U.S. media, in response to the heroic efforts of a small but dedicated group of international activists, have recently given some mainstream coverage to the conditions of life in Iraq, most notably in an excellent feature by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (available at Although such coverage is not comprehensive, and is generally anecdotal rather than statistical, cumulatively it does paint an illuminating picture of a country in crisis.

One cannot, however, rely on the mainstream media to understand or report the diabolical way in which the sanctions are enforced, the steady stream of lies and disinformation disseminated by the U.S. government, the culpability of the United States, or, indeed, the real reasons for the policy. Over the past several years, much has been written on postwar Iraq. The work spans a broad range: Out of the Ashes, by Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, details the inner workings of Iraq's government and of covert U.S. operations in Iraq; Endgame, by Scott Ritter, chronicles the saga of weapons inspections; Iraq: Sanctions and Beyond, by Anthony Cordesman and Ahmed Hashim, analyzes Iraq as a security issue from a military perspective; The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law, and Natural Justice, by Geoff Simons, is a magisterial analysis and critique of the sanctions and of U.S. motives in Iraq. Interestingly, each of these authors characterizes the sanctions as a cruel and untenable policy, which inflicts massive harm on innocents while offering no chance of attaining any of the U.S. government's stated goals.

Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, a new collection from South End Press, is a valuable addition to this literature. Like Simons' book, it contains the necessary analysis to see beneath the surface of U.S. proclamations, and adds the vital dimension of personal experience. Most of the contributors have visited Iraq, and among them are some of the foremost activists in the anti-sanctions movement. The book includes pieces by political analysts Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn; journalists Robert Fisk and John Pilger; Middle East experts Phyllis Bennis and Barbara Nimri Aziz; Peter Pellett, head of three U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization missions to Iraq; Iraqi biologist Huda Ammash; and prominent anti-sanctions activists Kathy Kelly (founder of Voices in the Wilderness, which has made over thirty trips to Iraq bringing medicine, in defiance of the sanctions), and Rania Masri, director of the Iraq Action Coalition. The book also includes an interview with Denis Halliday, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq until he resigned in 1998 in protest of the sanctions. (His successor, Hans von Sponeck, and Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program's mission to Iraq, have done the same.) The result is a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive critique of U.S. policy on Iraq.

          The Results of the Sanctions

Kelly describes hospitals full of children suffering from kwashiorkor and marasmus (diseases of severe malnutrition); doctors forced to stand by and watch while these children die because they have no medicine; people dying from waterborne diseases because Iraq has been allowed to import neither enough chlorine to treat the water nor new pipes to replace old, broken ones. Robert Fisk describes an estimated 300 tons of depleted uranium ordnance in southern Iraq, and an explosion of childhood leukemia and grotesque birth defects in that region since the war. In pre-war Iraq, the cure rate for leukemia was 76 percent; under the sanctions, leukemia is a death sentence. Professor Pellett covers the effects on the country as a whole: average food intake has declined by one-third; growth-stunting and wasting are now as common as in the worst-off Third World countries; mortality for children under five years old is almost 2.5 times the pre-sanctions rate.

Considering these heavily documented, accumulating casualties, the reflexive U.S. response has been that all this suffering is the fault of Saddam Hussein. It is undeniable that Hussein cares more about his own power than about the welfare of his people; that a small elite lives very well while most Iraqis are suffering; and that anyone perceived as a threat to Hussein's power risks imprisonment or death. But it is also true that during the Seventies and Eighties, prior to the Gulf War, Hussein presided over a tremendous increase in the health and well-being of the Iraqi people - illiteracy almost wiped out, education free through the graduate level, health care excellent and free. In addition, most U.N. relief officials confirm that the only thing now preventing mass starvation has been the Iraqi government's food rationing system, implemented shortly after the institution of sanctions. That system has drawn praise for its fairness and efficiency from all knowledgeable quarters.

It is true that the Iraqi elites - like those in most countries, including the United States - will buy expensive M.R.I. machines despite widespread shortages of basic medical supplies. But the amount of money re-directed by those sorts of transactions is minimal in relation to the needs of the Iraqi people. If anything, in the U.S. the social inequity is much greater - hospitals here glitter with fancy equipment while 45 million people, disproportionately children, remain uninsured and without access to basic preventative care. It is illuminating to see the conventional defenders of the free market and of corporate super-profits, when they consider Iraq, suddenly discovering socialism.

Since the actual facts are far from sufficient for the U.S. government to defend its sanctions policy, the administration has resorted instead to a remarkable array of disinformation. One of the hoariest charges is that Saddam has misappropriated United Nations Oil-for-Food funds to build palaces. Yet the simple structure of these transactions make that misappropriation quite impossible. Under Security Council Resolutions 986 and 1153, Iraq is allowed to sell up to 5.2 billion dollars worth of oil every six months (that cap was recently raised). Roughly 3 billion dollars of that money goes to meet the needs of 23 million Iraqis (the rest is designated in advance for "reparations" to Kuwaitis and others). As the piece here by Voices in the Wilderness points out, no funds from the Oil-for-Food program even enter Iraq: all the money goes to a New York account of the Bank of Paris, from which funds are disbursed by the U.N. to pay for specific contracts Iraq has with foreign companies.

Similarly false is the charge, usually accompanied in the U.S. press by photographs of warehouses full of goods, that supplies are being "hoarded" by the regime. U.N. officials in charge of monitoring the distribution disagree. The explanation lies rather in the way the Oil-for-Food program works. Every contract Iraq makes with a foreign company must include a complete specification of the end use of every item contracted for. It must then be approved by the U.N. Sanctions Committee, a body with one representative from each member of the Security Council, any one of whom can veto or indefinitely suspend any contract for any reason. If a contract cannot be fulfilled exactly as written, it is cancelled and the whole process must begin again. This procedure creates many problems for the Iraqis. They are not allowed to import refrigerated trucks because such trucks could have military uses - which means that perishable items (e.g., cancer medicine) cannot be transported. Some warehouses have only a single operating forklift.

Equally serious is the problem of "complementarity." Frequently, the Iraqis receive insulin but no syringes, heart-lung machines but not the computers to run them. They are then forced to keep the goods they receive warehoused, hoping that the Sanctions Committee will allow the complementary equipment in. This problem occurs so often that many activists suspect that it is done on purpose. The U.S. is responsible for over 1,000 vetoes and holds on Oil-for-Food contracts; Britain is a distant second with 120.

          The Stated Motives

Such peremptory behavior suggests we should question closely the government's stated motives. The two primary justifications for U.S. support of the sanctions are (a) that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction make it a threat to its neighbors, and (b) that the U.S. is simply interested in upholding international law. As Anthony Arnove points out in the introduction to Iraq Under Siege, however, the U.S. has expressed no desire to limit its own weapons of mass destruction, or those of its allies. The U.S. maintains the largest such arsenal in the world, including nuclear and chemical weapons, and it supports and arms allied countries with severe records of regional aggression and human rights violations, such as Israel and Turkey. Nor is Iraq the only country to use weapons of mass destruction - the U.S. has used such weapons more than any other country.

Furthermore, Iraq is no longer a threat to any of its neighbors. Scott Ritter, once a U.N. official in the weapons monitoring program and no friend of the Hussein regime, writes, "Iraq today possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction," and his claims have been echoed by other weapons inspectors. While Iraq's military has collapsed and its weapons have been dismantled, other countries in the area have engaged in an orgy of weapons-buying, mostly from the U.S.

The international law argument is even more absurd. The sanctions violate the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, and also, as Pellett points out, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by every country except the U.S. and Somalia). The December 1998 Desert Fox campaign, and the continuing "low-level" bombing ever since - never authorized by the Security Council - are violations of the U.N. Charter. The so-called "no-fly zones" have no U.N. authorization, and are simply a bi-lateral (U.S. and Britain) exertion of imperial power. The bombing - barely reported in the mainstream media, yet the longest campaign since the Vietnam War - has killed hundreds of innocent civilians.

Another frequent defense of the sanctions is that they are somehow intended to bring down Hussein and his regime. This is an odd claim, since observers across the political spectrum - including the Iraqi opposition - insist that the sanctions have strengthened the Iraqi leader. The sanctions give the regime more control over the lives of ordinary Iraqis, who are now entirely dependent on the government dole, and have shifted the focus of ordinary Iraqis' anger away from their government and toward the U.S. Moreover, public energy is entirely consumed in the struggle for survival, making political action all the more difficult.

          The Permanent Motivations

So what are the real motives driving this policy? It's hard to do more than speculate, but the writers in Iraq Under Siege present some plausible possibilities. Arnove argues that the primary motivation of postwar U.S. foreign policy has been to retain its position of extreme privilege - as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it approvingly, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas." To this general motivation Chomsky adds the first rule of U.S. Middle East policy: that the resources of the region belong not to the people of the region, but to the U.S. Any development that might imperil that presumed ownership must be met with appropriate force. Given that unspoken and unacknowledged presumption, Chomsky argues, the sanctions make sense. After nationalizing its oil, Iraq had spread the benefits of its oil revenues, creating a significant highly-educated middle class which could not so easily be controlled by a weak feudal elite, such as those that rule in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Under this logic, continuing U.S. hegemony in the area requires the targeting of not just the rulers, but the general populace.

A related question is whether the sanctions can be considered genocide. As Denis Halliday says in his interview, "It certainly is a valid word in my view, when you have a situation where we see thousands of deaths per month, a possible total of 1 million to 1.5 million over the last nine years. If that is not genocide, then I don't know quite what is." The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted in 1948, ratified with reservations by the U.S. in 1988), includes within its definition: "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." The sanctions do seem calculated to destroy a significant segment of Iraqi society. The question of intent is less clear - certainly it is not as crude as the express desire to kill all Iraqis.

But practically speaking, the continued sanctions hold the Iraqi civilian population hostage against the (undefined) good behavior of Saddam Hussein. Yet Hussein has no incentive to comply any further - for, as even conservatives like Cordesman and Ritter acknowledge, Clinton and various subordinates have repeatedly indicated that even should Iraq disarm completely, sanctions will not be lifted until Hussein is dead. Furthermore, the shapers of the policy consistently proclaim Hussein's indifference to the suffering of his people - never acknowledging that this supposition entirely obviates their argument for the sanctions.

The basic mandate behind the sanctions is also unreasonably broad - as Chomsky says, "There is indeed a way to eliminate the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction, only one way, and that is the Carthaginian solution: you totally destroy the society." However extreme such a measure might appear, it seems to be, alas, effectively what the sanctions are doing.

Iraq Under Siege concludes on an uncertainly hopeful note, with a description of various activist efforts against the sanctions, which sympathetic readers shall wish to pursue. It is mildly heartening to note that a recent letter to the president calling for the lifting of economic sanctions, sponsored by Congressmen John Conyers of Michigan and Tom Campbell of California, was signed by seventy congresspeople (only two of whom, Ciro Rodríguez and Sheila Jackson Lee, are from Texas). Iraq may still be saved, if enough Americans can be persuaded to act on their moral responsibility to put an end to the genocidal crimes of our government.

Reading Iraq Under Siege is a good place to begin.


From: Rahul Mahajan <>

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