Defying the Sanctions

Michael Parenti

disembarking from the Olympic Airways plane that brought me to Iraq in
November 2000, I could see some of the effects of the Western-imposed
sanctions. What was once a busy international airport is now a desolate strip.
Two lonely planes sit as if abandoned on the vast tarmac. There are no airport
personnel to speak of, no baggage carts or utility vehicles, not even any
visible security. On a wall inside the empty terminal is a handmade sign in
Arabic and imperfect English; it reads: “Down USA.” A large portrait of
Saddam Hussein gazes down on us. His image can be found along the road to the
city, in the hotel, and on various public buildings. I am part of an
international delegation of Greeks, Britons, Canadians, and Americans.
Included are journalists, peace advocates, and members of the Greek
parliament. Margarita Papan- dreou, former first lady of Greece and devoted
political activist, leads the group. It is an especially moving moment for
her. It has been her dream for ten years to be able to fly directly to
Baghdad. Ours is the first flight to Iraq by a state-owned commercial airline
from the West in defiance of U.S./UN sanctions. The Iraqi officials who greet
us do not try to hide how pleased they are about our arrival. “Your presence
is a statement against the inhuman means used against us. Iraq is a prosperous
country capable of fulfilling the basic needs of the people but we are being
prevented from doing so by the UN sanctions,” one of them says. “Feel free
to go anywhere and speak to anyone.”

Killing Iraq

Americans do not know that Saddam Hussein was put in power by a CIA-engineered
coup to stop the Iraqi revolution—which he did by massacring the ommunists
and the left wing of his own Baath party. But in time Saddam proved to be a
disappointment to his mentors in Washington. Instead of becoming the comprador
ruler who opened his country to free-market capital penetration on terms that
were thoroughly favorable to Western investors, he devoted a substantial
portion of Iraq’s export earnings to human services and economic
development. In 1972, Iraq nationalized its oil industry and was immediately
denounced by U.S. leaders as a “terrorist” nation. Before the six weeks of
air attacks known as the Gulf War (which ended in February 1991), Iraq’s
standard of living was the highest in the Middle East. Iraqis enjoyed free
medical care and free education. Literacy had reached about 80 percent. Most
Iraqi youth were educated up through secondary school. University students of
both genders received scholarships to study at home and abroad. In the eyes of
Western leaders, Saddam was that penultimate evil, an economic nationalist,
little better than a Communist. He would have to be taught a lesson. His
country needed to be bombed back into the Third World from which it was
emerging. The high explosive tonnage delivered upon Iraq during the Gulf War
was more than twice the combined Allied air offensive of World War II. Within
the first few days of bombing, there was no running water in the country. More
than 90 percent of Iraq’s electrical capacity was destroyed. Its
telecommunication systems, including television and radio stations, were
demolished, as were its flood control, irrigation, sewage treatment, water
purification, and hydroelectic systems. Farm herds and poultry farms suffered
heavy losses. U.S. planes burned wheat and grain fields with incendiary bombs,
and hit hundreds of schools, hospitals, rail stations, bus stations, air-raid
shelters, mosques, and historic sites. Factories that produced textiles,
cement, chlorine, petrochemicals, and phosphate were hit repeatedly. So were
the refineries, pipelines, and storage tanks of Iraq’s oil industry. Iraqi
civilians and soldiers fleeing Kuwait were slaughtered by the thousands on
what became known as the “Highway of Death.” Also massacred were Iraqi
soldiers who tried to surrender to U.S. forces on a number of occasions. In
all, some 200,000 Iraqis were killed in those six weeks. Nearly all U.S.
planes, Ramsey Clark notes, “employed laser-guided depleted-uranium
missiles, leaving 900 tons of radioactive waste spread over much of Iraq with
no concern for the consequences to future life.” Our delegation got a grim
glimpse of the war’s aftermath. We visited the Al-Amerya bomb shelter where
over 400 civilians, mostly women and children were incinerated by 2 U.S.
missiles. The shelter has been made into a shrine, with candles, plastic
flowers, and pictures of the victims. The guide notes that U.S. reconnaissance
saw civilians using the shelter on a nightly basis during the early days of
the bombing, yet it was still chosen as a target.     

In the ten
years of “peace” since February 1991, an additional 400 tons of explosives
have been dropped on Iraq, 300 people have been killed, and many hundreds
wounded. The United States and United Kingdom, with the participation of
France, imposed a no-fly zone over the northern region of the country,
ostensibly to protect the Kurds. This newly found humanitarian concern did not
extend to the Kurds residing on the Turkish side of the border. The next year,
another no-fly zone was imposed in the south, reputedly to protect Shiite
settlements, effectively dividing the country into three parts. By 1998, the
French had withdrawn from both zones, but U.S. and British air attacks on
military and civilian targets have continued almost on a daily basis,
including strafing raids against Iraqi agricultural developments. Baghdad’s
repeated protests to the United Nations have gone unheeded. Since 1998, three
members of the Security Council—Russia, China, and France—and various
nonpermanent members have condemned the raids as illegal and unauthorized by
the Security Council. To drive the point home to us, on the second day of our
visit, U.S. warplanes fired four missiles at the village of Hmaidi in the
southern province of Basra, one of which struck the Ali Al-Hayaini school,
wounding four children and three teachers. Several homes were also hit.

Picking Up
the Pieces

the years of bombings and the even greater toll on human life taken by the
sanctions, visitors to Baghdad do not see a city in ruins. Much of the
wreckage has been cleared away, much has been repaired. In our hotel there is
running water throughout the day, hot water in the morning. Various streets in
Baghdad are lined with little stores, surprisingly well-stocked with household
appliances, hardware goods, furniture, and clothes (much of which has a
second-hand look). We see no derelicts or homeless people on the streets of
Baghdad, no prostitutes or ragged bands of abandoned children, though there
are occasional youngsters eager to shine shoes or solicit spare change. But
even they seem to be well-fed and decently clothed. Obviously, despite all the
destruction wrought by the sanctions, Iraq still has not undergone sufficient
free-market “structural adjustment.” A British member of our delegation
who has made more than a dozen trips to Iraq over the past decade sees some
changes for the better. A few years ago, the cars all looked like “death
traps”; tires were patched beyond recognition, windows were cracked, and
doors were falling off the hinges, she tells me. Now the Iraqis seem to have
procured vehicles that are in better repair. In addition, large swaths of the
city used to be shrouded in complete darkness; now there are lights just about
everywhere, though mostly on the dim side. There are more shops with more
goods, “although 70 percent of the people can’t buy anything.” Still,
“people used to feel hopelessly isolated and now there seems to be more hope
and better morale,” she concludes.    

Not everyone
shows better morale. It is said that the most depressed officials in Iraq can
be found in the Ministry of Health, not surprisingly given the tragedies they
confront. Aside from the 200,000 Iraqis slaughtered during the Gulf War, an
additional 1.5 million civilians have died since 1991 as a result of the
sanctions, according to UNICEF reports and the Red Cross, many from what
normally would be treatable and curable illnesses. Of these victims, 600,000
are children under 5 years of age. Maternal mortality rates have more than
doubled, and 70 percent of Iraqi women suffer from anemia. Given the tons of
depleted uranium used during the Allied attacks, cancer rates have
skyrocketed: the childhood leukemia rate is now the highest in the world. Most
of the leukemia increase is in southern Iraq where the bombing was heaviest.

We visit a
children’s hospital in Baghdad. The familiar sight of skeletal-looking
infants, racked with diseases that make it impossible for them to retain or
digest nutrients are no longer evident. Such dying children still can be found
in parts of Iraq but not at this hospital. Instead we encounter something
equally ominous: children suffering from acute forms of multiple malignancies.
Shrouded mothers stand by the beds like mournful sentinels, their eyes filled
with unspoken grief. The journalists, photographers, and TV crews in our
delegation descend upon these sad people, clicking and flashing away with that
intrusive irreverence that is the press’s modus operandi. A mother weeps
quietly against the wall. Things are getting worse, a doctor tells us; more
and more children are turning up with leukemia. The medical staff is
overwhelmed. One doctor says he sees 300 patients in 3 hours: “We cannot
treat them properly.” Some of the hospital rooms are lined with incubators
that contain what look like premature births. These turn out to be infants who
are the products of depleted uranium, born with serious deformities and
malfunctions, urgently in need of surgical intervention. The hospital lacks
the special instruments needed to operate on infants, not to mention ordinary
medications, anesthetics, antibiotics, bandages, intravenous sets, and
diagnostic equipment. Iraq’s excellent national health care system, with its
universal coverage, is now in shambles because of the embargo.

Things were
supposed to get better when the sanctions were eased in 1996, allowing Iraq to
make “oil for food” sales. Since then, $32 billion in oil was sold abroad
but only $8 billion worth of materials has reached Iraq, less than $5 or $6 a
month per person. Another $10 billion has been allocated for “war
compensation,” in effect forcing the Iraqis to pay the costs incurred by the
UN aggressors when destroying Iraq. Another $11 billion in cash sits in
Western banks. Worse still, many essential things needed to rebuild the
infrastructure—including the technological, medical, educational,
communicational, and industrial systems of the nation—are still not
available. Under the deleterious “dual use” doctrine, many vital
commodities and materials needed for humanitarian and civilian purposes are
banned because they conceivably could also be used by the military: computers,
components for electrical transmitters and water pumps, even glycerin tablets
needed for heart ailments. (It would take millions of glycerin tablets mixed
with nitrogen to make one small explosive.)

The Foreign
Minister Speaks

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tariq Aziz, meets with our delegation and makes
the following points: Before 1990, the United Nations had placed sanctions
upon only a few nations, such as Rhodesia and South Africa, on a voluntary
basis. “It was left to the countries themselves and the world to implement
those sanctions or not implement them.” Hence the effects were mild. But
since 1990, U.S. leaders with their so-called New World Order have imposed the
severest embargo, “encircling Iraq with warships and airplanes that prevent
even ordinary trips and ordinary cargoes.” As with the sanctions against
Yugoslavia, the minister notes, this policy has created a lot of suffering.
“Therefore, when we say that this embargo is an international issue, it’s
not just anti-American propaganda. It’s the truth. And it is quit horrid.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union has created a different international scene,
he adds. With the end of the Cold War, “a new hot war and warm war” has
been imposed on many nations, with Iraq as a prime target.

In spite of all
the reports made by United Nations agencies “informing the Security Council
about the sufferings of the Iraqi people, and the deaths of so many children,
and the deterioration of the Iraqi economy,” Aziz reminds us, there is no
likelihood of any change in UN policy on sanctions because of the Security
Council veto wielded by the United States and Britain. Still the people of
Iraq have not been merely passive victims. They have “refused to yield to
American pressure and American blackmail.” In addition, there is “the will
of other peoples, the free women and men in this world” who refuse to
support injustice and imperialism. After ten years, U.S. propaganda “is
wearing thin,” and “a lot of facts have become known to the peoples of the
world” bringing a dramatic increase in support for Iraq—as measured by the
growing number of air flights from various nations in defiance of the
sanctions. Not only Iraq but its trading partners have sustained substantial
commercial losses because of the ten-year embargo. In 2000, more than 1,500
international companies from 45 countries participated in the Iraqi trade
fair. So, for both moral and legitimate commercial reasons, “the embargo is
beginning to crack.”  

Ten years ago,
concludes Aziz, we were told: history is over; from now on we will live
according to the dictates of U.S. leaders in a Pax Americana. Those who do not
accept this are “rogue nations.” But U.S. leaders are beginning to realize
“that this new imperialism is not working…. Despite all its power, the
United States is not God. It’s not the Almighty. It’s an imperialist
force.” And “when a nation succeeds in refusing the dictate of
imperialists, [and] succeeds in preserving its sovereignty, and its
independence and dignity, that is an achievement.” Aziz’s closing plea was
that we not rely on “the manipulated media” of the United States, Britain
and Canada. “One of the basic human rights is that you have the right to
make your own judgment, not to buy judgments made by others that might not be
honest and true. So I hope that you will use this short visit to know what is
going on in this country and what the realities are.”

On the closing
day of our trip, members of our delegation lay plans to carry on the battle
against sanctions. These include: lobbying the UN Compensation Committee,
which refuses to release the $11 billion in Iraqi oil-for-food earnings;
joining with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and other
NGOs to lobby the UN Security Council; lobbying the UN Human Rights Commission
in Geneva and the parliament of the European Union; lobbying elected
representatives and religious leaders in various countries; and sending
messages through the Internet. The sanctions wall is not about to crumble but
it is showing cracks. In 1998 Scott Ritter, chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq
since 1991, resigned and accused the U.S. government of undercutting UN
weapons inspectors. Meanwhile U.S. leaders and the press continued to portray
Iraq as bent on nuclear aggression, despite the fact that Baghdad cooperated
fully with UN inspectors who scoured the country in a vain search for weapons
of mass destruction or the capacity to build them.     

Also in 1998,
Denis Halliday, UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator in
Iraq, resigned in protest of what the sanctions were doing to that country. In
early 2000, Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq and Jutta
Burghart, head of UN World Food Program in Baghdad, resigned in protest of the
sanctions. Still, the State Department and the U.S. media continue to blame
Saddam, not the sanctions, for the misery endured by the Iraqi people. The
claim that sanctions hurt ordinary Iraqis “is outweighed by the sad truth
that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep portions of his population in
poverty,” intones a Washington Post editorial reprinted in the
International Herald Tribune (November 14, 2000). The Iraqi leader, the
Post assures us, is a “warmongering dictator” who needs to be
contained by a still more severe application of sanctions. On being selected
as the new U.S. Secretary of State in December 2000, General Colin Powell
echoed this position, announcing that he would strive to “reenergize” the
sanctions against Iraq. The Iraqi leadership could turn U.S. policy completely
around by uttering just two magic words: “free market.” All they would
have to do is invite the IMF and World Bank into Iraq, eliminate free
education and free medical care, abolish the minimal food ration that goes to
every Iraqi, abolish the housing subsidies and transportation subsidies, and
hand over the country’s oil industry to the corporate cartels. To lift the
sanctions, Iraq must surrender to the tender mercies of the free-market
paradise as Yugoslavia has recently done under the newly minted,
Western-sponsored president, Kostunica, and as so many other nations have
done. Until then, Iraq will continue to be designated a “rogue nation” by
those policymakers in Washington who themselves are the meanest profit-driven,
power-mongering rogues on earth.

Parenti’s most recent books are
To Kill a Nation: The Attack on
Yugoslavia (Verso) and History as Mystery (City Lights).