Iraqi Sanctions: Myth and Fact

Jeff Lindemyer

On August 6, 1990,
immediately prior to the “Persian Gulf War,” the United Nations levied sanctions
against Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In the ensuing
11-year span, the sanctions have not changed, though the Iraqi landscape has
undeniably been altered forever. Well over one million Iraqis are dead as a
direct result of the sanctions, over half of them children, and over four
million Iraqis have fled the country in hope of a better life. The economy is in
shambles, disease and malnutrition are commonplace, and even potable drinking
water has become rare. Yet throughout the devastating aftermath of the “Persian
Gulf War” and the sanctions, Saddam Hussein maintains his position as dictator.
The aim of this article is to debunk the most common myths surrounding the Iraqi
sanctions whose existence is dependent upon them.

“Sanctions are not intended to harm the people of Iraq” (U.S. State Department,
March 2000).

FACT: Several
United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) documents clearly and thoroughly
prove, in the words of one author, “beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva
Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to
degrade the country’s water supply after the Gulf War. The United States knew
the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead
anyway” (The Progressive, August 2001).

One document
entitled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,” dated January 22, 1991, is
quite straightforward in how sanctions will prevent Iraq from supplying clean
water to its citizens. It explains Iraq’s heavy dependence on the importation of
specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water. Failing to secure
these items (which is nearly impossible to do under the sanctions), the
documents adds, will result in a shortage of drinking water and could “lead to
increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease” (U.S. Department of Defense,
January 1991).

Other DIA
documents confirm that the U.S. government was not only aware of the devastation
of the sanctions, but was, in fact, monitoring their progress. The first in a
lengthy series of documents entitled “Disease Information” is a document whose
heading reads “Subject: Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad.”
The document states, “Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to
degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water
purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease
outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will
have similar problems.” The document then itemizes the likely disease outbreaks,
noting which in particular will affect children (U.S. Department of Defense,
January 1991).

A second DIA
document, “Disease Outbreaks in Iraq” from February 21, 1991 writes, “Conditions
are favorable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban
areas affected by coalition bombing.” It continues, “Infectious disease
prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas targeted by coalition bombing (Baghdad,
Basrah) undoubtedly has increased since the beginning of Desert Storm.” Similar
to the preceding document, it explains the causes of the disease outbreaks and
itemizes them, again paying close attention to which will affect children (U.S.
Department of Defense, February 1991).

The third
document, written March 15, 1991 and entitled “Medical Problems in Iraq,” states
that diseases are far more common due to “poor sanitary conditions (contaminated
water supplied and improper sewage disposal) resulting from the war.” It then
cites a UNICEF/WHO report that “the quantity of potable water is less than 5
percent of the original supply,” that “there are no operational water and sewage
treatment plants,” and that diarrhea and respiratory infections are on the rise.
Almost as a sidenote, it adds “Children particularly have been affected by these
diseases” (U.S. Department of Defense, March 1991).

“As these
documents illustrate, the United States knew sanctions had the capacity to
devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. It knew what the consequences
would be: increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality” (The
Progressive, August 2001).

MYTH: “Thanks
to the oil-for-food program, the people of Iraq, especially those in the north,
are getting needed foods and medicines” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: Former UN
Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, oversaw the oil-for-food
program and believes otherwise. “The OFF program as conceived is completely
inadequate. It was designed in fact not to resolve the situation, but to prevent
further deterioration of both mortality rates and malnutrition. It has failed to
do that; at best it has just about sustained the situation. It’s grossly
under-funded, and it has not even begun to address the needs, the dietary needs
of the Iraqi people… And on top of that you have a medical sector which gobbles
up the rest of the money to a great extent, so again we have not managed to
provide the basic needs of the Iraqi people” (The Fire This Time, April
1999). Halliday resigned from his post in September 1998 in protest of the
sanctions against Iraq. He had worked for the UN for 34 years.

MYTH: “Iraqi
obstruction of the oil-for-food program, not United Nations sanctions, is the
primary reason the Iraqi people are suffering” (U.S. State Department, March

sanctions were levied against Iraq in August 1990 and the oil-for-food program
began in December 1996. It is therefore impossible to attribute the suffering of
the Iraqi people to the obstruction of a program, which did not exist until six
years after the fact. As Halliday explained, the oil-for-food program was set up
by the UN Security Council as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq
created by the impact of the sanctions. The creation of the program demonstrates
that the suffering of the Iraqi people preceded any possible interference.

program or not, the plight of the Iraqi people, especially that of children, has
been unconscionable. Since the onset of the sanctions, almost one-quarter of all
infants are born underweight and the same number is malnourished (UN Report,
March 1999). The situation doesn’t get any better as they get older either, as
32 percent of children under 5 are chronically malnourished, with the mortality
rate increasing over 6-fold to be among the highest in the world (UNICEF,
November 1997 and WHO, March 1996). Stemming mainly from hunger and disease, the
result is the death of 4,500 children under the age of 5 per month
(October 1996 UNICEF). That translates roughly to 150 children killed every day.
In all, if pre-war trends in child mortality had continued through the 1990s,
there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in Iraq
from 1991 to 1998 (August 1999 UNICEF).

MYTH: “Iraq is
mismanaging the oil-for-food program, either deliberately or through
incompetence” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: The U.S.
State Department claims that because there has been some improvement in the
mortality rates in northern Iraq, where the UN controls distribution of food and
medicine, this proves that Saddam Hussein is to blame for the crisis in southern
and central Iraq. As Hans Van Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in
Iraq, who took over after Halliday’s resignation, has noted, the claim of
mismanagement is simply not true (The Fire This Time, April 1999).

Since the bombing
of the “Persian Gulf War” was concentrated in southern Iraq, the destruction of
civilian infrastructure is most severe there. Yet the oil-for-food program
provides no funding for the distribution of food and medicine in southern and
central Iraq. Southern and central Iraq also receives far less support per
capita from the international community than northern Iraq. Comprising 85
percent of the population, southern and central Iraq benefits from only 11
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as opposed to the 34 NGOs which northern
Iraq benefits from. Similarly, northern Iraq receives 22 percent more per capita
from the oil-for-food program and gets about 10 percent of UN-controlled
assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities
(Education for Peace in Iraq Center).

MYTH: “Holds
on inappropriate contracts help prevent the diversion of oil-for-food goods to
further Saddam’s personal interests” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: Requests
for desperately needed equipment routinely get held up in the Security Council
for months at a time. The delays have gotten so bad that UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan and Office of the Iraq Program Director Benon Sevon have written
letters decrying the excessive holds placed on items ordered under the program
(Education for Peace in Iraq Center).

The holds that
perpetuate the detrimental health impacts of the sanctions have gained the
attention of one House member. In the summer of 2000, Representative Tony Hall
of Ohio wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Madeline Albright “about the
profound effects of the increasing deterioration of Iraq’s water supply and
sanitation systems on its children’s health.” Hall wrote, “Holds on contracts
for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in
sickness and death. Of the eighteen contracts, all but one hold was placed by
the U.S. government. The contracts are for purification chemicals, chlorinators,
chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment… I urge you to weigh
your decision against the disease and death that are the unavoidable result of
not having safe drinking water and minimum levels of sanitation” (The
, August 2001).

Unfortunately for
the people of Iraq, the letter was addressed to Madeline Albright—the same
person who stated that the deaths of over half a million children were “worth

Despite the
minimal coverage by Congress, holds continue to expedite the process of
destruction within Iraq. “Earlier this year [2001], U.S. diplomats blocked child
vaccines for Iraq, including for diphtheria, typhoid, and tetanus. Over $3
billion worth of contracts remain on hold. To date, no hearings have been held”
(Education for Peace in Iraq Center, August 2001).

MYTH: Saddam
Hussein is hoarding both food and medical supplies from his people to evoke
Western sympathy (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: Allegations
of the “warehousing” of food and medicine were put to rest by former UN
Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Hans Van Sponeck; “It is not, I repeat not,
and you can check this with my colleagues, a pre-meditated act of withholding
medicines from those who should have it. It is much, much, more complex than
that.“ Sponeck explains that low worker pay, lack of transportation, poor
facilities, and low funding are responsible for the breakdowns in inventory and
distribution systems. The bureaucracy of the oil-for- food program, such as
contract delays and holds, also plays a substantial role. Sponeck, like his
predecessor, Denis Halliday, resigned from his post in February 2000 in protest
of the sanctions. Also like Halliday, Sponeck had worked for the UN for over 30
years (The Fire This Time, April 1999).

Halliday concurs
that contract delays, contract holds, and distribution problems account for the
medical supplies problem. “[T]hose factors come together and you have a problem…
I have no doubt in saying that there is no one person in the Ministry of
Health or anywhere else in the Iraqi government who is deliberately trying to
damage the health, or allowing children or others to die by deliberately not
distributing medical supplies. That’s just nonsense” (The Fire This Time,
April 1999).

MYTH: “Saddam
Hussein’s repression of the Iraqi people has not stopped” and therefore “lifting
sanctions would offer the Iraqi people no relief from neglect at the hands of
their government” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: According
to the State Department, “Saddam continues to attack coalition aircraft
enforcing the no-fly zones, which were established to prevent Saddam from
attacking Kurdish and Shi’a civilians, in violation of UNSC Resolution 688 and
949” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

The constant
bombing of the “no-fly zones” in Iraq by the United States and Britain, however,
is not authorized under any UN resolution. As Halliday comments, “The bombing of
the ‘No-Fly’ zones, which don’t exist under any resolution of the Security
Council, has continued and still continues despite [the crisis in] Yugoslavia.
It’s a very tragic way for the USA and the UK to operate. It’s completely
outside the Security Council. It’s a unilateral action which shows total
disregard for the other member states of the Security Council” (The Fire This
, April 1999). The United States government puts forth an effort to
appear UN-backed by using the terms “coalition” and “allies” though the
“coalition” consists of only two countries: the U.S. and the UK, “allies” to one

The U.S. State
Department claims that Iraqi authorities routinely practice extrajudicial,
summary, or arbitrary executions throughout those parts of the country still
under regime control. The total number of prisoners believed to have been
executed since autumn 1997 exceeds 2,500” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).
Former U.S. Marine and UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq Scott Ritter puts this
number in context. “The concept of us trying to save the Iraqi people from
Saddam Hussein is ludicrous. He is a brutal dictator. He may torture to death
1,800 people a year. That’s terrible and unacceptable. But we kill 6,000 a
month. Let’s put that on a scale” (June 1999 FOR interview).

The State
Department similarly claims that “In northern Iraq, the government is continuing
its campaign of forcibly deporting Kurdish and Turkomen families to southern
governorates. As a result of these forced deportations, approximately 900,000
citizens are internally displaced throughout Iraq” (U.S. State Department, March
2000). The State Department, however, fails to mention that over four million
people—four times the amount of “internal displacements”—have been forced to
flee Iraq in search of a better life due to the deplorable conditions of the
country as a result of the sanctions (Reuters).

MYTH: Iraq
“has not fully declared and destroyed its WMD [weapons of mass destruction]
programs” or complied with weapons inspections. Iraqi economic sanctions
“prevent the Iraqi regime access to resources that it would use to reconstitute
weapons of mass destruction” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

Interestingly enough, the State Department fails to address its role in helping
Iraq develop its weapons programs. “…throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the
government of Iraq, which was the government of the Baath party led by Saddam
Hussein, was an ally of the United States. Iraq was a recipient of massive
amounts of weapons of mass destruction, most notably biological weapons stocks”
(May 1999 National Catholic Reporter).

Yet despite this
omission of history, the State Department proclaims that “Saddam Hussein’s
priorities are clear” based mainly on seized shipments of baby milk, baby
bottles, and baby powder leaving Iraq. It seems especially unusual to state that
if Hussein had greater control of baby products, he would use them to rebuild
his weapons programs, especially considering that the seized items were not even
directly linked to Hussein.

The truth is that
Iraq has been, by and large, disarmed. “Following the Gulf War, Iraq was forced
into an unprecedented disarmament process and its military might has been
considerably diminished by the work of UNSCOM. Chief Weapons Inspector Richard
Butler said that ‘if Iraqi disarmament were a 5-lap race, we would be
three-quarters of the way around the fifth and final lap.’ Iraq’s neighbors have
said that Iraq no longer poses any threat. Even an Israeli military analyst has
said that Iraq’s biological weapons program was over-hyped” (Education for Peace
in Iraq Center).

inspections, the lack of success lies mainly with the United States government’s
hidden agenda. UNSCOM had eight years of virtually unrestricted inspections.
Former UN Weapons Inspector Raymond Zilinskas stated that “95 percent of
[UNSCOM’s] work proceeds unhindered” (“PBS Newshour” with Jim Lehrer, February
1998). But contrary to the UN goal of weapons inspections, the United States
government has sought to use the inspections as intelligence gathering missions.
Halliday states, “[T]he difficulty with UNSCOM has been the inclusion of
espionage, of spies, of various intelligence organizations which, under the UN
auspices, is something that is appalling to all of us. Now as it happens, UNSCOM
staff, including Butler, are not staff members of the organization. They are
hired from other organizations, but nevertheless we expect them to behave in a
manner consistent of a civil servant, and that clearly was not done. And the CIA
and others have owned up to what they did, in fact, that they used the UN as a
cover for espionage, which is a very unfortunate thing and what, of course, the
Iraqis had been saying for many years and the UN had denied for many years. They
were right; we, obviously, were wrong” (The Fire This Time, April 1999).

Further evidence
of this comes directly from former UN Weapons Inspector, Scott Ritter. “Fingers
point at the United States primarily in using the weapons inspection process not
so much as a vehicle for disarming Iraq, but rather as a vehicle for containing
Saddam and for gathering information that could be used to remove Saddam. The US
perverted the system; not the weapons inspectors” (June 1999 FOR interview).
Ritter resigned from UNSCOM because of this perversion.

MYTH: “Saddam
retains the capability to inflict significant damage upon Iraq’s neighbors and
its own civilian population” and “Without sanctions, Saddam would be free to use
his resources to rearm and make good on his threats against Kuwait and the
region” (U.S. State Department, March 2000).

FACT: Raymond
Zilinskas, UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, states “Although it has been
theoretically possible for the Iraqis to regain such weapons since 1991, the
duplicity would have been risky and expensive, and the probability of discovery
very high” (Chicago Tribune, February 1998). Scott Ritter, however, is
more blunt. “When you ask the question, ‘Does Iraq possess militarily viable
biological or chemical weapons?’ the answer is a resounding ‘NO.’ ‘Can Iraq
produce today chemical weapons on a meaningful scale?’ ‘NO!’ It is ‘no’ across
the board. So from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today
possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction capability” (June 1999 FOR

United Nations levied the sanctions against Iraq, so the United States is not to

FACT: Van Sponeck
addresses this point head on. “The UN doesn’t impose sanctions. It’s the UN
Security Council member governments who come together and impose sanctions… I
don’t see the distinction between US sanctions, in broad terms, and what is done
and coming out of the Security Council of the UN. The leader in the discussion
for the sanctions is the US side and they are the ones, together with the
British, that have devised many of the special provisions that govern the
implementation of the 986 [oil-for-food] program. They are coming together, in
that Security Council of 15 nations and work as a team, and that’s the outcome,
but I don’t see a separate US sanction regime that is markedly different from
the UN Security Council regime” (The Fire This Time, April 1999).

August 6 of this year marked 11 years of malnutrition, 132 months of disease,
and 4,017 days of undrinkable water. Every few hours another child dies—a child
who knew nothing of the “Persian Gulf War,” nothing of the oil-for-food program,
and nothing of weapons inspections. The child only knew that she wanted to live.
How many more parents must weep at their fallen children before we realize what
we have done?                           Z