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A Decade of Sanctions & Bombs

A.K. Gupta
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

From Star Wars to Stuart Little, this is the summer of sequels. But for many, the most-anticipated sequel of all hasn’t even begun shooting—the invasion of Iraq. Bush and Co. have been itching to finish of the regime of Saddam Hussein, seeing the September 11 attacks as the perfect pretext to launch Desert Storm II. But another long-playing Middle East show, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has cooled the White House’s war fever, at least for this year. Feeling rebuffed by Arab audiences who’ve panned previews of an all-out US invasion, Bush has had to console himself with a Tom Clancyesque plot to bring down Hussein’s house. According to a recent report in the Washington Post by Bob Woodward, Bush signed an intelligence order earlier this year directing the CIA to topple Hussein, “including authority to use lethal force.” Apparently this decision presented a dilemma. Not wanting to legitimize attempts on his own head by countermanding a decades-old US policy against assassinating world leaders, Bush instead only authorized CIA and Special Forces teams “to kill Hussein if they were acting in self-defense.” So US policy toward Iraq is apparently now based on hit squads knocking on Hussein’s palace doors and asking if he can come out and fight so they can kill him in “self-defense.” Until that happens, the only show playing is the tragedy of sanctions. The Washington Post report came shortly after the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1409 on May 14, imposing “smart sanctions” on Iraq. Resolution 1409 lifts controls on civilian goods, but a “goods review list” has been retained that can be used to block “dual-use goods.” This will likely do little to alleviate the situation of ordinary Iraqis. Foreign investment is still blocked, along with the export of any goods other than oil. And Iraq is not allowed to spend any revenue it legally produces from oil sales domestically. The international consensus had been crumbling after over 11 years of sanctions had reduced Iraqis to penury, taking a particularly heavy toll on children. A UNICEF study published in 1999 estimated that the mortality rate for children under 5 more than doubled from 56 to 131 deaths per 1,000. Some 32 percent of Iraqi children are chronically malnourished, and, according to one estimate, over 1.5 million Iraqis have died because of the scarcity of medicine and food caused by the sanctions. The imposition of sanctions on August 6, 1990, were originally intended to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, which it had invaded days earlier. Since then, a slew of conditions have been presented as a precursor to their lifting—ending Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, a “regime change,” ending mistreatment of all Iraqis or persecuted Kurds in the North and Shi’a in the South, accounting for an estimated 200 Kuwaitis still missing from the invasion, letting weapons inspectors back in, etc. The change to smart sanctions is seen by many observers as a tacit admission that the previous measures were a failure. An unnamed Western diplomat quoted by the New Yorker in December 2000 said, “What we have done with the sanctions is to make the elite richer, destroy the middle class, impoverish the people, and hand the Iraqi population over to Saddam Hussein on a platter.” Speaking shortly after the passage of Resolution 1409, Secretary of State Colin Powell said it “demonstrates the [Security] Council’s continued determination to meet the needs of the Iraqi people.” The real intention, however, was clear to many, even the New York Times. “The resolution was intended to blunt any drive to end the sanctions altogether and to deflate criticism that the measures are hurting ordinary Iraqis more than their leader. It also seemed part of the diplomatic groundwork that the Bush Administration is seeking to lay as it presses its case that Mr. Hussein should be removed from power, perhaps by force.” Regime change Just three months earlier, Powell himself admitted that, “Sanctions and the pressure of sanctions are part of a strategy of regime change.” Opponents of smart sanctions call them the “same, old stupid sanctions” of the last 11 years. One group, Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), maintains that Iraq would remain “a gigantic refugee camp.” VITW says smart sanctions means, “There will be no economic, educational and infrastructure recovery,” though it may “make it easier for Iraq to import humanitarian goods.” Previously, any one of the 15 members of the UN Security Council could place an indefinite “hold” for any reason on goods Iraq wished to import. The justification was to prevent Iraq from acquiring dual-use goods that could be used in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical or nuclear. At one point, over $5 billion worth of goods were held up, almost all by the US and UK. This included such basic items as ambulances, baking soda, forklifts, chemicals for purifying water, irrigation pipes and even pencils. The previous UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Tun Myat, said last Nov. 30, “No matter how much was brought in, Iraq still did not have a functioning economy, without which it was not realistic to significantly improve the situation there.” Iraq is unable to meet the needs of its 22 million people because it can only legally import goods under the “oil-for-food” program established in 1996. In theory, the program allows for unlimited oil exports. But because of Iraq’s decaying infrastructure, which has been further hobbled by the blocking of spare parts, it can only produce at best 75 percent of its pre-sanctions output of 3.5 million barrels of oil a day. Iraq never sees a penny of this money; it’s deposited into an escrow account in New York City that’s controlled by the UN. Of that, only 70 percent of the oil revenues is allocated for the purchase of goods. The rest goes toward administrative costs and reparations. So, according to VITW, while Iraq sold over $37 billion of oil from 1997 through 2000, “only $9 billion of goods actually arrived in Iraq.” For the average Iraqi, this means less than 40 cents a day is allocated to meet all their humanitarian needs. While caloric intake has nearly doubled under the program to over 2,000 calories a day, it remains at two-thirds of the pre-sanction level. In 1999, a humanitarian panel set up by the Security Council concluded that, “the oil-for-food system alone would not suffice and massive investment would be required in a number of key sectors, including oil, energy, agriculture and sanitation.” Despite all this, Iraq accepted Resolution 1409, while simultaneously denouncing it. According to Middle East International, Baghdad’s acceptance “was strongly indicative of its current strategy—to get back in the good graces of the international community while limiting its defiance of the US. Analysts said Iraqi approval was ‘another clever move to leave no excuses for Washington to launch a war against it.’” The real reason for the continued sanctions, according to California State University professor Ayad Al-Qazzaz, is because of the oil market. Speaking in an interview in 1998, Al-Qazzaz said, “The US does not want Iraq to re-enter the oil market because if it does, the price of oil would collapse…If the price of oil collapses it would affect the Saudi and Kuwaiti economies, and that will hurt the Americans.” Regarding the sanctions, Al-Qazzaz said, “Saddam doesn’t care; the sanctions are not hurting him. I would argue that he doesn’t actually want them lifted because he wants the people dependent on him. If you lift the sanctions it may set them loose.” For the foreseeable future, stalemate appears to be the order of the day. There’s no international consensus to lift sanctions, but neither is there one to invade Iraq. Bush and Cheney and Powell vow that “they’ll be back,” if not this summer, then next, to finish the job of terminating Hussein’s regime, but no one’s lining up to buy tickets to this show.