New Internationalist

Iraq: The Pride And The Pain.

September 1999

Nikki van der Gaag finds that human rights have a different meaning when viewed from Baghdad.

Don’t talk to me about human rights.’ Nasra al-Sa’adoun’s voice is firm. ‘Your analysis is too simplistic. You see the West as good and Iraq as bad. You think you have the right to interfere in our affairs because you have always done so.’

Nasra is a neat, grey-haired woman with a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris and a knowledge of British history which far exceeds my own. She can quote chapter and verse of the deals, the betrayals; the whole complex web of Anglo-Iraqi relationships so redolent of colonial and neo-colonial relationships around the world. In a word, she blames the British. It is hardly surprising. Her grandfather, who was Iraq’s Prime Minister, committed suicide rather than surrender to the British. His statue now stands in one of Baghdad’s main streets, which is named after him, a small, Gandhi-like figure in bronze. He was 40 years old.

On 17 January this year, the ninth anniversary of the Gulf War, Mustapha, Nasra’s husband, friend and partner died suddenly at the age of 52. A heart attack, they said.

No-one knows why fit and healthy people like Mustapha just collapse, leaving their families deep in grief. Iraq is festooned with the black banners that announce a new death. Perhaps you can die of a broken heart after all.

Nasra feels that she is facing yet another bereavement; the death of her country: ‘Where are our human rights here in Iraq? We have no electricity, no clean water, no trains, no safe cars, an environment which is being destroyed, and you are bombing us every day. I tell you, we would rather have a real war than this slow death. This is genocide.’

The sanctions are the most draconian ever imposed by the United Nations. The UN is caught in the ambiguous position as both the cause of suffering and the body responsible for alleviating it. These are the only sanctions this century imposed as a complete embargo on all trade (with a few exceptions) rather than just an embargo on particular goods or areas. In this sense, says Sabah Al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi living in London who is President of the League of Arab Lawyers, ‘the whole country is being kept prisoner and denied the basic requirements for survival.’ Denis Halliday, who resigned from his post as Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq rather than administer the sanctions regime, puts it even more strongly: ‘We are in the process of destroying an entire nation. It is as simple and as terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.’1

The figures speak for themselves. UNICEF believes that between 5,000 and 6,000 children die each month as a direct result of sanctions. The mortality rate for children under five has risen from 48 per 1,000 in 1990 to 122 per 1,000 in 19972. One in four children is malnourished; a rise of 73 per cent since 1991.

And yet the country is sitting on probably the second-largest oil reserves in the world. In May 1996 Iraq was allowed to sell a limited amount of oil in return for food, but this improved the situation only marginally. The infrastructure does not exist to pump the allocated oil, and oil prices in any case remain very low. With a large amount siphoned off for other purposes (see Facts page 18/19) Iraq ultimately gets around $1.5 billion over a six-month period worth of humanitarian goods. It costs $600 million to give each person one kilo of sugar over the same period.

But deprivation is not only physical, but emotional as well. Many parents of the young people growing up today were well-educated, well-fed and well-travelled, but the new generation is angry, hungry and isolated from the world. New young cadres in the ruling Ba’ath party believe that President Saddam Hussein and the current Government have compromised too much with the West, and take a much harder line. Other children simply see the US as the enemy. This was encapsulated for me when I met Dina, aged 7, whose mother and father are both civil engineers. Dina is keen to show me her drawings, which are detailed and imaginative. Many are the princesses and mermaids, mummies, daddies and school friends that you would expect from someone her age.

But then I come across one of a soldier. He is standing on the right of the page and seemed to be shooting something on the left. ‘What is this?’ I ask her. She whispered something shyly. Her parents are clearly embarrassed. ‘She says this is an American soldier and he is shooting the flowers.’

‘But why?’

‘She says Americans don’t like flowers’.

It is not surprising. Dina, like all children in Iraq, has known only an aggressive, punitive West. The flowers in her family’s garden bloom, but up to half the palm trees – in a country which exported 80 per cent of the world’s dates – have died. This is due to not only a lack of agriculture equipment and chemicals but also the fallout from the Gulf War which has so polluted Iraq’s environment. Radioactivity from depleted uranium (from Western bombs and shells) leaves a terrible mark on the faces of those Iraqi children who suffer from cancers and leukaemias. (see article)

In addition, in the north and south, people face almost-daily bombings,3 which began when the US and the UK launched Operation Desert Fox in December last year. The death toll then was over 10,000. And the bombing has never stopped.

We ourselves witnessed the aftermath of just one of these everyday tragedies. A family of six shepherds (the youngest six years old), their herd of 100 sheep and their sheep dog have been wiped out (see the photo on the next page). The animals are still there: their stench fills the air. You can see a ripped tire, a blasted shoe, and frag ments of metal, testaments to more unnecessary deaths. The local cemetery holds only two graves; there were simply not enough pieces left to bury.

The US and Britain justify the bombing of the ‘no-fly zones’ (which they unilaterally imposed) with the claim that they are protecting the citizens by bombing the military. Yet in the place where the shepherds died there were no camps or soldiers to be seen, just the village of Basheka, known for its vineyards, some three kilometres distance. Otherwise it was just bare earth with mountains in the distance. But somehow a military directive calls this a ‘target- rich’ zone.4 It was Gandhi who pointed out, ‘what does it matter to the widows, the orphans, the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought in the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?’

Jawdat al Kazzi is a priest from southern Lebanon who has lived in northern Iraq for 13 years. He is a grey-haired with a quiet manner which somehow makes his fury palpable: ‘If Clinton and Blair were really Christians they wouldn’t do this to us.’ His voice is clear, determined.

‘But then, you see, a capitalist society cannot be truly Christian because it puts money before everything else. Dollars before people. Here in Iraq, we have no money any more. Iraqis have lost everything. But they still have their morality; they are a very moral people.’

We sit in the flickering light of an oil lamp in a Dominican church, whose French connections go back to the wife of Napoleon III who donated the church bell. The priest points out the inconsistency of the American stand: ‘There is one rule for Iraq, another for America’s friends, like Israel. America allows Israel to break all the rules, to ignore 37 UN resolutions, to invade and occupy Palestine, Lebanon and Syria; to have a nuclear bomb and chemical weapons… and what happens? Nothing. Yet Iraq has nearly honoured all the Security Council resolutions but the US will not permit the lifting of the embargo. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.’

‘Sanctions’ said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, ‘are the most powerful weapons in our armoury.’

Yet the other irony in all this is that the sanctions and bombing regime has achieved the opposite of what was intended. It has consolidated rather than weakened the Government’s power; Saddam Hussein has become for many in Iraq – and indeed in the Middle East – a symbol of Iraqi resistance and determination never to bow to Western pressure. Opposition within the country is simply not tolerated, and the Iraqi opposition in exile that has been rendered ineffective by the multiplicity of parties (as least 85 according to a US State Department list). Acrimonious exchanges between the various groups suggest they hate each other almost as much as they hate the regime.5

The Sanctions Committee

The UN Sanctions Committee, based in New York, has the power to veto any materials from going to Iraq. The most stringent prohibition includes items considered to be of potential use in the chemical, biological or nuclear weapons industry; including syringes, nozzles, computer equipment, graphite for pencils, chlorine for water treatment, x-rays, pesticides, isotopes for the treatment and diagnosis of cancers and tetra nitrate to treat angina. Over the years a comprehensive list of prohibited products has been built up – this can include anything not deemed ‘essential’.

Among the many thousands of prohibited articles have been:

Ambulances
Baking soda
Books, magazines, envelopes, paper
Cloth (including shroud cloth)
Coffins
Hearing aids
Light bulbs
Cassettes, CDs and videos
Paints
Shampoo
Shoes and shoe polish
Spark plugs
Toys
Washing machines
Watches
Wheelbarrows
Compiled by Elias Davidson, 22 December 1997

In the West, the public are led to believe that everything that is happening – or at least everything that is allowed to reach their ears – is the fault of the Iraqi regime; or more specifically, of President Saddam Hussein, who since the Gulf War has become the man the world most loves to hate. He is portrayed as a ruthless monster, a dictator who murders his own people by the thousands, and stockpiles food and medicines rather than feed his starving people. There seems little truth in the latter allegation (see article) but it is clear is that the regime – and it is the regime, not just the President – brooks no dissent and punishes those who speak out with imprisonment or execution. This has been presented as a targeting of minorities. It is not. The Government in general allows its minorities – including the Kurds (see article) – more freedom to practise their religion and culture than any other Middle Eastern government, so long as they are not seen as a threat because of their national aspirations. Those who are seen as a threat are simply not tolerated. Amnesty International in its 1999 Annual Report finds the regime guilty of ‘torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and detainees’; hundreds of executions and thousands ‘disappeared’; a record that echoes that of many other dictatorial governments in other parts of the world.

Blasted land: the remains of a flock of sheep and a sheepdog, killed along with a family of six by a US pilot on 30 April.
photo by NIKKI VAN DER GAAG

And yet prior to the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was seen as a good guy, armed and supported by the West in the Iran-Iraq war. Even after the chemical bombardment of the Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988, the US Commerce Department continued to export military equipment to Iraq – including chemicals necessary for the manufacture of nerve gas.7 Military regimes such as Iraq’s are in many ways a product of the West, born of the Cold War when proxy battles were fought throughout the Majority World and dictators spawned with the firepower to keep a tight and often repressive hold on their own people and to freely implement their masters’ desires. The West also fears Islam. After the Iranian Revolution, it supported Iraq as one way of keeping the Shi’a regime there in check.

But Western alliances have a habit of changing when it suits other strategic objectives, as Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, points out: ‘You know, 12 years ago, when I was received in Washington at the White House; Yasser Arafat was a terrorist. Former terrorists in Northern Ireland are now received in Washington and London. But now our specification as an ally has changed, and Iraq is the monster, the terrorist’.8

Inside the country many people point to the undoubted development that took place under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s when Iraq was a prosperous country despite the crippling Iran-Iraq war.

Between 1984 and 1989 Iraqis were on average eating about 3,372 calories a day (minimum requirement 2,100). Adult literacy had risen to 95 per cent (Iraq won the UNESCO prize for literacy three years in a row); 92 per cent of the population had access to safe water and 93 per cent access to a clinic or hospital. Both education and health were free and Iraq’s welfare system was ‘one of the most comprehensive and generous in the Arab world’.9

So was its aid programme. Iraq prided itself on the support it gave to countries in need and the important role it played in the power balance of the Middle East. Economic rights were a priority, civil liberties were not. Now the Iraqi people have neither.

Sanctions were originally imposed by the UN in on August 6th 1990 – before the Gulf War and the anniversary of Hiroshima day – to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait. So why weren’t they lifted after this was achieved militarily?

The regime refuses to comply with UN resolutions, says the West. But the US has at various points tied the sanctions to the continued rule of Saddam Hussein – not the UN-endorsed disarmament requirements. It seems that they are simply making conditions so difficult to comply with that sanctions will remain indefinitely. Not surprisingly people in Iraq are pessimistic, and see US motives as having more to do with tying Iraq’s hands as a political force in the region and keeping its oil – it has the second-largest reserves of oil in the world – off a volatile market.

In 1996 American journalist Lesley Stahl pointed out to Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN and now US Secretary of State, that half a million children were reputed to have died: ‘that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?’ Albright did not question the figures but replied ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.’ 6

When I thank Nasra before leaving, she replies bluntly; ‘I don’t talk to you for your sake, but for the sake of my country.’ Her grandfather’s pride and passion for Iraq is never far beneath the surface. ‘You know’, she smiles quietly to herself, ‘I was asked the other day by another foreigner: “What should I tell people when they ask me: “Why haven’t the Iraqi people risen up against Saddam Hussein?” I told him to tell them that the Iraqi people are perfectly capable of sorting out our own affairs. “Tell them” I said. “Tell them to mind their own business. Lift sanctions and let us rebuild our country.”’

Six steps to ending the deadlock

  • The US and Britain should stop the illegal bombing of Iraq immediately.

  • The UN should lift the sanctions – with the exception of military hardware.

  • Once the sanctions are lifted, Iraq needs to be given support from the UN and the international community in order to rebuild on all fronts – the equivalent of a Marshall Plan.

  • Iraq should have the debts that it is paying under the Compensation Fund – at present at least 30% of oil sold under the Oil-for-Food deal – suspended and reduced until such time as it can afford to pay.

  • There should be a ban on the sale of arms to Iraq – as 80% of arms were sold by the five permanent members of the UN this should not be difficult to enforce. International monitors should return to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are not being built.

  • A UN multilateral or unilateral guarantee of frontiers to prevent further invasions is already in place – but does not cover Turkish incursions into northern Iraq. Kuwait has signed defence treaties with the five permanent members of the UN and others and there is a big US army presence on its soil and in the area preventing any aggression on Iraq’s part.

1 The Independent October 15 1998
2 State of the World’s Children 1999, UNICEF.
3 Except for two weeks in March and a few days in May.
4 Language reminiscent of the Gulf War and more recently of the war against Serbia. Death and destruction become ‘collateral damage’; the war a ‘just war’.
5 Material on the opposition supplied by Karen Dabrowska. In December 1998 the US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, making $97 million available to the opposition. But many parties refused to have any part in this, fearing that the opposition could become no more than a mouthpiece in the service of American foreign policy.
6 The Gulf Between Us: the Gulf War and beyond edited by Victoria Brittain (Virago 1991)
7 In Middle East International, May 21 1999.
8 Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Program, quoted in Starving Iraq (Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, 1999).
9 Interview on CBS's 60 Minutes, 12 May 1996.


Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 316 This special report appeared in the iraq - what united nations sanctions have done issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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