Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
US and British military forces dropped cruise missiles and bombs on Iraq in December, claiming (ironically) that the four day bombardment was needed to stop Saddam Hussein from developing 'weapons of mass destruction'.
But bombs make up just one part of the US's deadly campaign against the population of Iraq. The economic sanctions imposed upon Iraq since the autumn of 1990 are themselves weapons of mass destruction, far greater than any potential threat to human life posed by Saddam Hussein. The sanctions have killed almost 2 million Iraqis over the last eight years, nearly half of them children. By 1994 the government food rations provided less than half the minimum adult requirement of calories. In 1996 the US adopted a 'food for oil' policy which allows Iraq to sell small amounts of oil to obtain hard currency to import food staples and medicines. But this has made little difference. In October the UN coordinator for humanitarian aid to Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned in disgust, arguing that the sanctions 'are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis and turning a whole generation against the west'. Halliday has since travelled all over the US speaking out against the sanctions.
Food prices in Iraq have risen by more than 5,000 percent since the sanctions were first imposed. Today a small bag of spaghetti costs a tenth of the average Iraqi's monthly salary. But it is nearly impossible to even grow food since pesticides and fertilisers are banned as they can potentially be used for military purposes. Raw sewage is pumped continuously into water that people end up drinking because Iraq's water treatment plants were blown up by US bombs in 1991. Yet chlorine is banned by the sanctions because it also could be of military use. Typhoid, dysentery and cholera have reached epidemic proportions. But most hospitals have no medicine, not even aspirin. Farid Zarif, deputy director of the UN humanitarian aid programme in Baghdad, argued recently, 'We are told that pencils are forbidden because carbon could be extracted from them that might be used to coat airplanes and make them invisible to radar. I am not a military expert, but I find it very disturbing that because of this objection, we cannot give pencils to Iraqi schoolchildren.'
Recently tensions within the UN Security Council over US policy towards Iraq boiled over, with France, Russia and China aggressively pushing for an end to the sanctions. They would like to reopen trade with Iraq, and they recognise that the sanctions have strengthened anti-imperialist sentiment throughout the Arab populations of the Middle East. Fuel was added to the fire when the Unscom weapons inspection programme was revealed to be part of a US sponsored spy network that planted eavesdropping equipment over a three year period.
US intelligence officials, in attempting to explain away the spy operation, only dug themselves in deeper. 'The lesson is you can't disarm a country unless you're willing to occupy it and forbid the trappings of a sovereign nation, such as a military force and the right to build that force,' said Gordon Oehler, former director of the CIA's Nonproliferation Centre. As to why UN Security council members such as France were not informed of the spying operation, Oehler stated, 'If secret information is open to all member states, it won't work. if you let in the French, the Chinese, the Russians--that would kill it.' The United Nations' 'multilateral coalition' assembled by the US for its 1991 war against Iraq is in the final stages of unravelling--exposing the UN as the fig leaf for imperialism that it has always been.
The December bombing of Iraq, moreover, has sparked a protest movement against both the bombing and the sanctions. By the hundreds and thousands, demonstrators protested against the bombing in cities across the US. Town meetings organised by socialists and other anti-war activists drew a wider layer who wanted to become active. In Washington DC, Gulf War veteran Kevin McCarron spoke from the floor: 'In basic training, they tell you not to steal rape or kill innocent people, especially women and children. All that was ignored in Iraq.' Also in attendance was Fahad, a former Iraqi soldier who deserted in the war, who spoke of ordinary Iraqis' hatred of Saddam Hussein. 'But', he said, 'the US will never do anything about Saddam Hussein. They have and will only make things worse for the Iraqi people. Look what they did after the war when the people rose up against Saddam... Only Iraqis can get rid of Saddam.' The two former 'enemies' shook hands.
The deadly consequences of the US sanctions against Iraq have entered the mainstream at long last. Newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune have written editorials calling for an end to the sanctions. San Francisco Examiner columnist Stephanie Salter wrote after attending a pro-Clinton anti-impeachment rally, 'I was divided. Instead of "We want Bill!" I'd rather have shouted: "Stop the partisan, unconstitutional impeachment of the president so that I can protest his sanctions and murderous war on Iraq!"'
Left wing academics Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Edward Herman and Howard Zinn have widely distributed a 'Call to Action' against the sanctions, which reads in part, 'First, we must organise and make this issue a priority, just as Americans organised to stop the war in Vietnam... We need a national campaign to lift the sanctions.' Activists from the organisation Voices in the Wilderness, who routinely deliver medical supplies and toys to Iraq, were charged by the federal government in January with the 'crime' of 'exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys, to Iraq absent without specific prior authorisation'. The government has imposed a fine of $160,000 on the small organisation.
But Voices in the Wilderness has vowed to fight it. As Mike Bremer told US Socialist Worker, 'Our response to them is very clear--we're not going to pay a fine.' Bremer said that the organisation plans to go to Washington and 'we're going to bring sacks of medicine and also show them pictures of these kids that are so sick, who are dying because of the sanctions. And we will ask, "If you believe in freedom, isn't it a basic freedom for any human being to go anywhere in the world to save a dying child's life?"'