Four years after Operation Desert Storm, and the mass uprisings that followed in the southern and northern parts of Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country’s economic and social fabric is in tatters. Economic sanctions, following a destructive war and compounded by the Iraqi government’s abusive and divisive social and political policies, have devoured the country’s once substantial middle class and further impoverished the already poor. Even if tomorrow the sanctions were lifted and the regime were to vanish, the capacity of Iraqi society to reconstitute itself is in grave peril.

Aid agencies and the United Nations report that during 1994 living standards for the vast majority of Iraq’s 18.5 million people deteriorated markedly — even in Baghdad, which had previously been less affected by the post-war crisis. The value of the Iraqi dinar plunged from about 50 per $1 in early 1993 to between 550 and 700 per $1 in late 1994. In September, the government cut subsidized monthly food rations by an average of 40 percent — rations that already stood at well below subsistence nutrition levels. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report earlier in 1994 described the country as “suffering from pre-famine conditions.” [1] Petty and not-so-petty crime, bribery, begging and even prostitution have become commonplace, despite horrific officially decreed punishments. Only an elite of senior Baath Party members and army officers close to Saddam Hussein have managed to protect themselves economically.

Iraq’s dire circumstances owe in large part to the comprehensive economic sanctions first imposed by the UN Security Council in early August 1990 to compel Iraq’s military withdrawal from Kuwait. After the war secured this aim, the Security Council levied fresh conditions under Resolution 687 which Iraq would have to meet to have sanctions lifted. There is a formal review every 60 days, but to date the Security Council has repeatedly rejected Iraq’s application to terminate or loosen the sanctions, following US and British insistence that Baghdad has failed to comply completely with those conditions. Iraq continues to reject provisions for a UN-supervised sale of oil and distribution of foods and medicines purchased with the proceeds, charging that these conditions are incompatible with the country’s sovereignty.

It has become clear that Washington and its allies are not prepared to take action on the regime’s vicious human rights abuses or responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of their sanctions policies. The Security Council has authorized an international aid program to assist those most vulnerable to the sanctions’ impact, but the Memorandum of Understanding governing delivery of international humanitarian aid, in contrast to the approach on military matters, indulged Iraqi government claims of sovereignty and allowed Baghdad considerable latitude to block or control UN operations. The resulting muddle and contradictions in the aid program have been further exacerbated by steadily diminishing funds from Western and other donor governments.

There appears to be a reluctance among US and other Western policymakers to come to grips with the longer-term political and regional consequences of their intervention in Iraq. The impasse has not, as the Clinton administration’s slogan of “dual containment” implies, created a static situation in Iraq. On the contrary, new dynamics have been set in motion, both by the creation of the northern enclave and by the effects of sanctions throughout the country.

Sovereignty and Intervention

Although many people had considered the use of safe havens and the comprehensive sanctions regime to be hopeful new departures in international protection and conflict resolution in 1991-1992, today Iraq’s basic political problems remain unresolved, as does its relationship with the region and the international community.

Since early 1991, the US and British governments have made it clear that they do not expect Iraq to rejoin the “family of nations” while Saddam Hussein remains in power. The Security Council resolutions framed after the war appear to have assumed that his demise would be relatively rapid, but neither sanctions nor the efforts of various Iraqi opposition groups have produced a change of government.

Iraqis express bewilderment and anger at being further punished by economic sanctions for the actions of a regime that they have little power to change. They recall that the 1991 uprisings were not supported by the Gulf war coalition. “I say to myself, ‘Do they [the US and Britain] think we are some kind of video game or what?’” said one Iraqi intellectual in October 1994, after Iraqi troop movements triggered a new US military deployment to the region. “You are looking at a people whose energy is drained simply looking for the next meal.” [2] The Iraqi government has been able to use this resentment to its advantage. Even Iraqi oppositionists who support the maintenance of sanctions as the only available means of limiting Saddam Hussein’s power do not believe that the weight of sanctions alone can lead to the government’s fall. For many others, the longer-term cost of sanctions to Iraqi society has become too high. Some doubt that the US intention to remove Saddam Hussein is serious. They argue that its goal is simply to contain a weakened regime.

The US and British governments lay full responsibility for the disastrous humanitarian situation at Baghdad’s door. Yet for all the allied rhetoric that the post-war interventions are designed to protect Iraq’s civilian population, the results have been almost entirely negative in the areas under government control. Rules have been established under the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of civilian populations under occupation after a war. Existing norms or rules do not appear to fit this situation, where the victors stop short of occupation but intervene to enforce a peace settlement by the imposition of economic sanctions and actual or threatened military action.

In 1990, many supported UN-imposed economic sanctions as an alternative to military action to force Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. After the war, the character and goals of economic sanctions were fundamentally altered. First, their impact was more intense given the war damage to the country’s infrastructure, and the impact of eight months of economic sanctions, including severe limitations of food imports, had created serious shortages. [3] Second, new goals were set by the victorious coalition partners. Sanctions now aimed to enforce Iraq’s compliance with the UN ceasefire resolution (UNSC 687) and other resolutions. There are divergent Security Council views on which UN resolutions must be complied with before economic sanctions can be lifted. There is also a lack of clarity on what constitutes full Iraqi compliance with these resolutions.

Many of the contradictions and ambiguities of Security Council policy on Iraq since the Gulf war have been due to political judgments on when and how Iraq’s sovereignty may be overridden. One constraint, for example, has been a concern not to create any new “national” entities. This has been obvious both in attitudes toward the northern Kurdish enclave, outside of Iraqi government control since 1991, and in the fears of Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shi‘i population. It has also been apparent in the contradictions in UN policy on aid.

The Security Council imposed unprecedentedly comprehensive and intrusive programs of military monitoring under UNSC 687, a Chapter VII resolution, which seriously compromises Iraq’s sovereignty. Baghdad has characteristically resisted full disclosure of its weapons program for as long as possible, but it has ultimately succumbed to the inspections and dismantlings, largely due to the threat, and on occasion the use, of force by leading coalition members. In October 1994, the US, Britain and other states again deployed military force to confront Iraqi internal troop movements towards the Kuwaiti border. UNSC 949, passed after Iraq withdrew its troops, does not specify exactly where or in what numbers future troop movements would trigger a military response, giving wide latitude for potential military intervention in the future.

Human Rights and Protection

On issues relating to Iraq’s treatment of its own people, the tough coalition line on sovereignty and intervention is much less consistent. Such decisions have been determined by the priorities and sensitivities of all the permanent Security Council members (including China), certainly not by the needs of the Iraqi population.

The Gulf war victors have taken military action to protect civilians by invoking retrospectively the authority of UNSC 687 and 688. The most notable example was the establishment of a safe haven in northern Iraq in April 1991, regarded then as a path-breaking form of international intervention to protect an endangered population — Kurds fleeing government forces — regardless of national sovereignty. The Security Council regarded this outflow as “a threat to international peace and security” — responding in particular to Ankara’s refusal to let them into southeastern Turkey at a time when that country was (and still is) conducting a protracted counterinsurgency war against its Kurdish population. The much larger number of Iraqi refugees fleeing into Iran received relatively little attention. [4]

Coalition ground troops secured most of Dohuk governorate nearest the Turkish border to prepare for the return of refugees and the provision of humanitarian aid. Between July and October 1991, the last of these ground troops were withdrawn under US pressure, leaving in place a small military liaison office staffed by US, British, French and German personnel and an “air exclusion zone” covering those parts of the three predominantly Kurdish governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniya which lie above the thirty-sixth parallel. The zone is policed by coalition warplanes stationed at Incirlik air base in Turkey.

The safe haven policy implicitly assumed a political solution for the whole of Iraq, but this has yet to be achieved. In October-November 1991, following the collapse of autonomy talks between Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership and renewed fighting between government troops and Kurdish peshmerga, Iraq withdrew its troops to what has become a de facto border separating the three Kurdish-controlled governorates from the rest of Iraq. At the same time it withdrew Arab officials from the region, ended all central government funding to the local administration, drastically reduced the delivery of government rations and imposed its own economic embargo on the region. A de facto Iraqi Kurdish entity now exists — not recognized internationally but separate from government-controlled Iraq.

The post-war uprisings of March 1991 were, in some respects, a consequence of international military action “placing responsibility of a political and humanitarian character on the coalition to prevent massive attacks by Iraqi forces against non-combatants.” [5] The safe haven response, though, did not extend to those who took part in the uprising in southern Iraq. Despite US encouragement to Iraqis to rise up against the government, US and coalition troops on the ground in the south did not respond, and did not prevent Baghdad from using helicopter gunships to suppress resistance. Several Western governments expressed concern as Iraqi troops wreaked fierce vengeance on the population, but none took action.

In August 1992, continuing aerial bombardments of the marsh areas in the south by both helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft led to the imposition of a “no-fly zone” below the thirty-second parallel. This was initiated by the US, Britain and France, invoking Resolution 688 but without formal sanction from the Security Council. The no-fly zone has done little or nothing, though, to prevent forcible displacement of the marsh population, or grievous human rights abuses in the predominantly Shi‘i south as a whole.

Political considerations — particularly suspicion of Iran among the Security Council’s permanent members — appear to account for this. When asked in early 1994 about the possibility of establishing a safe haven for the marsh Arabs in the south, Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Robert Pelletreau described the fact that the marsh Arabs live on the border with Iran as a “very big complicating factor.” [6]

Despite UN resolutions, human rights abuses in Iraq have, if anything, intensified in areas under government control since 1991. This is in the context of an increasingly ruthless struggle over diminishing resources and the government’s efforts to maintain its control in these unfavorable conditions. The UN General Assembly has voted to send human rights monitors to Iraq, but insufficient money has been made available. Since Iraq has not allowed monitors to enter areas under its control, the UN has not sent them to Kurdish-controlled areas either, as these are still formally part of Iraq.

Humanitarian Aid

The UN instituted a program of humanitarian aid after the war to counteract the impact of sanctions on the most vulnerable sectors of the population. The implementation of this program has depended on a Memorandum of Understanding, first negotiated in April 1991 between the Iraqi government and the UN representative, Prince Saddruddin Agha Khan. This was based on the UN working principle that humanitarian aid requires the consent of the sovereign state involved. This allowed Baghdad a significant say in setting the terms on which UN and NGO assistance is provided.

The Iraqi government has also invoked national sovereignty in rejecting UNSC 706 and 712 of 1991, which allowed for limited oil sales under UN supervision, despite the many other infringements of sovereignty that it had already felt compelled to accept. In 1994, Baghdad refused a proposal to use one-time proceeds (about $300 million) from flushing oil from the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline to purchase humanitarian goods in Turkey, insisting that it had the sole right to distribute these goods, unsupervised, in the northern enclave as well as in government-controlled areas.

The US now accepts that there is great suffering among the ordinary people of Iraq, but the Clinton administration places sole blame on the Iraqi government. Does Iraq’s rejection of Resolutions 706 and 712 absolve the Security Council member states from the international legal obligation to protect civilians from hardship and starvation? The majority of Iraqis are clearly not able to influence their government’s decisions or change that government. Yet they continue to suffer severe deprivation with no sign of relief in sight.

When it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance, international intervention does not stretch from proclamation to enforcement. UNSC 688 called on Iraq to allow UN access to all parts of the country, but does not say how this can be implemented. The UN humanitarian program is constrained by the view of the major donors that, in sharp contrast to other aspects of the UN’s relations with Iraq, no unilateral actions can be taken to enforce Iraqi compliance in implementing the aid or rights monitoring programs. This view extends to Resolutions 706 and 712, although these, unlike 688, were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, mandating enforcement.

The terms of the Memorandum of Understanding’s renewal have increasingly restricted UN agency and NGO access and freedom to operate. Under the April 1991 agreement and first renewal in December 1991, the UN theoretically had access to the whole country, and was permitted to establish sub-offices outside Baghdad. But the UNHCR failed in its efforts to establish such an office in Kirkuk, which might have allowed the repatriation of 150,000-200,000 Kurds who had fled that governorate during the uprising. This displaced population remains in the north, dependent on UN and NGO support.

UN access in the south of Iraq in 1991-1992 was fairly limited, though some staff and UN guards were based in Basra and ‘Amara sub-offices until mid-1992. After August 1992, following disagreement on the terms of the Memorandum’s renewal, the UN bowed to Iraqi government pressure to withdraw all UN staff based outside Baghdad. They have never been able to return. In October 1992, the renewed Memorandum ended the UN sub-offices and the stationing of UN guards in government-controlled areas outside Baghdad. At this time, most NGOs decided either to work only in the north or to withdraw altogether rather than sign the new Memorandum. [7] Monitoring humanitarian conditions in government-controlled areas has become much more difficult; monitoring the human rights situation there is impossible.

Since March 1993, the Iraqi government has renewed UN visas on a monthly basis, though bringing in new staff often causes difficulties. This also applies to NGOs which have signed the Memorandum of Understanding. Donor perception is that Iraqi government control of the UN program makes effective monitoring of aid projects impossible. An increasing reluctance to regard the situation in Iraq as an ongoing “chronic” emergency has led to a decline in donor funds. The Iraqi internal embargo on the Kurdish-controlled areas means that the majority of aid there is consumed by basic winter food and fuel needs.

At least until 1994, the UN’s own view of its humanitarian intervention in Iraq, accepted in most of the media and by public opinion generally, is that it was a success. Most NGOs working in the region, though, perceive that humanitarian needs have been subordinated to political goals. They assert that sanctions are a major cause of the suffering that UN and NGO programs try to alleviate. As one aid worker put it, “We break their legs and then give them crutches.”

UN reports since 1993 speak of severe underfunding of UN programs in government-controlled areas, primarily those of UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP), which provides supplementary food supplies to about 80,000 officially “destitute” people and, via social institutions such as hospitals and nurseries, to some 2 million others identified as “especially vulnerable.” [8] Recently some funds have become available with the release of frozen assets through the UN escrow account under UNSC 778. In per capita terms, however, the funding which has gone to government-controlled areas is minimal. By the end of 1994, lack of funds, compounded by low morale and a wish to avoid “rocking the boat” in Baghdad, have severely reduced UNICEF and WFP programs in government-controlled areas. The few NGOs still working in government-controlled areas can meet only a tiny fraction of the population’s basic needs.

Kurdistan’s Double Embargo

The 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country do have minimal protection, afforded by the presence of the UN and international NGOs and the overflights of allied planes. But the situation in their northern enclave has become increasingly fragile and dangerous. Humanitarian assistance sustains 1.25 million of them, but declining funds have forced agencies such as the WFP to reduce its rolls sharply. UN guards stationed there have dwindled to only 100, not even enough to protect UN property and convoys. The US and Britain have not been willing to consider lifting sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan, arguing that this would acknowledge a separate status and would facilitate “leakage” to government-controlled areas.

While the no-fly zone has discouraged large-scale or permanent Iraqi incursions across the de facto border, chronic security problems continue — bombings, shootings, infiltration by agent provocateurs from Iraq and sporadic government-sponsored raids into Kurdish areas. The double embargo has wreaked economic devastation. A US and British-funded household survey completed in September 1994 “found a dramatic fall in the living conditions and an increasing number of destitute and vulnerable populations in the northern governorates.” [9] Nonetheless, relatively speaking, Kurdistan is today much better off economically than the government-controlled region.

The no-fly zone depends on Turkey’s parliament to renew the air base agreement every six months. The Turks fear that if the protection is removed, another exodus could occur. The US and British governments also routinely pressure Ankara to renew. But current Turkish politics are highly uncertain, especially around the Kurdish question, and future renewals are not guaranteed. Both Turkish and Iranian forces have crossed their respective borders into Iraqi Kurdish areas; Turkey’s air force frequently bombs what it describes as Kurdistan Worker’s Party targets in Dohuk governorate, which now hosts at least 12,000 Turkish Kurdish refugees. According to a December 1994 USAID “situation report,” since August 1994 Turkish forces have attacked “villages located 12 to 15 kilometers inside northern Iraq,” and that “15-16 USG-supported resettlement villages near the border have been abandoned.” [10]

The Turkish government also favors restoring economic relations with Iraq, one of its major trading partners prior to 1990 and a major source of revenue through dues collected on oil flowing through the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline. There have been frequent reports throughout 1994 of increasing Turkish pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to reopen negotiations with Baghdad, and Ankara has itself reestablished diplomatic ties with Iraq.

The “international community,” largely in deference to the sensibilities of the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian governments, has not recognized the Kurdish administration formed after parliamentary elections there in May 1992, although the parliament in Erbil disavowed any intent to create an entity separate from Iraq, favoring a federal type of solution. In deference to Ankara’s sensitivities, no bilateral or multilateral aid is supposed to go directly to the Kurdish administration, though in practice this rule is sometimes breached.

The difficulties of establishing a stable administration under these conditions have exacerbated internal conflict. Heavy fighting has occurred frequently since the beginning of 1994, largely owing to a longstanding contest between the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani. The elections of May 1992 led to the establishment of an administration shared “50-50” between the PUK and KDP, consolidating the power of the parties rather than the administration. Smaller parties ceased to have an independent role, with the partial exception of the Iran-backed Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan and other smaller Islamist groups allied with the KDP. The inability of the Kurdish administration to transcend party interests or improve economic conditions and thus establish its credibility has undoubtedly been fueled by uncertainties about the region’s political future. Baghdad appears to be biding its time, expecting that eventually the Kurdish parties will return to the negotiating table.

Iraqi Kurdistan has few structures for trade and no banking system. Apart from a significant amount of smuggling, it is cut off from the markets in Iraq on which it formerly depended. The weakness of the northern economy and the lack of alternatives have allowed power and patronage to accrue to the main parties. The militias represent a sole means of livelihood for many young men. Checkpoints manned by the parties’ peshmerga collect import-export duties, the main source of revenue for the administration. When clashes broke out, these revenues were diverted into the parties’ coffers. The region is geographically split in two, with the KDP controlling the Turkish border area, and therefore the region’s main source of income from customs duties. These revenues increased in late 1994 with the reopening of trade between Turkey and government-controlled Iraq, which passes through KDP-controlled areas to Mosul and cities further south. The parties’ dispute over control of these funds contributed to a new round of fighting in December 1994, the most serious yet, which was still continuing in mid-February 1995.

The view of Iraqi Kurdistan as a democratic enclave under Western protection has gradually given way to a recognition of the untenable conditions under which this “experiment” is taking place. The leverage available to the Western powers is limited, short of threatening to withdraw protection or aid. Baghdad is again making overtures to the Kurdish leadership, and the US does not want to appear responsible for prompting a return to Iraqi government control in the north. But many Kurds feel they have reached a dead end, and are deeply disillusioned with the allies and their own leadership.

Displacement of Population

Significant displacement and movements of large numbers of people inside government-controlled Iraq since the war testify to both greater impoverishment and to intensified government coercion. After the 1991 war, harsh conditions’ particularly in the cities of the south, encouraged people to move to Baghdad where, until recently, conditions were better. Many moved from Basra, a city of about 2 million, where work opportunities were scarce owing to the wartime destruction of petrochemical industries in that area. Many moved to the poor, mainly Shi‘i satellite communities around metropolitan Baghdad.

In 1994, the government issued a decree forbidding those who had moved into Baghdad after 1991 to remain there, and prohibiting further migration. This targeted Shi‘i Iraqis from the south. Exceptions were made for persons from the predominantly Sunni governorates of Mosul, Salah al-Din, Diyala and Anbar. All other persons were ordered to leave. The government justified this by saying that it was overwhelmed by the demand for housing, health and education services caused by the additional population.

Baghdad police reportedly took strong measures to execute this decree. Families were forced to leave their houses and their effects were dumped in the street. They were given 6,000 dinars (about $10) as moving expenses. Those affected are mainly from the south and, given the economic situation in the south, are likely to have difficulties resettling there.

In the south, the plight of displaced people is reported to be very serious. They consist of those recently forced southward from the Baghdad area and those who have been displaced by the draining of the marshes as well as by persistent army attacks in that area. Thousands — more exact numbers are not known — are said to have been forced from the dried areas of the ‘Amara marshes, and areas southward to the Euphrates, either to camp on the edges of the new embanked canals or to the edges of the main towns, especially Nasiriyya and ‘Amara.

Many other people from the south have fled to Iran. Between June 1993 and early 1994 some 8,000 refugees arrived in southwest Iran, mostly from the Iraqi marshes. Since then, thousands more have arrived, both marsh dwellers and people from the towns and villages of government-controlled areas, including Baghdad and the central governorates. Not all those who flee manage to reach Iran. Some are stopped by Iraqi troops but others are held on the border by the Iranian authorities who, despite their open policy toward Iraqi refugees in the past, may now fear a flood of refugees fleeing economic conditions as well as repression.

Iraqis continue to attempt to leave the country, to the north into Iran and into Jordan. (Iraqi opposition sources claim that between 1 and 2 million Iraqis presently live outside the country.) The government has now forbidden transfer of real estate belonging to Iraqis absent from the country for more than two years. Rent from such properties will effectively be confiscated and paid into a special Finance Ministry fund. Discouragement also came from Jordan in 1993. Until that time, some poor people, particularly from the Baghdad areas, went to Jordan to sell goods on the streets, sleeping in parks and in the street. In 1993, the Jordanian authorities cleared out illegal traders. At the same time, Iraq imposed an exit tax, now 40,000 dinars (about $75), and a limit of $50 on the export of foreign currency.

In the north, over the last three years, thousands of people have been displaced temporarily or permanently by Turkish air raids, Iraqi attacks and incursions over the de facto border, Iranian attacks in the Suleimaniya governorate, and since late 1993, by internal conflict.

Impact on the Iraqi State

Sanctions and other interventions by the US-led coalition have had a significant impact on the Iraqi state, Its geographical control has been eroded, partly due to its own decision to withdraw from the three northern governorates. In the south, government control outside the cities has been weakened in some areas by rebel activity. Officials are said to be reluctant to travel the roads in the afternoons or evenings; there are reports of sporadic rebel clashes with the army and attacks on government and Baath Party property. But the no-fly zone imposed in August 1992 has done little to hamper government military campaigns in the region. 1992 saw the start of Baghdad’s campaign to drain the marshes by creating large embankments with heavy earth-moving equipment, part of which had been left behind by foreign construction companies. The results are clearly visible to allied air patrols and satellite surveillance, but the violent and forcible movement of this population has attracted no retribution from coalition forces.

During much of 1991, Baghdad’s control over its provincial administration had been greatly weakened, but by the end of that year it had been largely restored. In 1994 there were signs that accountability from the provinces to the center had again loosened. The regime has increasingly focused on protecting itself and those who help to maintain its power.

In a situation of limited resources, priority targets for reconstruction have focused on projects which bolster the regime’s ability to maintain control, particularly communications and probably conventional weapons projects, as well as some industrial projects. The infrastructural problems caused by war damage and lack of spare parts as a result of sanctions are the most acute in the south, which was already relatively underprivileged. Basra in particular had never recovered from severe damage as a result of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. The marsh drainage scheme has taken precedence because it is expected to improve security. Many of these projects have been carried out by the state-run Military Industries Organization. The regime boasts of new prestige projects as symbols of its survival, including a grand state mosque in Baghdad and ostentatious new palaces for Saddam Hussein and his sons.

Iraq’s economy is particularly vulnerable to interruption of its international trade, given its dependence on imported food, medical supplies and spare parts. Prior to August 1990, such imports ran to $3-4 billion a year. Smuggling is rife across all Iraq’s land borders; recent interceptions of vessels in the Gulf carrying Iraqi oil suggest that some revenue is coming from this kind of sanctions breaking. Western sources estimate that Iraq lately has had available about $800 million per year for all its imports — compared with the estimated $10 billion spent in 1989. [11] The Iraqi government asserts it now spends $600-700 million annually on food. [12]

Despite its much reduced resources, the state’s distributive role, through the provision of subsidized rations, has become all the more critical to the survival of the population. Consequently, handouts to local and provincial leaders also serve as a form of control. In 1992-1993, government rations constituted between a third and a half of most people’s monthly needs in government-controlled areas. [13] After some increases in rations during 1993 and early 1994, they were reduced by more than 40 percent in September 1994. According to a recent UNICEF report, the caloric value of the ration before the reductions was 1,770 per person per day; the September 1994 reductions translated to a 36 percent reduction in the protein content and caloric value of each ration package. [14] All other needs have to be met from the open market, where prices of basic goods continue to rise sharply. [15] (Minister of Planning Kamal Majid was fired in August 1994 when his office published a report saying that inflation had reached 24,000 percent.) [16] Some families are said to be selling parts of their ration — cooking oil, for example — to secure increased amounts of basic items such as flour.

Attempts to boost local food production have been hampered by the relative neglect of agriculture in the past and, more immediately, by shortages of fertilizers, pesticides and spare parts for agricultural and spraying equipment. Farmers have also been reportedly hoarding crops rather than selling them at government-controlled prices, despite the fact that government inspectors were empowered in 1993 to fine or jail farmers who withheld crops.

Impact on Iraqi Society

The state’s ability to provide services and acceptable standards of living have been dramatically diminished by its lack of access to oil revenues. The decline in the level of services — education, health, water purification, sanitation — has hit children and women particularly hard. There has been a marked increase in child deaths and illnesses due to the deterioration of health services, declining standards of nutrition and lack of clean water and sanitation. ‘Adnan Jabira, chief of Baghdad’s water and sewage system, says the system is operating at only 50 percent capacity. In a country where 92 percent of the population once had access to safe water, now even some neighborhoods in the capital are without it. The situation in southern cities is even worse. [17]

Medical Aid for Iraq, a British charity that delivers pediatric supplies to a number of hospitals, has noted a marked decline in hospital services in 1994; deteriorating standards of hygiene in particular have created serious risk of cross-infection among patients. “A severe deterioration is detectable in all the hospitals visited,” observed the agency’s September 1994 report: “The team had not expected to see such an extreme reduction of resources, given the desperate situation of the hospitals in April [1994]…. Basic medicines are absent, routine surgery impossible, and more and more equipment is breaking down and put out of use because of the unavailability of spare parts.” Baghdad hospitals appear to be suffering “particularly acutely,” the report continued. “This may be because of the number of referrals of sick children from the provinces in addition to the demand from the local population of around 4 million…. But the Baghdad hospitals cannot provide the treatment either.” The Medical Aid for Iraq report also noted a marked increase in children being admitted to southern hospitals with tuberculosis, a sign of growing impoverishment.

The intensifying resource shortage also threatens the education system. NGOs working both in the Kurdish region and in government-controlled areas attest to rising levels of school dropouts, even at the primary level, as pressure grows for children to work. Family income has been progressively undermined by the combination of unemployment, low wages and inflation. The costs of sending children to school — clothes, school materials and transport — have begun to influence family decisions about keeping children in classes. All this in a country where primary school attendance levels were previously high. [18] Iraqi government and UN sources say that 12,000 teachers have left the profession or taken on multiple jobs since 1990. [19]

The burdens on women, as household managers, have intensified as increasing efforts go into simply keeping their families fed. Barter and borrowing money, something often done by women, have become common ways of surviving. High levels of male unemployment in urban areas — both as a result of factory and business slowdowns and closures and because of large-scale demobilization from the army during 1991 and 1992 — have spread the burden of earning over the whole family. [20] In areas such as Saddam City, the predominantly Shi‘i satellite town adjoining Baghdad, it has reportedly become much more common to find women working outside the home. In the south, people are now seen selling individual garments and household items in the streets. Prostitution is reportedly growing more widespread, though a 1993 decree made “running a group of two or more persons for the procurement of prostitutes” punishable by execution.

There has not been any detailed or systematic survey of living conditions in government-controlled areas of Iraq since the International Study Team report in 1991. [21] Despite the limitations of this survey and some criticisms of its results, particularly in regard to initial findings on infant mortality, it did represent a more or less countrywide survey based on access to most areas. In its November 1993 report, the WFP/FAO nutrition survey team commented that much of the data provided by the Ministry of Health was inadequate to reach any clear conclusions, and that there was little longitudinal data available on nutrition levels.

Problems in assessing the impact of sanctions relate to previous variations in living standards in different areas of the country, and the difficulties of disentangling the impact of economic sanctions from existing economic problems and war damage. Much current evidence is either anecdotal, or location-specific because it is collected by the UN or NGOs in areas where they work. This seems to show differences, particularly in service delivery, in different parts of the country. Despite these difficulties, there can be no doubt that, in absolute terms, there has been a steep decline in general living standards. Postwar conditions have undermined Iraq’s once substantial middle class and reduced living standards for the poor to bare subsistence levels or less.

Real incomes in August 1991 were somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of what they had been a year earlier in terms of purchasing power, and the circumstances of most Iraqis have only deteriorated since then: the basic monthly food “basket” for a family of six that cost between 66 and 100 dinars before the war cost more than 1,000 dinars in August 1991 and 5,400 in June 1993. (Monthly wages in mid-1993 ranged from 250 dinars for an unskilled worker to 775 for a senior civil servant.) Even those who have assets from before the war often must support a network of relatives and other dependents.

The middle classes, built largely on the basis of state employment and benefits, have been particularly devastated by the postwar crisis. (Official Iraqi statistics indicate that the country’s public sector — not including the armed forces — employed 826,560 persons in 1990. This was almost 21 percent of the total workforce, but 27.5 percent in Baghdad city and 41 percent in Basra governorate.) [22] While the state payroll remains large, salary increases and, most recently, allowances to compensate for ration reductions, are immediately eroded by massive inflation. In January 1995, Saddam Hussein (who since May 1994 also holds the title of prime minister) ordered printing of an 250-dinar note. This sum, which would have been worth $800 before the crisis, is now worth barely 50 cents. [23]

Sanctions have further widened the gap between a small number of privileged, who have managed to maintain their living standards or even profit from the crisis, and the majority of the population. [24] The November 1994 report of Max van der Stoel, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iraq, observes that Baghdad’s response to sanctions has also created further differentiation among various parts of the country.

The central cities of Iraq, especially Tikrit, Samarra’ and parts of Baghdad, continue to enjoy privileges in the distribution of limited resources…. Among social groups of Iraqi society, certain groups remain privileged in comparison with others, e.g., the military and Baath Party elite, although the number of privileged groups appears to be declining along with the number of persons enjoying special privileges within the protected groups. [25]

Mosul, a major northern city that is key to the regime’s staying power, now accrues an estimated $500,000 per day in cash and commodities from recently renewed diesel fuel-for-food trade between Turkey and government-controlled Iraq. [26]

Efforts by the Iraqi government, individuals and communities to survive also appear to be sharpening sectarian divisions. Since 1991, the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics have become unprecedentedly explicit. The most obvious example is the increasingly open denigration of Iraq’s Shi‘a and their religion, and interference with its practice. Groups compete — and are encouraged to compete — for increasingly scarce resources. This includes both the use of largesse to buy the allegiance of particular tribal or religious figures and the dependence of most of the population on the centrally controlled rationing system. [27] Van der Stoel argued in a February 1994 report that government abuses also operate to further social divisions. The means include collective family responsibility for alleged crimes by an individual and manipulation of tribal and religious leaders, forcing them to swear allegiance to Saddam Hussein on behalf of their communities, either to avoid punishments or to gain privileges. [28]

Similarly, family and party networks around the ruling group have played a considerable part in the extensive “black” economy which has developed since 1991. State power, through a constant flow of decrees, is used for self-aggrandizement — to reward those in favor or protect them from punishment for infringing on the rules, and to dispossess those the state wants to exclude. “Property rights are also violated on spurious charges in order to enrich government officials or provide revenues for the state,” van der Stoel notes. “Moreover, violations of property rights are used to alter the ethnic composition of communities or to penalize family members for alleged crimes attributed to their relatives.” [29] This includes confiscating properties or forcing the sale of businesses at a cheap price from those under a political cloud. Reports suggest that a number of businessmen, particularly in the Shi‘i community, have fallen victim to these practices.

Other businessmen, presumably those favored by the regime, have not been doing badly. Not a few of the three or four dozen Iraqi companies operating in Amman are linked to key figures in the regime, such as Minister of Industry Hussein Kamil (Arabco), or have ties to the ruling family, such as Ibrahim Tikriti (Al-Badawi Co.). Other more strictly commercial firms are also profiting from the high prices import transactions command. When the regime executed a number of merchants for profiteering in the fall of 1992, including senior figures in the chamber of commerce, scores of Iraqis and Jordanians flocked to the homes of three wealthy families in Amman to express condolences. There were Iraqi press reports in July 1994 that ‘39 patriotic Iraqi merchants and industrialists” had contributed — though perhaps the “contributions” were not entirely voluntary — $2.75 million to a fund for food imports. [30]

By all accounts, including those of the official Iraqi press, the punishing impact of the economic crisis has led to an alarming growth in crime. There were reports in the spring of 1993 from Saddam City of daily executions of youths charged with petty crimes. Since then, increasingly brutal punishments in “Islamic” guise, including public and televised amputations (and brandings of army deserters), do not seem to have halted this trend. The decline in standards of public behavior has also been fueled by the ostentatious way in which the nomenklatura has escaped the rigors of sanctions. [31]

The army and security services have remained highly active in conducting security sweeps, arresting the politically suspect and those they wish to intimidate. Refugees, especially from the south, speak of army arrests whose main purpose is to elicit family payments to get relatives out of prison. Collaboration between police and criminals appears to be not uncommon. [32] Many ordinary people, while accustomed to arbitrary actions by state and party agents, are shocked by the levels of lawlessness in the population at large. And there have been persistent reports of clashes between militias loyal to one or another regime figure, and extortionist dealings by others, notably the president’s eldest son, ‘Uday. [33]

Measures such as the banning of alcohol in public places are unlikely to prevent those who have enough money from gaining access to it, especially since ‘Uday Hussein reputedly has taken control of whiskey imports. The alcohol ban has put many in the restaurant trade out of work, hitting Iraq’s Christian community particularly hard. By one account more than 300,000 Iraqi Christians, mainly middle-class, have fled since 1991. [34]

A major regime priority, as always, is to retain the allegiance of the army, but the opposition Iraqi National Congress, based in the Kurdish-controlled north, reports an increase in the numbers of deserters to the north. The sickeningly brutal punishments the regime is now meting out to deserters and draft evaders suggests that the problem has indeed worsened. Conditions of army service have declined markedly over the past year, as the impoverishment of Iraqi society has affected even the Republican Guards. Another factor may be that the southern marshes, until recently the main destination for deserters, have now been largely eliminated as a haven. Soldiers now fleeing to the north have become more visible.

Debating Sanctions

These developments, like earlier signs of regime troubles, do not necessarily mean that the end of the Iraqi regime is near. The priority it gives to its own survival — in most instances to the detriment of the general population — could have been anticipated, given the record of its previous decades in power. Did policymakers in the West simply not understand this record, and not anticipate its survival? What is clear is that the US and its allies have not devised policies to meet this eventuality. Despite weakened control in some areas, such opposition as may exist inside government-controlled areas appears to be fragmented and clandestine, and not in a position to create new forms of social organization. The concern of many Iraqis with the degree of social disintegration which has occurred cannot reasonably be expected to translate into organization against the state.

Nor can sanctions be seen as a form of containment — a holding operation which freezes the situation in Iraq. Impoverishment and social erosion have created their own dynamics, complicated by the Iraqi regime’s own forms of manipulation and repression in order to stay in power. These factors are influencing the future shape of Iraqi society and politics, and will be a legacy for any future government to reckon with.

How, in a post-Saddam period, will this impoverished and traumatized society express its yearning for economic and physical security from crime and other social pathologies that have been unleashed? In view of the scale of Iraq’s current economic devastation, a partial or even total lifting of sanctions would not immediately resolve the crisis, even if an equitable distribution of basic goods could be ensured through independent monitoring or other methods. Iraq will also be burdened with heavy reparations payments for the foreseeable future. [35] The consequences of social and economic upheavals which have occurred since 1991 will not be easy to reverse. “In the long term,” says Oxfam’s Monica Press, who has made a number of visits to post-war Iraq, “we are looking at a severely retarded country.” [36]

The sanctions against Iraq, and Iraqi compliance with their terms, are up for Security Council review in March 1995, and every 60 days thereafter until the members can agree that Iraq has complied. This requires a consensus on what constitutes compliance.

While a continued military and military-related embargo against Baghdad remains appropriate, three questions stand out in regard to the balance of ends and means in the economic sanctions policy. A debate needs to take place beyond the confines of the Security Council on just what can be achieved by sanctions and at what cost. First, is the degree of collective suffering and hardship commensurate with the professed aim of enforcing international standards of justice and humanity? Second, are sanctions effective, in this instance at least, in fulfilling that aim? And third, is that in fact the goal of sanctions as currently understood by the leading members of the Security Council?

There are no easy answers when faced with a regime with a history of brutality and a determination to survive no matter what the cost to the society. The choice need not be between the present impasse and complete and immediate lifting of all sanctions. More focused targets for sanctions would be one option. At the very least, those who insist that Iraq’s compliance over humanitarian assistance and human rights justifies retaining sanctions must also propose how protection and monitoring can be implemented.

Whatever the initial intent, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the humanitarian needs and even the human rights of the Iraqi people have been subordinated to other policy priorities of the Security Council states. The Iraqi regime had the support of the Western powers throughout the 1980s, despite its transparently awful record on human rights. The people of Iraq still endure this abusive regime, but over the last four years gross infringements of human rights have been compounded for the vast majority by severe curtailment of their fundamental right to life and livelihood.


[1] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Iraq Country Report,” third quarter 1994, p. 18.
[2] New York Times, October 25, 1994.
[3] Rene Provost, “Starvation as a Weapon: Legal Implications of the United Nations Food Blockade against Iraq and Kuwait,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 30 (1992), p. 577.
[4] Bill Frelick in Middle East Report 176 (May-June 1992), p. 22.
[5] Oscar Schachter, quoted in Ian Johnstone, Aftermath of the Gulf War: An Assessment of UN Action, International Peace Academy Occasional Paper Series (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994).
[6] House Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, March 1994, p. 25.
[7] Since October 1992, only CARE-International/Australia and OXFAM/Britain have an ongoing presence in government-controlled areas and are signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding. As of late 1994, some 30 NGOs are working in Kurdish-controlled areas.
[8] UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Report of the Nutritional Status Assessment Mission to Iraq, November 1993” (Rome, December 1993), p. 6.
[9] US Agency for International Development, Bureau of Humanitarian Response, Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, “Northern Iraq-Displaced Persons,” Situation Report 1 (FY 1995), December 9, 1994, p. 1.
[10] Ibid., p. 2.
[11] Eric Rouleau, “Le Peuple Irakien: Premiere Victime de l’Ordre American,” Le Monde Diplomatique (November 1994). The New York Times “discovered” this on February 16, 1995.
[12] Financial Times, October 22-23, 1994.
[13] Outside observers have judged the Iraqi government’s public food rationing system to be “exemplary” in terms of coverage, equity and efficiency. The system comprises a network of some 48,000 “agents” — ordinary grocers for the most part — who charge official ration prices and keep a 10 percent commission. At late 1991 market prices, the system represented a state contribution of 208 dinars to a family of six — nearly double the monthly wages of unskilled workers (120-130 dinars). The system does presume some cash income; the WFP reported in June 1993 that it was feeding 785,000 destitute Iraqis with no incomes whatsoever.
[14] Washington Post, October 16, 1994.
[15] A roster of Baghdad food prices, presumably from mid-1994, can be found in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Iraq Country Report,” p. 18.
[16] Economist Intelligence Unit, fourth quarter 1994, p. 15; Le Monde, August 24-25, 1994, translated in the Guardian Weekly, September 11, 1994.
[17] Jabira is cited in the Washington Post, October 16, 1994. The figure for pre-war access to safe water is from the UN Development Program, Human Development Report 1992 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 134. Regarding the situation in some southern cities, David Jones, associate director of Oxfam, reported after a January 1993 visit to ‘Amara that “only about 40 percent of the population there get clean water” (CNN, January 26, 1993). See also the November 1993 FAO report, pp. 10-12.
[18] According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 1992, Iraq’s primary enrollment rate in 1988-1989 was 84 percent for boys and 78 percent for girls; secondary enrollment was 47 and 37 percent respectively. p. 154.
[19] Guardian, October 29, 1994.
[20] The most informed discussion of post-war employment dynamics is Jean Dreze and Haris Gazdar, Hunger and Poverty in Iraq, Development Economics Research Programme Discussion Paper Series 32 (London: Suntory-Toyota Centre for Eccnomics and Related Disciplines of the London School of Economics and Political Science, September 1991), pp. 14-29. All indications are that problems of unemployment have escalated dramatically since that report was written.
[21] International Study Team, Health and Welfare in Iraq After the Gulf Crisis: An In-Depth Assessment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, October 1991).
[22] Dreze and Gazdar, p. 7a.
[23] Financial Times, January 24, 1995.
[24] For a discussion ofthe absolute and differential impacts of economic sanctions, see Lori Fisler Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint: Collectiue Intervention in Internal Conflicts (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993).
[25] November 1994, para 93.
[26] Financial Times, December 8, 1994.
[27] According to Francoise Chipaux (Le Monde, August 4-5, 1991), for weeks before the Baath Party’s Tenth Congress, Iraqi television featured nearly every evening one or another tribal personality pledging fealty to Saddam Hussein and begging pardon for the seditious behavior of “a few paid saboteurs.” Representing a regime that once banned the use of tribe and clan names (except in Kurdistan, where it was encouraged), the president himself apologized to a delegate from Kut “for inciting the people against feudalism.”
[28] February 1994, para 180.
[29] February 1994, para 151.
[30] Washington Post, July 30, 1994.
[31] Rouleau, Le Monde Diplomatique.
[32] Rouleau, Le Monde Diplomatique.
[33] George Joffe, “Sanctions and Crime,” Middle East International, June 10, 1994.
[34] Financial Times, October 22-23, 1994.
[35] The Iraqi Consulting Group, a London-based association of dissident expatriate Iraqi specialists, reported in early 1995 that Iraq’s expected net annual oil revenues after sanctions are lifted will be around $11.4 billion, while annual claims and payments, including debt service and war reparations, will be “not less than $12 billion.” See Middle East Economic Survey, February 6, 1995.
[36] Guardian, October 29, 1994.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Intervention, Sovereignty and Responsibility," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This