The sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in August 1990, though always morally troubling, has only recently emerged as the subject of debate among Iraqi oppositionists. Most opposition groups supported sanctions either openly or tacitly until 1994, when this unity began to break down. Because the subject is politically sensitive, the debate has largely taken place behind closed doors. Virtually all opposition groups prefer ambiguity to unequivocal endorsement or rejection of sanctions. For example, meetings in January 1995 of Islamists in London and Arab nationalist groups in Damascus extensively discussed sanctions, but issued no public statements. Nevertheless, it is possible now to distinguish different positions on sanctions, usually based on individual positions rather than stated group policies. The evolution of attitudes in 1994, sometimes clouded by dilemmas and inconsistencies, is the product of a complex pattern of assessments and interpretations regarding the function and purpose of the sanctions regime, combined with the expectations and disappointments experienced by Iraqis since 1991.

When the UN Security Council imposed an unprecedentedly rigorous sanctions regime on Iraq in August 1990, the opposition movements, emerging from decades of obscurity in exile, supported it as a less destructive alternative to war. The outbreak of the Gulf war was the first instance where sanctions failed to bend the regime. The only comfort the opposition could derive from the war was a conviction that the magnitude of Iraq’s anticipated defeat would precipitate the downfall of the regime. The failure of the Iraqi military to stage a coup in the wake of defeat, and the bloody collapse of the popular insurgency in southern Iraq in March 1991, brought the next in a series of disappointments to the opposition. Abandoning expectations of immediate political change, the opposition shifted its focus once more, toward the prospect of success in the medium term.

This revised, longer view justified sanctions as an unpalatable but indispensable weapon in the Iraqi fight against Saddam Hussein, whom the opposition held personally responsible for Iraq’s depredations. The sanctions acquired a triple function. First, they would restrict the Iraqi regime’s power to finance its colossal machinery of repression; second, rising economic discontent, coupled with deepening humiliation among the military, the Baath Party and civilians would target Saddam Hussein as the cause of the country’s ills and tighten the political noose around his regime. Finally, Iraq’s international isolation would allow the opposition time to coordinate its strategies and reach out to the clandestine opposition inside the country. Following the war, the Iraqi opposition in exile had to confront the charge that its own disarray had been at least partly responsible for the collapse of the March 1991 uprising. Sanctions would afford them a second opportunity.

There were other implicit assumptions in the opposition’s acceptance of sanctions after the war. Chief was that the West, particularly the US and Iraq’s neighbors, would actively undermine the regime and work energetically for Saddam Hussein’s demise, preferably in cooperation with the Iraqi opposition groups. A second assumption predicated that the regime would run out of money quickly, and in a manner that would affect all sectors simultaneously, including military officers, senior officials and the security organs. Time was crucial. The momentum provided by the unique conjunction of Security Council resolutions, sanctions and international ostracism of the regime had to be exploited quickly.

Regime Resilience

Most of these assumptions evaporated in time. It soon became obvious that the Iraqi government had undeclared financial resources for imports sufficient to cushion the impact of the embargo. Inflation soared, the Iraqi dinar collapsed and individual purchasing power was virtually wiped out. Nonetheless, the government was able to provide minimum rations for most of the population under its control and distribute benefits to its followers. Communications and electrical installations were rebuilt in Baghdad with great fanfare. The regime was able to refurbish and reactivate a sizable proportion of its conventional military hardware. It also found the funds to conduct a prolonged military campaign in the south and to embark on a huge engineering project to drain the marshlands. Most strikingly, the government felt confident enough to reject UN Security Council Resolutions 706 and 712, the so-called food-for-oil resolutions that would have allowed Baghdad to export oil and import food and medicine under strict UN supervision.

Saddam Hussein, sensitive to the latent threat from the military, devoted substantial resources to rewarding officers of the Republican Guard, the Special Guard and other elite units in the military and security organizations, who were detached from the Ministry of Defense and placed under the command of his son, Qusay. The resulting two-tier system of privilege and authority marginalized regular army units and concentrated effective power within the Republican Guard and paramilitary units. At the same time, security and intelligence measures were further tightened and any suspected unrest within the military was eradicated through execution and collective punishment. [1] Across the spectrum of society, reprisals against any disaffection increased in scope and severity.

Faced with the regime’s resilience, Iraqis across the board began to doubt whether sanctions could effect change without additional, more interventionist measures. What has most disappointed the opposition, and affected their position on sanctions, is the response of the West and of Iraq’s neighbors. Many have been dismayed by what they regard as international ambivalence toward change in Iraq and lukewarm support of the opposition movement. Some now believe that sanctions are being used exclusively as a tool for finite regional security policies that do not, in fact, target the Iraqi regime. A January 1995 report by the Iraqi Consulting Group, an expatriate group of economists and politicians, expresses these frustrations well:

The policy of sanctions, in itself and without a comprehensive, complementary and tangible campaign to change the regime in Baghdad, harms the state of Iraq as a unified national and political entity, harms the Iraqi people, and does not necessarily lead to a change of regime. One cannot accept this collective punishment and siege of 18 million people, who are forgotten until further notice, without seeing any political developments that indicate serious intent to pressure and change the regime. [2]

As evidence of a lack of interest in change, Iraqi oppositionists cite a number of feasible measures that could be taken: a safe haven in the south (considered by many Iraqis key to mobilizing and organizing domestic opposition); an international tribunal to try key figures in the regime for crimes against humanity; deployment of human rights monitors throughout Iraq; and implementation of UNSC 688, 706 and 712. The opposition highlights the discrepancy between the UN Security Council’s commitment to implementation of Resolutions 687 and 715, mandating destruction of Iraq’s weapons systems, and its neglect of Resolutions 688, 706 and 712 that can protect and benefit the Iraqi people.

Since the end of the Gulf war, no opposition group has called for foreign military intervention; they maintain that international implementation of protective and relief measures embodied in existing Security Council resolutions would be sufficient to unseat the regime, and have urged the Security Council to use sanctions as leverage to implement such measures.

These cumulative disappointments have presented the opposition with an ambivalent situation. Sanctions have clearly eroded the regime’s power and intensified its vulnerability at home. At the same time, deteriorating living conditions in Iraq have impoverished not only the poorer and salaried classes but also professional sectors with whom the oppositionists most closely identify. Al-Wifaq, an opposition paper with Arab nationalist leanings, expressed the dilemma in a January 1994 editorial:

The lifting of sanctions and restoration of the regime’s international network could mean a huge catastrophe for Iraqis, who might find their bread with less difficulty but will continue to face horrors created by Saddam Hussein. When we state this, we are not calling for the continuation of sanctions and punitive measures — quite the opposite. But we do want to draw attention to the fact that the rulers of Baghdad exploit their international relations in their confrontation with the Iraqi people. [3]

Shifting Ground

In 1994, in light of alarming reports from international relief organizations, a number of Iraqi oppositionists began to call for an end to the sanctions regime as a patriotic duty. [4] A few oppositionists have denounced sanctions as part of a plot to destroy Iraq while keeping a subservient Saddam Hussein in power. In addition to moral considerations, one of the arguments put forward for ending sanctions is that a starving population has neither the will nor the strength to rebel, and that the regime can better manipulate a deprived nation. Outright condemnation of sanctions has come from groups on the left of the political spectrum; the Iraqi Communist Party favored lifting sanctions at its Fifth Congress in late 1993. [5] Opponents of sanctions, aware that their demand could be construed as support for the regime, insist on the continued political isolation of the Iraqi regime and condemn, for instance, French and Russian moves toward normalization with Baghdad. Along with the rest of the opposition, they press for implementation of UNSC 688, 706 and 712, despite the fact that the last two are incompatible with the termination of the sanctions regime, and exhort the people to rise against Saddam Hussein.

Others oppositionists, including members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da‘wa Party, have more cautiously called for “keeping the sanctions against the regime but lifting them against the Iraqi people.” In this view, sanctions are acceptable as part of a comprehensive program that includes direct humanitarian aid to Iraqis and stronger measures to discredit the Iraqi regime. Sayyid Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of SCIRI, recently called on the UN to “differentiate between the people and the regime by establishing relief centers in those areas outside the regime’s control.” [6] Islamists especially are concerned that large sectors of the Iraqi population in southern Iraq will not benefit and could even suffer from an unconditional lifting of the embargo. Rather than take a position on sanctions, they stress the need to remedy the humanitarian situation through UNSC 706 and 712 and to protect human rights through Resolution 688, with the creation of a safe haven in southern Iraq and deployment of UN-mandated human rights monitors throughout the country.

In spite of setbacks and frustrations, many oppositionists still see sanctions as indispensable to the effort against the regime. Within the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the prevailing opinion is supportive of sanctions, but this position is expressed only obliquely in INC publications, broadcasts and public statements. [7] Sanctions defenders draw a parallel between their position and that of the African National Congress, which pressed for sanctions against South Africa despite the damaging impact on the African population. Both major Kurdish parties are reluctant to see sanctions lifted without radical solutions to Iraq’s larger political problems. Defectors and refugees in the Kurdish safe haven zone, interviewed in November 1994, generally support sanctions as a “necessary but not sufficient” weapon against the regime. These groups assert that resumption of trade with Iraq will accord the regime legitimacy and acceptance, ending hope of change. They also believe that once sanctions are lifted, domestic and external opposition will be stifled and repression will increase. Many oppositionists recall the futility of their protest of Baghdad’s good relations with the West and Gulf neighbors during the 1980s.

To explain the fact that four and a half years of an unprecedentedly tight embargo have not brought down the regime, pro-sanctions groups maintain that they confront a formidable opponent and complicated regional balances. While they concede the moral arguments, they continue to regard sanctions as the only way to keep Saddam Hussein ostracized internationally and besieged domestically. As with the Gulf war, they view the sacrifices exacted by the economic blockade as the tragic but unavoidable price Iraqis must pay for their liberation. Their position derives from a conviction that the opposition has gained sufficient ground against the regime to warrant confidence in their eventual success, but that more time is needed.

Differences over the sanctions are not surprising, given the complex nature of the issue and the clash between the moral and the political domains that it generates. The muted Iraqi debate over sanctions is academic, though, since the opposition has no power to influence Security Council decisions. The knowledge that their views have marginal impact has enabled the opposition groups to avoid making difficult and public choices to resolve the dilemma, and has given some the luxury of presenting idealistic proposals that face little likelihood of being tested. But the terms of the debate have revealed differences in opposition strategies, such as the appropriate mix of self-reliance and reliance on external factors, relationships with neighboring countries with dissimilar agendas, the practical means of mobilizing domestic forces, and the content of the political message that needs to be delivered at home and abroad.


[1] There have been many rumors of coup attempts since 1991. Three reports are reliable and documented: an attempt in June 1992, another in the summer of 1993, the latest in December 1994. Each of them was followed by wide-scale executions and arrests. Following the 1993 attempt, some 180 people are said to have been executed.
[2] “Oil and Iraqi Policies,” the third annual report of the Iraqi Consulting Group, issued in January 1995. (Translated from Arabic by author.)
[3] Al-Wifaq, January 15-21, 1994. The paper is published by the Iraqi National Accord. (Translated from Arabic by author.)
[4] See, for example, the Third FAO Special Report on Iraq, issued in May 1994.
[5] The ICP held its Fifth Congress in Iraqi Kurdistan in October 1993. It has fragmented in recent years and may not represent all factions.
[6] Iraq Update, February 3, 1995.
[7] The INC, the largest of the Iraqi opposition organizations, was founded in June 1992 and expanded in October 1993. SCIRI and the major Kurdish parties are participants in the INC, which is based in Iraqi Kurdistan and London.

How to cite this article:

Rend Rahim Francke "The Iraqi Opposition and the Sanctions Debate," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).

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