In the spring of 1995, a special issue of Middle East Report offered a damning assessment of US and Allied policy toward Iraq since the Gulf war: Economic sanctions imposed to topple the Iraqi government were punishing the Iraqi people instead. Over five years later, little and much has changed. UNICEF studies have established beyond any doubt that US-led economic sanctions are wrecking Iraq’s public health, education system and infrastructure. Hospitals beg for blood bags and basic sanitation supplies. Schools starve for paper and pencils, let alone computers. Water pipes rust and rupture. Drought exacerbates the crisis, reducing vegetable production in the central and southern provinces to 50 percent of 1998 levels. Security Council resolution 986 (Oil-for-Food) probably averted a famine, but is completely inadequate to stem the dying — by UNICEF’s estimation, 250 die daily — and suffering traceable to the sanctions’ subtler impact. US and UK holds on Oil-for-Food contracts prevent rehabilitation of Iraq’s power grid and irrigation systems, among other infrastructure. Even if economic sanctions were lifted tomorrow, their long-term effects will continue to punish Iraqi civilians for years to come.
Moreover, the Ba’thist regime looks as strong as ever. Sanctions have not propelled dissident factions to unseat Saddam Hussein, or weakened the leadership’s social base. To the contrary, as Faleh A. Jabar writes in this issue, the government exploits the social disintegration brought on by war and sanctions to shore up its power.
The stated excuses for continuing sanctions ring hollow. The once mighty Iraqi army is now too ill-equipped to threaten other states in the region, protected by the ominous US military presence in the Gulf. As Gen. Anthony Zinni testified on Capitol Hill in March, Iraq’s dilapidated tanks shouldn’t scare anybody outside Iraq. The Iraqi military does threaten Kurds being cleansed from Kirkuk, but they receive no protection from the West. A new weapons inspection team, UNMOVIC, has been formed to replace UNSCOM, but what would this team inspect should Iraq allow it in the country? Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter, a self-described “unlikely ally” of anti-sanctions activists, calls for ending the hunt for “nuts and bolts” that provides “the illusion of arms control.”
But the US is no longer satisfied with “dual containment” and prohibiting development of weapons of mass destruction. As Phyllis Bennis writes, the Clinton administration will now accept nothing less than the removal of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 allocated $97 million to opposition groups to topple Hussein, but hawks who want to make Iraq a “no-drive zone” criticize the administration for transferring only $8 million so far. Candidates Bush and Gore argue about who will be even tougher on Iraq, but in practice they too may balk at risking prized “regional stability” by actively subverting the Iraqi regime. Meanwhile, US and UK bombing raids in the no-fly zones are so frequent they earn scarcely a mention in the mainstream press, despite having killed 144 civilians in 1999 alone.
So what has changed? Simply put, the imperial prerogative the US exercised during Desert Storm and Desert Fox is being challenged. France, Russia and China abstained from the voting on Security Council resolution 1284, the latest measure continuing sanctions, if not for the noblest of reasons. The Netherlands, chair of the UN Sanctions Committee, faces major pressure in its parliament to reverse support for the US-led policy. Even Richard Butler, the UNSCOM chief whose abrupt departure from Iraq precipitated the bombing in December 1998, said on BBC radio June 4 that sanctions “have been utterly counterproductive.” In the US and Britain, domestic movements for ending sanctions are gathering steam. Contrary to the State Department’s cherished rhetoric, lifting economic sanctions immediately does not mean coddling the regime. Rigorous military sanctions and enhanced border inspections should accompany the unrestricted renewal of needed imports and the gradual reconstruction of the Iraqi economy. But discussions of alternative policies can no longer divert attention from humanitarian crisis. The time is now to end the failed sanctions on Iraq.