The politics, sensibilities and lives of Iraqis born in the 1970s and 1980s were intimately shaped by harsh US sanctions on essential and non-essential goods, Saddam Hussein’s wars and the US invasion in 2003 with its devastating war and aftermath. What can a young Iraqi possibly hope for now?


In one of his most succinct poems, “This Is the American Master,” late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus likened death to a thirsty master who will drink the fuel and water from the oil wells and rivers of Iraq. As evident in the title, Boulus did not hesitate to indicate that death will come from the United States. In his poem, Boulus further describes this master as eating thousands and thousands of our children. Boulus’ eloquence lies in the way that he never says this master physically came to Iraq to eat the children; he merely ate them. Fifteen years after the US-led invasion of Iraq and the coming of death in the shape of an American master, this poem by Boulus describes US treatment of Iraqis as punishable subjects.

A sanction, and in particular its plural, sanctions, is not only a fundamental term in the vernacular of the generation of Iraqis born in the late 1970s and 1980s; it is also an essential component of their mental and social formation because it played an important role in forming the political consciousness of those who found themselves caught within the circle of US sanctions their entire lives.

On a personal level, I found myself within this circle of sanctions in the 1990s, when I was a ten-year-old boy. Following the internationally-enforced economic blockade imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1991, I was forced to leave school and work on the streets selling cigarettes. At a time when the coffins of children who died due to dehydration or lack of medicine were passing before my eyes, my small eight-inch black and white television transmitted images of Saddam Hussein eloquently and proudly celebrating his extravagant birthday parties. Back then, the Iraqi dictator was not affected by the strict sanctions that the United States insisted must be the harshest in the history of the United Nations. It was the Iraqi people who perished due to the lack of medicine and food.

When I recount these years, I can only remember the minimum living standard that was imposed on us. In the 1990s, the United Nations assembled a “food basket” for Iraqis, enough to sustain our bodies to wake up every day and practice our role in depressingly hard labor in the shadows of a dictatorial regime. Children such as myself started helping our families to obtain basic food that rarely extended beyond potatoes and eggplants.

At that time, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked on a CBS television interview whether the deaths of a half million Iraqi children was a price worth paying for the continuation of sanctions on Iraq. She replied, “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” [1] These sanctions were a form of collective punishment, as Albright admitted, rather than a targeted reprisal against Saddam Hussein and his cronies. When Saddam’s son survived an attempted assassination, he was able to receive excellent medical treatment, whereas the Iraqi public had to endure the pain of being treated for injuries without anesthetics, which were unavailable to them. Patients died of suffocation for the lack of oxygen in hospitals.

In the years preceding the sanctions, the United States directly and indirectly supplied Saddam’s regime with weapons to sustain the momentum of a war against Iran that lasted eight years and took over 1 million lives from both sides. Saddam’s aggression was not sated by this costly war. In 1991, he invaded Kuwait and soon after he was defeated by an international coalition led by the United States. These losses pushed Iraqis to sense the regime’s weakness and drove them to rise up against Saddam in most provinces. The US administration, however, did not prevent the regime’s use of fighter jets against those who rebelled. Saddam was killing the Iraqi people again while the whole world was watching. The US-imposed sanctions created an even deadlier situation. They were imposed not only on vital goods necessary for the survival of an entire population, but also on pens, notebooks, cinema tickets and diapers!

We did not know back then that sanctions were only a lead-up to the bigger punishment that Iraq would suffer under President George W. Bush beginning in March 2003. It was not only a war on despots, but on the Iraqi citizenry and all of the nation’s accomplishments over thousands of years. The war was cancerous for the bodies of those in cities where internationally banned weapons with radioactive components were used. This US war completely demolished facilities and infrastructure, as well as the country’s rich natural and educational heritage. Although Saddam’s regime was toppled, the outcome consolidated the corrupt network of ruling powers in Iraq. These were not mere results of the war, but a master plan that aimed to punish the Iraqi people simply for being.

A few months ago, I turned 30. When I look back at the mad years of my youth, I ask: Why was I, along with my entire generation, left in the midst of the circle of punishment? After the occupation of Baghdad in April 2003, the US administration, with the support of numerous Western countries, established a new political system for Iraq, which constitutes one of the most punitive modern systems. This regime utilizes all democratic tools available: elections and the alternation of power, monitoring bodies and engagement with United Nations treaty bodies that aim to ensure human rights and social justice. All these tactics, however, are in reality nothing but a waste!

The current political system, a continuous whirlpool of bureaucratic measures, is a massive machine that can only be run by those who have established it and put a guard in place to make it work. It is difficult for newly established political parties to compete for a place in parliament and to form a coherent opposition that can reach power. The infrastructure of this new system, in addition to election regulations, deters the formation of smaller parties. Citizens must also contend with the increased presence of some political parties’ armed factions. For most Iraqis, therefore, “democracy” tastes bitter.

The new political system was engineered in a way that mirrors the traditional Iraqi metaphor of choosing between the rabbit and the deer, except that one can only get the rabbit. The choice of the deer is a mere illusion. Iraqis have been forced to make a more brutal choice, which ruins their lives and livelihoods and makes for a living hell. What makes this political system more bitter is the fact that it continues to derive its power from a majority of international organizations and Western countries.

In return, Iraqis have tried for the past few years to change their reality. They went out to the streets in popular demonstrations, they used social media to establish online campaigns, they spoke before Western parliaments and the United Nations and they attempted to topple the entire political process in the summer of 2016 when they occupied the Green Zone, the protectorate of Iraqi politicians. However, their attempt at self-determination received no international support. International organizations urge them to be patient, and, in the meantime, they count the deaths among Iraqis on a monthly basis. On the one hand, international organizations issue reports on literacy and basic human rights, while, on the other, they extend their hand to establish agreements with the successive governments. This reality pushes Iraqis to despair—yet despair also seems like a luxurious option. The hopeless individual today does not have many options, for he or she lives in a locked prison whose keys are in the hands of a bunch of politicians. The hopeless individual lives within a limited sphere of rights and freedoms, which is increasingly taking a classist form—about 40 percent of Iraqis live below the poverty line today. These individuals cannot change their situation, neither through elections nor through political or direct actions. The network of economic relations with the West following the fall of ISIS has only increased people’s despair. The future of Iraq is indebted to banks and international corporations. The Iraqi is born today with a debt of $3,000. According to the world’s political map, this means that Iraq will remain in this situation so the debtors can be paid off.

If hopeless individuals previously had the option to leave, to escape the dictatorial regime, the prospect of getting a visa to another country today is non-existent. If one manages to reach a neighboring or regional country, it will likely not allow them to reside there. If one dreams of reaching a Western country, then the prospect of being granted asylum is slim to nothing. Due to the cooperation between the Iraqi regime and some Western countries, Iraq is now classified as a safe country. In the most optimistic case, where an Iraqi is granted asylum following escape on a rubber boat, they will struggle with being out of place.

I prepare myself to count the losses of the years to come, after I have finished recounting the losses of my last 30 years. I sit and wonder about the next modern punitive measures that Iraqis will face. Will a new master come from the United States or elsewhere to drink what is left of the souls of Iraqis?



1. “Punishing Saddam,” 60 Minutes, CBS News, May 12, 1996.

How to cite this article:

Omar Al-Jaffal "Caught in the Circle of Punishment," Middle East Report 286 (Spring 2018).

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