On February 16, US and British warplanes bombed targets outside the no-fly zones for the first time since December 1998, prompting a brief media frenzy that refocused the world's attention on the low-level US-UK air war waged against Iraq since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. But the media mostly missed the real story. With bitter irony, George W. Bush's characterization of the raid as a "routine mission" highlighted the media's near-total neglect of the remarkable escalation of bombing inside the no-fly zones over the last two years.
It feels oddly like being at a wake in a funeral home. Our Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation members speak very quietly with one another as we wait for a hospital official to brief us about conditions at the al-Mansour Children's wing of the Saddam City Medical Center. Dr. Mekki, the director, is away, so a hospital official went in search of a senior doctor to speak with us. I open my diary and it dawns on me that at this time four years ago, in March 1996, our first Voices in the Wilderness delegation visited Iraq.
As US policy supporting the continuation of sanctions on Iraq becomes ever more isolated abroad, domestic criticism of sanctions also mounts. Opponents of sanctions gained new visibility in February 1998 at Ohio State University, when pointed questions from the audience disrupted the Clinton administration's carefully staged "town meeting." (See Sam Husseini's "Short-Circuiting the Media/Policy Machine," Middle East Report 208, Fall 1998.) Activists now speak of an anti-sanctions movement drawn primarily from faith-based and peace groups.
Throughout the 1990s, social conditions in Iraq have deteriorated to levels last experienced three and four decades ago. This decline is associated with a dramatic reduction of the gross national product from around $3,500 to under $700 per capita, but changes in the GNP do not tell the entire story.  While Iraq's social indicators, including child mortality, today are certainly not the lowest in the world, the extent and rate of decline there is unprecedented in the modern world.
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.
UNICEF'S recent reports on child mortality in Iraq provided ready fuel for the ongoing propaganda war over the future of sanctions. Iraq's representative at the UN has spoken of a "genocide" caused by sanctions while US and United Kingdom spokespersons, completely ignoring the sanctions' impact since 1990, have blamed Saddam's regime for Iraq's socio-economic decline.
I recently informed an editor of a national news program about a delegation of Nobel laureates who planned to visit Iraq in March. He responded that “Iraq’s not on the screen now that the bombing has stopped.” A puzzling response, since on that very day, the US had bombed seven sites in Iraq.
The following comments are excerpted from a speech delivered on Capitol Hill on October 6, 1998 by Denis Halliday, former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, shortly after he resigned his post in protest over the sanctions’ devastating impact on the Iraqi people.
Aida Dabbas is program officer for the Jordanian-American Binational Fulbright Commission in Amman. She has been an active opponent of the sanctions against Iraq and of the US arms buildup in the region. Jillian Schwedler, an editor of this magazine, spoke with her by telephone in June.
You recently visited Iraq for the first time.
Among those who direct American foreign policy, there is near unanimity that the collapse of communism represents a kind of zero hour. The end of the Cold War so transformed the geopolitical landscape as to render the present era historically discontinuous from the epoch that preceded it. Policy makers contend that America’s mission abroad has had to change to keep pace with these new circumstances.
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.
A public debate over the US-led economic sanctions policy against Iraq is long overdue. More than four years have passed since the Gulf war ceasefire and Baghdad’s bloody suppression of the popular uprisings that followed. The regime, the ostensible target of the sanctions, appears to be firmly in place. The vast majority of individual Iraqis, whose best interests are cited as a major justification for the policy, are suffering a degree of trauma and deprivation that has already set in motion a dynamic of social disintegration and self-destruction that will affect the entire region — and may be very difficult to reverse.