by Joanne Baker
I’d like to tell you a little bit about why I go to Iraq and then to concentrate on the effect of sanctions on the ordinary people there.
I’ve been to Iraq three times now. Twice in 1999 with Voices in the Wilderness and once last summer with an independent delegation of women. We go as ordinary citizens to break the sanctions and bear witness to the actions of the US/UK governments. It is an act of solidarity with Iraqi people and I feel this is very important because in this age of globalization, there is a terrible invisibility. Globalization can only take place from above if peoples are divided and fragmented below.
We live under a formidable propaganda system in this country. In order to justify the great military/industrial complex led by the US we have to be given an enemy to fear. For decades it was fear of communism and the Soviet threat. Now Saddam is the great bogey man. He must be contained even at the cost of thousands of civilian lives. We are supposed to forget that this is the same man who throughout the 80s was the hero, the policeman in the region, to whom these same governments were more than happy to sell their weapons and chemical seed stock. Behind all the rhetoric the people we starve and bomb are unseen and unheard.
I find sanctions a strangely deceptive word. In Iraq it is a cover for what is more akin to a modern form of medieval siege warfare, economic, military, and biological. Sanctions were first imposed on Iraq in August 1990 by the UN but led by the US. They were supposed to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Their impact was immediate and devastating because there was a total oil embargo and Iraq relied on oil for 95% of its foreign currency earnings. Also at that time it was importing 70% of its food, and in those first months both food and medicine were sanctioned. Not satisfied with this, and not waiting the outcome of any diplomatic resolution, the US then proposed the use of military force. The grudging mandate from the UN was again only to get the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. No mention was made of carpet bombing every system in Iraq that could sustain life. 88 000 tons of munitions were dropped on Iraq in just a few a few weeks. This is the equivalent explosive power of seven Hiroshimas, more than was dropped in the entire second world war. Power plants were targeted, water and sanitation, all sectors of the oil industry, telecommunications, infant formula milk factories, grain silos, all the poultry farms, schools, universities, hospitals, mosques and archeological sites.
The genocide of the Iraqi people is being caused not so much by lack of food and medicine as by a destroyed infrastructure and economy. The destruction of the civilian infrastructure in Iraq was deliberate and aimed to put ‘leverage’ on the regime. An article in
, June 1991, stated:
“The worst civilian the worst civilian suffering, senior officers say, has resulted not from
that went astray but from precision-guided weapons that hit exactly where they were aimed — at electrical plants, oil refineries and transportation networks. Each of these targets was acknowledged during the war, but all the purposes and consequences of their destruction were not divulged.
“‘When they discuss warfare, a lot of folks tend to think of force on force, soldier A against soldier B’, said another officer who played a central role in the air campaign but declined to be named. Strategic bombing, by contrast, strikes against ‘all those things that allow a nation to sustain itself’.”
In 1991 the Harvard Study Team reported that the lack of electrical power, fuel and key transportation links in Iraq now has led to acute malnutrition and
levels of cholera and typhoid. The team projected that
“at least 170,000 children under five years of age will die in the coming year from the delayed effects
” of the bombing. They did not then know that in the following ten years well over half a million children were to die. Tun Myat, the current UN humanitarian coordinator of Iraq, told a Voices delegation just last month that
“water and sanitation at the end of the day is the major killer.”
This is ten years on and the Iraqis have still not been allowed to repair their water and sanitation systems. Electricity is still running at a fraction of the power it had in 1990 and the telecommunications system is on the point of collapse.
While thousands of Iraqi children die each month, the United Nations presides over a ‘humanitarian’ programme which even those administering it described to us as being completely inhumane. Less than one quarter of the value of oil exported by Iraq has arrived back in the country in the form of goods. Over the first 48 months of the programme this has worked out as little over $8 per month per person to cover all sectors: food, food handling, health, oil spare parts, electricity, water and sanitation, agriculture, education and infrastructure. According to the UN there has been no evidence of any deliberate withholding of humanitarian supplies by the Iraqi regime as constantly suggested by British and American governments. The amounts arriving in the country at all are so pitiful that this alone explains the dire humanitarian crisis. According to Hans Von Sponeck, who resigned from his post as head of the UN humanitarian relief programme, the programme was doomed from the start because of its systematic manipulation by the big powers – particularly the United States and Britain – to serve political ends He states,
“In all my years at the UN , I had never been exposed to the kind of political manoeuvring and pressure that I saw at work in this programme”.
Medicines and other supplies for the health sector arriving in the country amount to around 98 cents’ worth per month per Iraqi. The supplies that do arrive often bear little relation to those ordered. new generation antibiotics arrive as first generation; surgical scissors arrive as vetinerary scissors. The monthly food ration for each person amounts to just $5.71 dollars a month. For some people the food ration is their only source of income and they are even selling that to pay for other things they need like medicines and cooking fuel. The American and British members of the 661 Sanctions Committee consistently put items on hold because of ‘dual use’ and these are mainly the parts so vitally needed to repair water and sanitation, electricity telecommunications and the oil industry. In the last report a few weeks ago it says that
“The total value of contacts placed on hold by the 661 committee continue to rise standing at over $3.18 billion”
. And Iraqis will tell you how manipulated this is. They will allow an item to be imported but put on hold just one component. It may be only something quite small but without it the rest is useless. This is why you feel when you are in Iraq that a terrible game is being played with the people there.
People are suffering not just because of lack of food and medicine but because their entire economic and social structures have collapsed. There is 70% unemployment. Even those who work earn a pittance. Ten years ago the Iraqi dinar was worth 3 dollars now it takes 2000 Iraqi dinar to make one dollar. I have been into houses where there is no furniture left at all. Everything has been sold, usually to pay for medicine for a sick child. The Al-Jumhuriya district of Basra is an example of the appalling conditions many people live under. The streets are filled with refuse and running with sewage. I spoke to a woman who devotes herself to making endlessly creative meals from the meagre rations of the food basket. She showed us photographs of her home before the embargo- a beautiful house and well dressed, healthy children. Now her husband’s wage only covers the rent of two small rooms where they live with their five children. She and her family constantly suffer stomach complaints from the bad water. Beautiful, intelligent young women told us that they would never marry because it would never be economically viable and even if they did marry they would be too afraid to have children. The women who ran a rehabilitation centre for children with learning difficulties in Baghdad said their intake had gone up 40% since the embargo and that there was no longer transport or educational resources for the children. The head of one of the government orphanages spoke of a dramatic increase in orphaned or abandoned children as families no longer cope. School teachers spoke of dilapidated buildings, lack of resources and malnourished pupils. The head of the nursing school said that her students could no longer do clinical training for lack of medicines and medical equipment.
The doctor in the Paediatric and Maternity hospital in Basra spoke about the complete lack of ante natal care for his patients, the women who die in childbirth for lack of blood, the babies being delivered with terrible deformities, the impossible conditions he has to work under. He described how he recently delivered a baby with two heads, the second ‘head’ being an enormous tumour. He showed us cylinders of industrialised oxygen which is used for premature babies. No medical oxygen is available. We were told that non-therapeutic drugs were forbidden so there is a constant shortage of painkillers and women are undergoing caesarians without anaesthetic. On the wards we met a one-year old baby with an enormous stomach cancer, a two year old with leukaemia, bleeding from the nose and stomach, a very young mother whose second baby was about to die due to malnutrition. There has been a seven fold rise in cancer since the Gulf War and a dramatic increase in birth deformities, kidney disorders and immune deficiencies. These could all be the result of the depleted uranium weapons used by the US and Britain. 350 tons of DU was left in southern Iraq at the end of the war and it has been used repeatedly in subsequent bombings. Iraqi scientists have now verified that it is in the surface water, soil and food chain. They are not allowed the equipment that would enable thm to measure the amounts in the human body. The Iraqi government was never notified that depleted uranium weapons had been used (they only found out years later by reading articles in the foreign press) nor have they ever been given the information or equipment for protection and clean up.
The bombing continues. In Samawa, in August, we witnessed the results of the bombing of a grain silo containing a month’s supply of food from the oil for food deal. The bombing took place a few days before our arrival, killing two people, injuring nineteen and damaging houses. This same small town was again bombed in January of this year. Since 1998 the US and Britain have carried out 30 000 sorties into Iraq. The Blair Government has spent $ 800 million on the bombing. The reason given is the protection of the Shia and Kurdish populations. No one I spoke to in the southern no-fly zone was appreciative. They said, ‘If they are protecting us, why are they bombing us and terrorizing our children.? We think they are trying to kill all Islamic people.’ In the north, the Turkish military planes take off from the same airstrip as the UK/US to bomb the PKK villages within Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of Turkish troops have invaded the area since the ‘protective’ zones were in place. Since 1998, 317 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the US/UK air raids and 960 wounded. Inner city areas have been bombed as well as flocks of sheep in the desert. Often there is no military target within sight. The no-fly zones were never authorised by the UN, certainly not under resolution 688 as recently stated by the government. The bombings are an act of international terrorism.
There is no doubt that the sanctions and military action are aimed to destroy and intimidate the civilian population. The ultimate responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe lies with the United States and Britain. As British citizens we must counter the government’s policy and find solidarity with the people of Iraq. We must support their right to life and to self determination. In the current climate no socialist democracy would be allowed to take root in an oil rich state. While the US feels it has to control the Middle East, the people in that region will be ultimately dispensable.