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Spinning Iraq: Sanctions still the central issue

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others have hit the stump again in recent days with new claims that the U.S.-inspired economic sanctions against Iraq are not responsible for the awful suffering of the Iraqi people and for the high death rate among children under the age of 5.

According to a Sept. 12 New York Times report, Albright is reacting to concerns expressed by anonymous sources that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is abusing the oil-for-food program. The sources maintain that he and his cronies benefit by cornering distribution rights or “through outright black marketeering.”

Others are concerned that Iraq has barred outside human rights monitors and refused to allow outsiders to collect information on food distribution. Observers are worried that the Iraqi government is impeding delivery and refusing aid from other outside relief groups.

The concerns voiced in the Times article and recent comments by Albright, who sarcastically dismisses as fantasy any suggestion of U.S. culpability in the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, is the latest counterassault in the ongoing battle for public opinion over the situation in Iraq.

If the overriding question is whether Saddam Hussein is a brute who would seek to benefit at the expense of his people, the answer clearly is yes. We knew that in the 1980s when we armed him and encouraged him in his war against Iran and as we sold him, as late as six months before the start of the Gulf War in 1991, the components for the very biological and chemical weapons we now want to make sure he doesn’t have.

The central question, however, is whether the sanctions are an effective means of dealing with Saddam. The answer is clearly no.

It is an easy and cheap trick to frame the debate so that sanctions opponents are seen as supporters of the current regime in Iraq. But that deceives and ignores other credible voices calling for an end to the economic blockade.

United Nations’ professionals like Hans von Sponeck and Dennis Halliday, both of whom spent their careers dealing with misery around the globe, decided to end their careers because of what they saw in Iraq. Von Sponeck and Halliday headed up the U.N. humanitarian effort in Iraq and both men resigned in protest of the effects of the sanctions.

Their warnings are still relevant -- the sanctions are destroying a culture, its children, its intellectual life, its health care and education systems, and the infrastructure that sustained, prior to the Gulf War, what was widely regarded as the most progressive Arab state in the Middle East.

Expect a new round of spin from the State Department on the heels of the latest U.N. report on child health in Iraq. The report states that malnutrition is more widespread in those areas of the country controlled by the Baghdad government compared to areas in the North where food distribution is handled by the United Nations directly.

It is easy to use that information to conclude that the Iraqi government is the sole culprit in the higher malnutrition rates in areas under its control. That will be the State Department spin.

But the report also notes, according to a recent Reuters dispatch, that the North receives a disproportionately high share of the oil-for-food revenues; that is has more rainfall than the drought-plagued southern and central areas of Iraq; the North produces more of its own food; the North has better water supplies than the South where the water and sewage treatment systems were severely damaged in the war. Those systems cannot be fixed because Iraq cannot get spare parts under the sanctions.

Malnutrition would also take a greater toll in the South because the health care system has been rendered ineffective under the sanctions regime.

Albright is fond of laying out the conditions under which Saddam Hussein can remove himself from the “sanctions box.”

The opposite, of course, is true. The United States is in the sanctions box and can’t figure how to wiggle out. What Albright won’t admit is that the war ended in a mess, not victory. No one can say that now because we’ve already had the ticker tape parades and declared its generals heroes.

The fact is, the war never ended. We’re still bombing portions of the country several times a week. The awful truth is that Saddam Hussein may be prospering while the United States, through the sanctions, goes on killing the most vulnerable in that society.

Perhaps the time has come to put saving innocent noncombatants ahead of saving face, to admit the dire futility of the current strategy, conceive other ways of containing Saddam Hussein, and end the sanctions.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000