by John Pilger
The Nation magazine, December 14, 1998
Lesley Stahl: "We have heard that half a million children
have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean, that
is more children than died in Hiroshima.... Is the price worth
Madeleine Albright: "...we think the price is worth it."
- 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996
Although the Clinton Administration appears to have given
Iraq a reprieve, it is itching to bomb Iraq. Bombing remains a
soft option for a demonstration of US power at the end of a year
when the Administration finally emerged from the distraction of
the Lewinsky affair. The signals were clear in September when
a UN Security Council resolution, engineered by the United States,
"abandoned all discussion of sanctions against Iraq,"
in the words of one observer. It means that sanctions are to be
maintained in perpetuity. Officially, the strategy is to bring
Saddam Hussein to heel. Yet in the main categories of weapons
inspection, Iraq has complied with the demands of the UN Special
Commission. It has no long-range missiles. The International Atomic
Energy Agency is satisfied Iraq has no nuclear program or nuclear
arms capacity. Although there is concern over a potential to make
nerve gas, this comes down to proving a negative; there is no
Still, the people of Iraq must continue to suffer-and suffer
in ways of which few outsiders are aware. Under rules drawn up
by a UN sanctions committee in New York, which is in effect US-controlled,
Iraq is prohibited from importing fertilizer and animal feed equipment.
This has caused the collapse of much of the nation's agricultural
production. Baby food and enriched powdered milk are banned, forcing
mothers who are too malnourished to breast-feed to give their
babies sugared water or sugared black tea. Most of these children
have died; they are known as the "sugar babies."
In the hospitals, people are being operated on without anesthetic
because vital equipment is blockaded, along with stethoscopes,
X-ray equipment, scanners, water purifiers, bandages, sutures
and medical swabs. A consignment of ambulances from France was
stopped. Customs officers at London's Heathrow Airport recently
confiscated antibiotics from a humanitarian delegation flying
to Iraq and threatened to prosecute. Children's clothes, sanitary
napkins, light bulbs, schoolbooks, paper, pencils, shoelaces-all
are banned or have been lost in a cynical delaying process. The
Austrian former chairman of the sanctions committee, Peter Hohenfellner,
has admitted, "We are not inclined to take a more flexible
view to all these goods [because] we want to maintain the pressure
on Iraq." A Jordanian consignment of shroud material for
the dead was vetoed by the United States and Britain.
"We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world stage,"
said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in August, "by
people who do not like what we stand for, and that is, freedom,
democracy and the fight against disease, poverty and terrorism."
The irony of her words is bleak indeed; for, the threat of bombing
aside, her government is engaged in a massive act of terrorism
in Iraq in what amounts to a war on the civilian population, mostly
children, in breach of both the Geneva Convention and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
Anyone doubting the scale of this terrorism should read British
historian Geoff Simons's scholarly and damning book, The Scourging
of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice. Eight years of sanctions
have killed 2 million Iraqis, writes Simons, including perhaps
as many as a million children. That is the child population of
a medium-sized American city. The Food and Agricultural Organization
has estimated 560,000 deaths based on extrapolations, according
to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Iraqi Health Ministry's
figure is 1,211,285 children, calculated in August 1997. It will
be considerably higher now.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, former US Attorney
General Ramsey Clark, who has led a commission of inquiry in Iraq
since 1991, wrote that most deaths were preventable by the medicines
and equipment denied Iraq. "They are dying," he wrote,
"from wasting or emaciation which has reached 12 percent
of all children, stunted growth which affects 28 percent, diarrhea,
dehydration from bad water or food...common communicable diseases
preventable by vaccinations.... There are no deaths crueler than
these." As for humanitarian exemptions to sanctions, writes
Simons, "these are for public relations. Sanctions are designed
to kill. A doctor might as well call for the humane implementation
The continuing American obsession with Iraq has many undeclared
aims; one is the general war against stereotypes of Islamic violence.
In fact, not only have Muslims been responsible for only a tiny
proportion of deaths caused by terrorism but in recent years it
is they who have been the greatest sufferers from state terrorism.
Another is the more immediate practical need to protect Saudi
oil prices, and the Saudi economy, from the competition of cheaper
Iraqi oil. Sanctions do that job nicely. But sanctions also strengthen
Saddam Hussein, as the Kurds and Shiites, his bitter opponents,
repeatedly point out. Like bombing, the aim of sanctions may simply
be Washington's need to demonstrate its rampant power in uncertain
economic times; that, after all, is the impulse of enduring imperialism
in whatever guise.
"Few of us," wrote Arthur Miller, "can easily
surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The
thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many
innocent people is intolerable. And the evidence has to be internally
denied." Sanctions should be lifted immediately. They are
simply a crime against humanity.
John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker, reports on the Middle
Human Rights, Justice, Reform