Challenging Iraq Sanctions
An interview with Kathy Kelly from Voices in
by Anthony Arnove
Z magazine, October 2000
An activist based in Chicago, Illinois, Kathy Kelly helped
initiate Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the sanctions
against Iraq. For bringing medicine and toys to Iraq in open violation
of the sanctions, she and other campaign members have been notified
of a proposed $163,000 penalty. During the first two weeks of
the Gulf War she was part of a peace encampment on the Iraq-Saudi
border called the Gulf Peace Team. Following evacuation to Amman,
Jordan, (February 4, 1991), team members stayed in the region
for the next six months to help coordinate medical relief convoys
and study teams. In August 1999 she traveled with a delegation
of U.S. congressional staffers to Iraq. Kelly has taught in Chicago-area
community colleges and high schools since 1974. She is active
with the Catholic Worker movement. Kelly was recently nominated
by the American Friends Service Committee, along with Denis Halliday,
for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to end the sanctions.
ARNOVE: Hans von Sponeck followed Denis Halliday in resigning
as the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. What do
you think that means?
KELLY: I think that means that von Sponeck very much wants
to speak the truth, and he and Halliday have felt that they could
not speak truthfully when they were in the position they were
holding. I think it's an act of courage and an act of witness
that ought to give an example. These are civil servants who care
about people on any side of borders. What I hear them saying is
that the kinds of antagonisms and tensions that are being fostered
by creating a generation of Iraqi children who are going to bed
undereducated, with hungry stomachs, feeling resentful, feeling
beleaguered is a greater threat to the security of people in the
region and beyond than what Saddam Hussein might develop in the
What do you say to people who question whether or not the
Iraqi government has weapons of mass destruction ?
It seems to me crucial to recognize that Americans have been
living in and to some extent benefiting from the economy of the
country that has developed, stored, sold, and used more weapons
of mass destruction than any other country on earth, and whose
economy is now propped up to a significant extent by weapons sales
to the Middle East region.
Could you describe the fast in Washington, DC and some of
the protests that occurred in early 2000?
We had lots of energy throughout, partly because there was
such a good community that gathered and also because every office
we called, except Madeleine Albright's, eventually agreed to meet
with us. So we had a chance to talk with people who we believed
were influential and could do more. It was pretty stunning to
realize how many congresspeople and their aides have no idea that
the United States is regularly bombing Iraq, almost every other
day, if not every day. I think we have to keep on pounding R~:
away at the doors and trying to find those who will show support
and eventually working up to getting to the congressional offices.
It's not a quick process, but I think it's a very important one
to undertake, and I really admire the people in Washington, DC,
who have been working along these lines for a much longer time.
We met with people from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International,
Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Children's Defense Fund,
quite a number of schools in the surrounding area, and a number
of Muslim community centers in Herndon, Virginia.
In New York, we had very good teach-ins and 86 people were
arrested on the steps of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
I think that the people who have protested at the Air National
Guard bases are really giving us a good clue on how to tie the
issues together. They've been bringing boxes of food right into
the Air National Guard bases and saying, "Don't go over there
with those bombs and kill people. Take this food." I think
we need to keep trying to find actions that are commensurate to
the crimes being committed.
What kind of media coverage were you given?
We tried to generate as much media as we could, but we find
ourselves reliant on the alternative press. We met with the State
Department, for example, and were quite ready to talk to the media
about our discussion, and to ask them, "Why don't you call
these people and pose these challenges?" At a recent State
Department press briefing, Jamie Rubin did occasion a long series
of questions from various reporters, so they are starting to be
more aggressive in questioning. But how much of that actually
There was a briefing on Iraq hosted by John Conyers and T.
K. Kilpatrick, and five congresspeople came to that, including
Dennis Kucinick from Ohio and two other congresspeople from Michigan.
There was standing room only. There were about 50 congressional
aides and they could have used a much larger room to hold everyone,
but no media came. They were all invited. When we broke our fast,
we invited the media to come. The Middle East press covered it.
People over here know about it, but not in the United States.
Why do you think the mainstream media is so reluctant to cover
what's happening in Iraq?
I think we face the military-industrial-congressional-media
complex and it's dangerous. I think reporters know what their
editors want to hear. I think there are many talented journalists
out there who have an enviable job working for the mainstream
media and they know there are 100 other people who'd like to have
that job, and they don't want to jeopardize it.
Madeleine Albright said, "The price is worth it,"
when Leslie Stahl of "60 Minutes" confronted her about
the more than 500,000 children who have died in Iraq. What's at
stake for the U.S. government in maintaining sanctions?
In terms of the price being right, I think it's important
to keep your eye on the ball and the ball is oil. Some of the
main economic competitors of the United States get their oil from
this area of the world, and the United States does not want to
lose control of the ability to dominate such a rich, lucrative
resource. I think the United States also wants to keep a strong
troop presence in the region, and, of course, to continue to sell
weaponry to neighboring states.
If you're looking at Iraq's neighbors or close neighbors,
they're Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait. Israel has 200
thermonuclear; weapons, and as long as that reality obtains, the
other countries are going to be trying to find weapons to keep
some kind of pace. Iran and Syria were allied against Iraq during
the Iran-Iraq war. Do we honestly think that Iraq poses a threat
to Iran in terms of weaponry? This is ridiculous. They're crazy
When the media talks about what Saddam Hussein could do with
profits that come through smuggling, I think it's important to
do the math. The State Department has estimated $2 billion might
have accrued to the Iraqi government through smuggling over the
past 10 years. But when you look at the sums of money that are
needed just to repair the infrastructure to get Iraq back up on
its feet, the dime that comes from smuggling, even if it were
contributed, is nothing.
I have heard estimates that Iraq would need $22 billion to
refurbish sewage and sanitation and $7 billion to repair the electrical
grid. I've never heard a statistic about what it would take to
fix the hospitals, but anybody who works in hospitals looks around
and their eyes glaze over in despair, especially if they've been
in U.S. hospitals and think about the difference.
How do you respond to the U.S. government's $97 million funding
of so-called Iraqi opposition?
I don't think that it's a serious effort, other than an effort
to stave off criticism of the U.S. government for not appearing
to do more. It's important to keep in mind that when the Gulf
War ended and the cease-fire was declared, Iraqi generals asked,
"Can we keep our helicopters," and General Norman Schwarzkopf
said yes. They asked, "Can we keep our attack helicopters?"
and they were again told yes. These weapons were, of course, used
against the opposition.
What goods are being kept out of Iraq or what kinds of holds
are being placed on requests for purchases?
The day we met with the State Department, I handed over to
Representative Carolyn Kilpatrick from Michigan a very recent
list that I had just pulled off of the Internet of goods that
were placed on hold by the UN sanctions committee. It included
a number of things that would be used for the oil industry, for
maintaining infrastructure (such as it exists), for distribution
of food and medicine, and actual medical equipment. Still, we
hear James Rubin, the State Department spokesperson, saying that
they can clearly predict that if Iraq had funding, they would
not spend it on meeting human needs. None of the State Department
people have traveled to Iraq. We go over there and get these briefings
and are threatened with fines. I don't take these risks too seriously
at the moment, but they look impressive-12 years in prison, a
$1 million fine, a $250,000 administrative fine. My passport was
confiscated in February 1998. One of our teams had all of their
belongings that were purchased in Iraq confiscated as evidence
that a crime had been committed. Voices in the Wilderness was
sent a $160,000 pre-penalty notice in December 1999. We look at
all that, and we say that it's still important to go there to
hear eyewitness reports and briefings. What member of the State
Department has ever gone? When you think about the level of punishment
and abuse that's been happening over here-this is the most egregious
child abuse on the planet-every time I'm in one of these wards,
I look around and I think these children are going to be dead.
This is a death row for infants. How can it be that not one of
them has ever taken the kind of responsibility to go over to take
a look and then ask, honestly, is justice being done when a child
is dying in a hospital ward for lack of an oxygen tent, for lack
of basic equipment?
The State Department claims that Iraq is warehousing humanitarian
When Hans von Sponeck tried very methodically to analyze the
reasons behind the storage of equipment or the storage of goods,
I really trust what he's saying a lot. I first met him at the
end of 1998, and at the end of the first meeting, we thought that
he was not going to speak out very vigorously. He seemed quite
reticent, and what he had said was that his job was to observe
and to interpret the data, and first he was going to observe.
We really underestimated what he meant by observe. It turns out
these charges of hoarding just don't hold up. The Iraqi civil
servants who are working to distribute food and medicine are not
acting out of malice. They've meticulously done the reporting.
There are 300 people employed everyday by the UN. They have 600
employees over there, but 300 of them are just out observing.
They take people to the warehouses and write up reports. In terms
of the food distribution, they've made the analogy to a Swiss
watch: it works very effectively given what they have.
It's also important to clarify that the revenues from the
oil-for-food deal don't go directly to the Iraqi people. They
go to the Bank of Paris in New York City, and those revenues are
then available for bids for contracts. The reasons for delays
and for holding things up can be attributable regularly to the
consequences of the economic sanctions, such as the collapse of
Iraq's infrastructure. This is on paper. It's pointed out and
documented, but the State Department people say, "Well, that's
not official." A11 right, then go get your own reports. Meanwhile,
the same person who was really quite dismissive of the UN report
said that her people on the ground tell her that the Iraqi people
want the bombing of Iraq to continue. At that point, our jaws
were just dropping. I have never met anyone who wanted to see
the bombs fall, who wanted the no-fly zones to continue.
Let's talk about the no-fly zones. A lot of people have the
impression that no-fly zones mean no flights can take place.
It seems to me the greater focus needs to be on the sanctions.
But the no-fly zones are certainly a very telling example of the
cavalier attitude toward Iraqi lives. Saying that the Iraqis are
a threat to their own people, and therefore the United States
must protect civilians from the threat of Iraqi attacks, and by
attacking the civilian population, is just ludicrous. And it's
maddening because so many people think that these are United Nations
mandates that are being fulfilled. Well, that's not true.
The no-fly zones are a creation of the United States with
some support from the United Kingdom and France. France has since
withdrawn its support. I believe 153 people have been killed now
and more than 300 wounded. This is what operates with people in
Basra when the air raid sirens go off constantly. A team went
up to Mosul and visited a school in mid-December 1999. The children
in the school were so traumatized that there were Americans in
the building that their parents had to come and take the children
home. No one could calm the children down. The kids were understandably
scared because a bomb that had fallen close to their school nine
days earlier had blown out all the windows and shards of broken
glass and shrapnel had fallen on the children.
This is your 31st trip to Iraq?
Well, the 31st Voices trip. In March 1996, we took our first
trip here. I had gone before Voices was started, before the Gulf
War ended, and after the war, so this is actually my 14th trip
Can you describe what changes you've observed ?
It used to be the case that friends and family we would get
to know would tell us sanctions would be lifted soon. Iraqis would
tell you there was going to be a new initiative from Russia or
France to end the sanctions, and they would hold out these hopes.
I never hear that now. They don't feel any confidence or any
hope that anybody in the west will help them. The fact that China,
Russia, and France abstained on but didn't veto UN Resolution
1284 was a big setback. I used to say to people that you have
to go into the hospitals in order to really understand the suffering
that's going on in Iraq-not just hardship, but suffering. Now
you can just hang out in a hotel lobby or walk down the street
and every family has a story to tell.
I think of Vietnam being reduced to the poorest country in
its hemisphere during the 25 years of sanctions that followed
the Vietnam War. Here we are the victors in the Gulf War, we pounded
these people back into the stone age, and we're still recklessly
beating them down. And that's by and large kept secret in the
When I left my mother at home to go to Iraq during the Gulf
War, she wanted to dissuade me from going-I guess that's understandable-and
she shouted out after me, "What about the incubators? What
about the incubators?" Of course, that was the story that
these babies were being dumped out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers
and I felt heartsick. Surely I didn't persuade my mother, and
I thought it was a terrible story, too. Well, that story turned
out to be a hoax. The New York Times has since reported that it
was not true. The girl was put up to telling that story.
But I think my mother's question should still be listened
to, because when the United States bombed the electrical grid
of Iraq-not only the refrigeration, sewage, and sanitation, but
also the generators for hospitals-we should ask, "What about
the incubators?" Every delegation I've been with since March
1996 has seen a stack of incubators lined up against pediatric
ward walls useless for lack of spare parts.
Yes, let's ask, "What about the incubators?" Now
the question can't be asked, but then the question swayed an entire
Congress and persuaded people to tie yellow ribbons around trees
all across the country. I think the question, "What about
the incubators?" has been a marker for me.
Do you think the audience in the U.S. that is concerned about
sanctions is growing?
I think the grassroots network of people who are aware and
concerned is certainly growing. When you start to name the mainstream
organizations that have made clear and very ringing statements
against the sanctions, it's a long and encouraging list. But I
am aware that even though many of the religious groups have articulated
these statements, they're being promoted by the hierarchy and
the responsible authorities, but it isn't necessarily getting
out into the pews and into the church basements and into the more
mainstream people. So, there's more work to do, but it's a good
Anthony Arnove is editor of Iraq Under Siege: the Deadly Impact
of Sanctions and War (South End Press, 2000). He interviewed Kathy
Kelly as she traveled from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, Iraq, in
International War Crimes