Iraqi Sanctions: Myth and Fact
by Jeff Lindemyer
Z magazine, November 2001
On August 6, 1990, immediately prior to the "Persian
Gulf War," the United Nations levied sanctions against Iraq
in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In the ensuing
I l-year span, the sanctions have not changed, though the Iraqi
landscape has undeniably been altered forever. Well over one million
Iraqis are dead as a direct result of the sanctions, over half
of them children, and over four million Iraqis have fled the country
in hope of a better life. The economy is in shambles, disease
and malnutrition are commonplace, and even potable drinking water
has become rare. Yet throughout the devastating aftermath of the
"Persian Gulf War" and the sanctions, Saddam Hussein
maintains his position as dictator. The aim of this article is
to debunk the most common myths surrounding the Iraqi sanctions
whose existence is dependent upon them.
MYTH: "Sanctions are not intended to harm the people
of lraq" (U.S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: Several United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
documents clearly and thoroughly prove, in the words of one author,
"beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva Convention,
the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq
to degrade the country's water supply after the Gulf War. The
United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children,
would pay, and it went ahead anyway" (The Progressive, August
One document entitled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,"
dated January 22, 1991, is quite straightforward in how sanctions
will prevent Iraq from supplying clean water to its citizens.
It explains Iraq's heavy dependence on the importation of specialized
equipment and some chemicals to purify its water. Failing to secure
these items (which is nearly impossible to do under the sanctions),
the documents adds, will result in a shortage of drinking water
and could "lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics,
of disease" (U.S. Department of Defense, January 1991).
Other DIA documents confirm that the U.S. government was not
only aware of the devastation of the sanctions, but was, in fact,
monitoring their progress. The first in a lengthy series of documents
entitled "Disease Information" is a document whose heading
reads "Subject: Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence
in Baghdad." The document states, "Increased incidence
of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive
medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity,
and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban
area in Iraq that has received - infrastructure damage will have
similar problems." The document then itemizes the likely
disease outbreaks, noting which in particular will affect children
(U.S. Department of Defense, January 1991).
"There is a logical breakdown here. No one with any credibility
denies that Saddam Hussein is a menace-a mass murderer and a perpetual
threat to peace and stability. But the punishment for his sins
is being visited tragically and overwhelmingly on the innocent"
(New York Times, February 1 998).
A second DIA document, "Disease Outbreaks in Iraq"
from February 21, 1991 writes, "Conditions are favorable
for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban
areas affected by coalition bombing." It continues, "Infectious
disease prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas targeted by coalition
bombing (Baghdad, Basrah) undoubtedly has increased since the
beginning of Desert Storm." Similar to the preceding document,
it explains the causes of the disease outbreaks and itemizes them,
again paying close attention to which will affect children (U.S.
Department of Defense, February 1991).
The third document, written March 15, 1991 and entitled "Medical
Problems in Iraq," states that diseases are far more common
due to "poor sanitary conditions (contaminated water supplied
and improper sewage disposal) resulting from the war." It
then cites a UNICEF/WHO report that "the quantity of potable
water is less than 5 percent of the original supply," that
"there are no operational water and sewage treatment plants,"
and that diarrhea and respiratory infections are on the rise.
Almost as a sidenote, it adds "Children particularly have
been affected by these diseases" (U.S. Department of Defense,
"As these documents illustrate, the United States knew
sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system
of Iraq. It knew what the consequences would be: increased outbreaks
of disease and high rates of child mortality" (The Progressive,
MYTH: "Thanks to the oil-for-food program, the people
of Iraq, especially those in the north, are getting needed foods
and medicines" (U.S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday,
oversaw the oil-for-food program and believes otherwise. "The
OFF program as conceived is completely inadequate. It was designed
in fact not to resolve the situation, but to prevent further deterioration
of both mortality rates and malnutrition. It has failed to do
that; at best it has just about sustained the situation. It's
grossly under-funded, and it has not even begun to address the
needs, the dietary needs of the Iraqi people... And on top of
that you have a medical sector which gobbles up the rest of the
money to a great extent, so again we have not managed to provide
the basic needs of the Iraqi people" (The Fire This Time,
April 1999). Halliday resigned from his post in September 1998
in protest of the sanctions against Iraq. He had worked for the
UN for 34 years.
MYTH: "Iraqi obstruction of the oil-for-food program,
not United Nations sanctions, is the primary reason the Iraqi
people are suffering " (U. S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: The UN sanctions were levied against Iraq in August
1990 and the oil-for-food program began in December 1996. It is
therefore impossible to attribute the suffering of the Iraqi people
to the obstruction of a program, which did not exist until 6 years
after the fact. As Halliday explained, the oil-for-food program
was set up by the UN Security Council as a response to the humanitarian
crisis in Iraq created by the impact of the sanctions. The creation
of the program demonstrates that the suffering of the Iraqi people
preceded any possible interference.
Oil-for-food program or not, the plight of the Iraqi people,
especially that of children, has been unconscionable. Since the
onset of the sanctions, almost one-quarter of all infants are
born underweight and the same number is malnourished (UN Report,
March 1999). The situation doesn't get any better as they get
older either, as 32 percent of children under 5 are chronically
malnourished, with the mortality rate increasing over 6-fold to
be among the highest in the world (UNICEF, November 1997 and WHO,
March 1996). Stemming mainly from hunger and disease, the result
is the death of 4,500 children under the age of 5 per month (October
1996 UNICEF). That translates roughly to 150 children killed every
day. In all, if pre-war trends in child mortality had continued
through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer
deaths of children under five in Iraq from 1991 to 1998 (August
MYTH: "Iraq is mismanaging the oil-for-food program,
either deliberately or through incompetence" (U.S. State
Department, March 2000).
FACT: The U.S. State Department claims that because there
has been some improvement in the mortality rates in northern Iraq,
where the UN controls distribution of food and medicine, this
proves that Saddam Hussein is to blame for the crisis in southern
and central Iraq. As Hans Van Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian
Coordinator in Iraq, who took over after Halliday's resignation,
has noted, the claim of misrnanagement is simply not true (The
Fire This Time, April 1999).
Since the bombing of the "Persian Gulf War" was
concentrated in southern Iraq, the destruction of civilian infrastructure
is most severe there. Yet the oil-for-food program provides no
funding for the distribution of food and medicine in southern
and central Iraq. Southern and central Iraq also receives far
less support per capita from the international community than
northern Iraq. Comprising 85 percent of the population, southern
and central Iraq benefits from only 11 non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) as opposed to the 34 NGOs which northern Iraq benefits
from. Similarly, northern Iraq receives 22 percent more- per capita
from the oil-for-food program and gets about 10 percent of UN-controlled
assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives
only commodities (Education for Peace in Iraq Center).
MYTH: "Holds on inappropriate contracts help prevent
the diversion of oil-for-food goods to further Saddam's personal
interests " (U. S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: Requests for desperately needed equipment routinely
get held up in the Security Council for months at a time. The
delays have gotten so bad that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
and Office of the Iraq Program Director Benon Sevon have written
letters decrying the excessive holds placed on items ordered under
the program (Education for Peace in Iraq Center).
The holds that perpetuate the detrimental health impacts of
the sanctions have gained the attention of one House member. In
the summer of 2000, Representative Tony Hall of Ohio wrote a letter
to then Secretary of State Madeline Albright "about the profound
effects of the increasing deterioration of Iraq's water supply
and sanitation systems on its children's health." Hall wrote,
"Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are
a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death. Of the
eighteen contracts, all but one hold was placed by the U.S. government.
The contracts are for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical
dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment... I urge you
to weigh your decision against the disease and death that are
the unavoidable result of not having safe drinking water and minimum
levels of sanitation" (The Progressive, August 2001).
Unfortunately for the people of Iraq, the letter was addressed
to Madeline Albright-the same person who stated that the deaths
of over half a million children were "worth it."
Despite the minimal coverage by Congress, holds continue to
expedite the process of destruction within Iraq. "Earlier
this year , U.S. diplomats blocked child vaccines for Iraq,
including for diphtheria, typhoid, and tetanus. Over $3 billion
worth of contracts remain on hold. To date, no hearings have been
held" (Education for Peace in Iraq Center, August 2001).
MYTH: Saddam Hussein is hoarding both food and medical supplies
from his people to evoke Western sympathy (U.S. State Department,
FACT: Allegations of the "warehousing" of food and
medicine were put to rest by former UN Humanitarian Coordinator
in Iraq, Hans Van Sponeck; "It is not, I repeat not, and
you can check this with my colleagues, a pre-meditated act of
withholding medicines from those who should have it. It is much,
much, more complex than that." Sponeck explains that low
worker pay, lack of transportation, poor facilities, and low funding
are responsible for the breakdowns in inventory and distribution
systems. The bureaucracy of the oil-for-food program, such as
contract delays and holds, also plays a substantial role. Sponeck,
like his predecessor, Denis Halliday, resigned from his post in
February 2000 in protest of the sanctions. Also like Halliday,
Sponeck had worked for the UN for over 30 years (The Fire This
Time, April 1999).
Halliday concurs that contract delays, contract holds, and
distribution problems account for the medical supplies problem.
"[T]hose factors come together and you have a problem...
I have no doubt in saying that there is no one person in the Ministry
of Health or anywhere else in the Iraqi government who is deliberately
trying to damage the health, or allowing children or others to
die by deliberately not distributing medical supplies. That's
just nonsense" (The Fire This Time, April 1999)
MYTH: "Saddam Hussein's repression of the Iraqi people
has not stopped" and therefore "lifting sanctions would
offer the Iraqi people no relief from neglect at the hands of
their government" (U.S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: According to the State Department, "Saddam continues
to attack coalition aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones, which
were established to prevent Saddam from attacking Kurdish and
Shita civilians, in violation of UNSC Resolution 688 and 949"
(U.S. State Department, March 2000).
The constant bombing of the "no-fly zones" in Iraq
by the United States and Britain, however, is not authorized under
any UN resolution. As Halliday comments, "The bombing of
the 'No-Fly' zones, which don't exist under any resolution of
the Security Council, has continued and still continues despite
[the crisis in] Yugoslavia. It's a very tragic way for the USA
and the UK to operate. It's completely outside the Security Council.
It's a unilateral action which shows total disregard for the other
member states of the Security Council" (The Fire This Time,
April 1999). The United States government puts forth an effort
to appear UN-backed by using the terms "coalition" and
"allies" though the "coalition" consists of
only two countries: the U.S. and the UK, "allies" to
The U.S. State Department claims that Iraqi authorities routinely
practice extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions throughout
those parts of the country still under regime control. The total
number of prisoners believed to have been executed since autumn
1997 exceeds 2,500" (U.S. State Department, March 2000).
Former U.S. Marine and UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq Scott Ritter
puts this number in context. "The concept of us trying to
save the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein is ludicrous. He is
a brutal dictator. He may torture to death 1,800 people a year.
That's terrible and unacceptable. But we kill 6,000 a month. Let's
put that on a scale" (June 1999 FOR interview).
The State Department similarly claims that "In northern
Iraq, the government is continuing its campaign of forcibly deporting
Kurdish and Turkomen families to southern governorates. As a result
of these forced deportations, approximately 900,000 citizens are
internally displaced throughout Iraq" (U. S. State Department,
March 2000). The State Department, however, fails to mention that
over four million people-four times the amount of "internal
displacements"-have been forced to flee Iraq in search of
a better life due to the deplorable conditions of the country
as a result of the sanctions (Reuters).
MYTH: Iraq "has not fully declared and destroyed its
WMD [weapons of mass destruction/ programs" or complied with
weapons inspections. Iraqi economic sanctions "prevent the
Iraqi regime access to resources that it would use to reconstitute
weapons of mass destruction" (U.S. State Department, March,
FACT: Interestingly enough, the State Department fails to
address its role in helping Iraq develop its weapons programs.
"...throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government of Iraq,
which was the government of the Baath party led by Saddam Hussein,
was an ally of the United States. Iraq was a recipient of massive
amounts of weapons of mass destruction, most notably biological
weapons stocks" (May 1999 National Catholic Reporter).
Yet despite this omission of history, the State Department
proclaims that "Saddam Hussein's priorities are clear"
based mainly on seized shipments of baby milk, baby bottles, and
baby powder leaving Iraq. It seems especially unusual to state
that if Hussein had greater control of baby products, he would
use them to rebuild his weapons programs, especially considering
that the seized items were not even directly linked to Hussein.
The truth is that Iraq has been, by and large, disarmed. "Following
the Gulf War, Iraq was forced into an unprecedented disarmament
process and its military might has been considerably diminished
by the work of UNSCOM. Chief Weapons Inspector Richard Butler
said that 'if Iraqi disarmament were a 5-lap race, we would be
three-quarters of the way around the fifth and final lap.' Iraq's
neighbors have said that Iraq no longer poses any threat. Even
an Israeli military analyst has said that Iraq's biological weapons
program was over-hyped" (Education for Peace in Iraq Center).
As for UNSCOM inspections, the lack of success lies mainly
with the United States government's hidden agenda. UNSCOM had
eight years of virtually unrestricted inspections. Former UN Weapons
Inspector Raymond Zilinskas stated that "95 percent of [UNSCOM's]
work proceeds unhindered" ("PBS Newshour" with
Jim Lehrer, February 1998). But contrary to the UN goal of weapons
inspections, the United States government has sought to use the
inspections as intelligence gathering missions. Halliday states,
"[T]he difficulty with UNSCOM has been the inclusion of espionage,
of spies, of various intelligence organizations which, under the
UN auspices, is something that is appalling to all of us. Now
as it happens, UNSCOM staff, including Butler, are not staff members
of the organization. They are hired from other organizations,
but nevertheless we expect them to behave in a manner consistent
of a civil servant, and that clearly was not done. And the CIA
and others have owned up to what they did, in fact, that they
used the UN as a cover for espionage, which is a very unfortunate
thing and what, of course, the Iraqis had been saying for many
years and the UN had denied for many years. They were right; we,
obviously, were wrong" (The Fire This Time, April 1999).
Further evidence of this comes directly from former UN Weapons
Inspector, Scott Ritter. "Fingers point at the United States
primarily in using the weapons inspection process not so much
as a vehicle for disarming Iraq, but rather as a vehicle for containing
Saddam and for gathering information that could be used to remove
Saddam. The US perverted the system; not the weapons inspectors"
(June 1999 FOR interview). Ritter resigned from UNSCOM because
of this perversion.
MYTH: "Saddam retains the capability to inflict significant
damage upon Iraq's neighbors and its own civilian population"
and "Without sanctions, Saddam would be free to use his resources
to rearm and make good on his threats against Kuwait and the region"
(U.S. State Department, March 2000).
FACT: Raymond Zilinskas, UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, states
"Although it has been theoretically possible for the Iraqis
to regain such weapons since 1991, the duplicity would have been
risky and expensive, and the probability of discovery very high"
(Chicago Tribune, February 1998). Scott Ritter, however, is more
blunt. "When you ask the question, 'Does Iraq possess militarily
viable biological or chemical weapons?' the answer is a resounding
'NO.' 'Can Iraq produce today chemical weapons on a meaningful
scale?' 'NO!' It is 'no' across the board. So from a qualitative
standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today possesses no meaningful
weapons of mass destruction capability" (June 1999 FOR interview).
MYTH: The United Nations levied the sanctions against Iraq,
so the United States is not to blame.
FACT: Van Sponeck addresses this point head on. "The
UN doesn't impose sanctions. It's the UN Security Council member
governments who come together and impose sanctions... I don't
see the distinction between US sanctions, in broad terms, and
what is done and coming out of the Security Council of the UN.
The leader in the discussion for the sanctions is the US side
and they are the ones, together with the British, that have devised
many of the special provisions that govern the implementation
of the 986 [oil-for-food] program. They are coming together, in
that Security Council of 15 nations and work as a team, and that's
the outcome, but I don't see a separate US sanction regime that
is markedly different from the UN Security Council regime"
(The Fire This Time, April 1999).
August 6 of this year marked 11 years of malnutrition, 132
months of disease, and 4,017 days of undrinkable water. Every
few hours another child dies-a child who knew nothing of the "Persian
Gulf War," nothing of the oil-for-food program, and nothing
of weapons inspections. The child only knew that she wanted to
live. How many more parents must weep at their fallen children
before we realize what we have done?