Challenging Iraq Sanctions

An interview with Kathy Kelly from Voices in the Wilderness

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 future.

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 gets out?

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 notions.

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 goods.

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 to Iraq.

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 United States.

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 sign.


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 March 2000.

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