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Saturday's Guardian: 'Iraq is falling apart. We are ruined'

"It will take years to fathom the harm being done to the lives of 21.7
million people by a policy intended to bring Iraq back into the
international community of nations by toppling Saddam Hussein."

'Iraq is falling apart. We are ruined' 
Allied bombing raids and sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein are
punishing the ordinary people

By David Sharrock in Baghdad
The Guardian, Saturday April 24, 1999

Taking a walk in this benighted city is a lesson in modern warfare. What
may happen tomorrow in the Balkans was tested first in Iraq. You only
need to take a few steps down any Baghdad street to feel the changes -
feared by the majority and exploited by the profiteering few - creeping
into every facet of life.

It is clear that something sinister and irrevocable is under way.
Beneath the outward calm, chaos is bubbling. "Everything you see points
to Iraq falling apart," says a Baghdad veteran. "This country is
becoming a third world nation."

Grubby street children sell bubble gum or beg at traffic lights and
prostitutes walk the major roads; this in a country which has undergone
a religious revival.

"Iraq used to be a secular society with an educated population and a
growing middle class," says one Baghdad professional. "It is simply
impossible to believe what is happening. Tribalism and religion are
asserting their old dominance. Urban society has been ruined, people are
returning to the countryside to find food. We are utterly ruined."

Go and ask the traders on Rashid Street, known as the 'thieves' market',
what is going on. Or wait until they ask you - once they believe that
the secret police are not listening to their small, brave acts of
independence - to explain the 'Anglo-American plan' for their

You can find most things in this souk, from a video player to a
corkscrew, everything that would have been commonplace in an average
Baghdad household before the Gulf war. Now no item is too small for
resale if it brings in a few US dollars.

Here I met Karim, a slight figure whose impeccable English betrayed his
British university education - civil engineering at Birmingham. He was
trying, without conviction, to sell black market cigarettes. "Please, I
would like to ask you a question if I may," he said hesitantly.

"You are from England? It is a country I love, I made many good friends.
I found they were gentle people. I want to know, do they know what is
happening to Iraq? Do they know that our leaders are not getting hurt by
the embargo, that it is only the ordinary people who you are harming?"

Quite simply, the west is conducting a monstrous social experiment on
the people of Iraq. A once prosperous nation is being driven into the
pre-industrial dark ages. It will take years to fathom the harm being
done to the lives of 21.7 million people here by a policy intended,
according to its shapers in Washington and supporters in London, to
bring Iraq back into the international community of nations by toppling
Saddam Hussein.

Karim is typical of thousands of members of the Iraqi middle class. He
studied in Britain and then returned home to pass on his knowledge. "My
professor begged me to stay, he said I reminded him of [his] own son and
that I could make a better life in England," he says. "But I was young
and idealistic, I wanted to fight to improve my country. I now know it
was the worst mistake of my life."

Karim married and found a job as a university professor with a salary of
around 1,500 a month. That was plenty to raise his four children on
before the war, when a quasi-socialist system and vast oil wealth gave
Iraqis one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East.

As long as the oil flowed and you kept your nose clean, the excesses of
President Saddam's regime - the all-enveloping security services and the
war with Iran - could be managed with little discomfort.

Nobody anticipated that President Saddam would invade Kuwait in August
1990, still less the consequences of his defeat. The west had long been
an ally, arming Iraq for its proxy war with the Shi'ite fundamentalist
regime in Iran. Even in 1988, when sarin and mustard gas were rained on
the Kurds, killing 5,000 in a day at Halabja, western protests were

But by challenging the regional order and threatening the status quo of
the world's oil market, he was transformed overnight into public enemy
number one.

United Nations security resolutions demanded that the Iraqi regime
destroy its weapons of mass destruction but Washington, with London's
support, had bolder plans. Robert Gates, a deputy national security
adviser under President George Bush, said that "Iraqis will pay the
price" while President Saddam was in power.

This presupposed that the Iraqi leader cared for his people. The
economic blockade on Iraq was only partially relieved in 1996, when a UN
oil-for-food programme was accepted after the World Health Organisation
reported that most Iraqis had been on a "semi-starvation diet for

Within a year of the invasion of Kuwait food prices in Iraq increased by
2,000 per cent. Hyper-inflation turned Karim's comfortable salary into
the equivalent of $4 a month and everything was sold, even his wedding
ring. The experience has left him deeply suspicious of the US and

"Do they really want to get rid of our friend [the euphemism employed by
Iraqis when they talk about their leader] by killing all of us first?
Perhaps they are actually helping to keep him in power?" he says.

The strict rationing has certainly strengthened President Saddam's
control over his people. On the eve of the 1995 referendum which asked
"Do you agree that Saddam Hussein should be president of Iraq?" security
officers visited the eight million eligible voters and asked two
questions: "Do you know how to vote?" and "Are you receiving your food
rations?" President Saddam won 99.96% of the vote.

Off Saadoun Street is a pharmacy run by Dr Yussuf Kassab, who should
have retired after a lifetime's work at the ministry of health. He is
forced to work because his sons, one a dentist, the other an engineer,
cannot afford to live independently.

Many of his clients leave empty-handed, unable to obtain even such
ordinary items as antihistamines and cough linctus.

The situation has improved slightly over the last six months, but Dr
Kassab says: "There is a restricted amount of many of these products in
circulation, so the patients will just keep going round the city
looking. Maybe they will be lucky."

Ominously, a recent UN security council report notes that as of late
January, $275 million of supplies and medicine purchased under the
oil-for-food programme had accumulated in government warehouses - more
than half of the supplies which have arrived in Iraq. Under the
programme Iraq is in charge of distribution not the UN. "According to
information provided by United Nations observers only 15 per cent of all
medical equipment received by the warehouses had been distributed," it

One officer in the relief field comments: "Two months ago I would have
said point blank that I did not believe that the Iraqi government was
deliberately starving its people or depriving them of essential
medicines, but I'm coming round to the view that, as part of their plan,
someone somewhere is not rushing these things through as much as they

Dennis Halliday, an Irish Quaker who was the UN humanitarian
co-ordinator, resigned from his post last summer, bitterly observing
that by his estimate, sanctions have killed a million Iraqis, including
500,000 children.

But when this statistic was put to the US secretary of state Madeleine
Albright in 1996, when she was US ambassador to the UN, she replied: "I
think this is a very hard choice but the price - we think the price is
worth it."

Today, 4,000-5,000 children are dying every month because of the poor
water supplies, an inadequate diet and a lack of health care.
Malnutrition among children under five, having fallen from 32 per cent
since the introduction of the oil-for-food programme, is now stubbornly
stuck at 23 per cent.

Pierrette Vu Thi, a planning officer for Unicef, has a different spin on
one of the US military planners' favourite buzzwords - "degradation".
While advocates of the military option talk about "degrading" President
Saddam's capacity to threaten his neighbours, Ms Vu Thi says that the
real "degradation" is occurring in Iraq's social fabric.

Half of the country's schools are not fit for occupation, 10,000
teachers have given up their jobs because they cannot survive on the
salary of $3-10 a month and 30 per cent of children have dropped out of

"The oil-for-food programme has not addressed this degradation," she

Ms Vu Thi is careful to stop short of Mr Halliday's assessment of the
merits of the sanctions campaign, merely stating "Unicef's great

Crime is rising as Iraq's infrastructure crumbles. Electricity supplies
are running at only 40 per cent of their pre-war levels. Up to $60
billion is needed to restore an adequate supplies of water, electricity,
education and health care.

Meanwhile, continuing bombing raids in the "no-fly zones" in the north
and south of Iraq are the heart of the latest phase in the US-British
war on Iraq. A US assertion that around 200 bombs have been dropped in
"self-defence" on Iraqi military installations since Operation Desert
Fox ended is "far below reality" according to one independent observer.
"The Iraqi claim that 3,200 sorties have been flown by the Americans and
British since Desert Fox is accurate. It is very nearly the same number
as in the whole of the air campaign during the Gulf war. They are
fighting a low-intensity, high-technology, undeclared war."

Another western source agrees, but doubts whether the Americans and
British are any nearer to removing President Saddam from power. "The
Americans are gaining much more by chipping away every day at his
military infrastructure than with a four-day intensive blitz as in
December," he says. "The air strikes are happening on a daily basis but
are going virtually unreported I don't know if they have a strategy, it
just looks like lashing out." 

The Iraqi people usually know what's going on, thanks to the Voice of
America, the BBC World Service and the bush telegraph. They have just
been told that the US is not at war with Iraq but rather, in the surreal
phrase of Thomas Pickering, the US undersecretary of state for political
affairs, in a "state of animosity" with Baghdad.

Intriguingly, Mr Pickering also told a US senate hearing that the UN
oil-for-food programme is a linchpin for Washington's efforts to
maintain sanctions.

And according to the junior foreign office minister Tony Lloyd, the
British government "has decided to launch a new policy of better
targeted, smarter sanctions" which will ensure that "the people who are
hit are the ones who should be hit".

"Ah, your Mr Robin Cook," said Karim, catching sight of the foreign
secretary on an Iraqi news programme. "He said he was going to give
Britain an ethical foreign policy, didn't he? Can you ask him for me,
what is there ethical about what he is doing to me or all the other
ordinary Iraqis?"

At the Saddam Hospital for Children, there is ample opportunity to study
the consequences of this ethical foreign policy. Ayat Abbad is a year
old yet weighs just over 3kg, half her ideal weight. Like thousands of
other babies she is suffering from marasmus, a type of malnutrition
which was unheard of in Iraq before the Gulf war and the sanctions, and
has suffered gastroenteritis and pneumonia.

The duty doctor holds out little hope for her survival. "She will either
die before the end of the year or she will live and grow up stunted and
with low intelligence," he says. "It is not just the lack of medicines,
they have created an entire culture of embargo we are not receiving
new-generation drugs, advances in medicine, science, food, anything."

Besieged by US and British policy and by a government which treats its
people as bargaining chips, the only real casualties of this unending
war are those who can least afford to pay the price or raise their
voices to be heard. What poses the greater danger to the west's "vital
regional interests" in the future? The survival of Saddam Hussein or a
generation of Iraqis made bitter by the indifference of western nations
which are running daily raids in "self defence"?

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