The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

May 1999 Cover story for the National Catholic Reporter

Iraq: for the children, sanctions are deadlier than the bombs 
Baghdad and Basra, Iraq
Photos by Tom Roberts, Pedro Brieger and Nabil Al Jorani
The imam stood in the center of a circle of women who were kneeling, praying
and studying the Quran at the mosque in the Adamia neighborhood of Baghdad.
Abdul Gaforer Al-Quisi, spiritual leader of the mosque, introduced the
American visitors, who had just sat through his extended tirade against the
Clinton administration. He explained that every time the women studied Quran
and prayed, they prayed "against the American administration."
His voice rising, he said through an interpreter, "Each of these women has
lost a husband, a son, a brother in the war or children to the sanctions. So
you can see how they hate America." 
The pause that followed seemed to last forever, a deep silence begging some
response, a defense, an explanation, something. Everyone, it seemed, was
straining for what was to come next. Chicagoan Kathy Kelly quietly asked the
imam through the translator if she could say something.
"Certainly," he motioned her to come forward and engage in the discussion.
She moved forward and knelt, filling a small opening in the circle of women.
"Like all Iraqi women," she said softly, waiting for the translation, "you
have taught us." Then, touching the arm of the woman next to her, she said,
"And we are sorry." The gesture brought tears to those in the circle and
some of the onlookers. The imam was silent. The woman leading the teaching,
the servant of the Quran, walked across the circle with a cloth for Kelly to
dry her eyes, and she, in turn, dried the eyes of the woman next to her.
As if on cue, the call to evening prayer sounded from the main part of the
mosque. Time for the men to leave the women's section. Kelly dared one more
request of the imam as the group was leaving. "May we," she said, motioning
to include the other American women who had joined the kneeling circle,
"stay and pray?"
"Of course," he said. 
The moment disarmed, the discussion had gone where Kelly always wants it to
go, person to person, beneath the hardened lines of battle. It is one of the
guiding motives of the group she leads, Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign
to end the economic sanctions against the people of Iraq. Kelly, more than
most, knows that the geopolitical conflict that has reached down into these
women's lives is terribly complex and that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein
bears a measure of responsibility for aggravating it. Yet she also knows
those subtleties mean little to a mother who has watched a child starve to
death or die of a disease that Iraqi doctors could have treated if there
were no sanctions.
The women went on to pray, the Americans listening and mimicking movements.
And then, through a translator, they began to share: the Iraqi women about
the losses of loved ones to war; the Americans about how some had spent time
in jail for protesting U.S. military policy. By the time the men returned,
the women were smiling and embracing. It looked like an interfaith kiss of
The scene incorporated the extravagant Arab hospitality for which this
region of the world is known and Kelly's absolute conviction that pacifism
is the world's only hope. In this case a moment was transformed. Perhaps it
takes a dreamer to press on, for in the case of Iraq and the United States,
there is an ocean of moments in need of transformation.
New languages, new images 
Waging war in the post-Cold War era comes with a new set of language and
images. Smart bombs and Stealth bombers are supposed to assure that our
battles are swift and clean and limited to one-way damage. Because of
computer-guided weapons and planes that can outsmart radar, our wars are
conducted mostly at night. They tend to come with ready-made names -- Desert
Storm, Desert Fox -- as well as TV graphics and that enduring symbol of
post-Cold War coverage, the darkened skyline of some faraway city seen
through the mint-jelly haze of nighttime photography.
Kathy Kelly won't make any of the Pentagon's P.R. materials and CNN won't
incorporate her into any of its logos, but if the wars continue, she might
well become another fixture of this age's battle zones. She's a wisp of a
figure in flowing skirts, balanced by a rich tangle of red-brown curls, worn
pulled back, and thick-heeled clunky black shoes.
If there were a logo, it would show her, briefcase in hand, leading a
delegation through some faraway city in daylight, insisting that humans find
an alternative to bombs and sanctions. Mary Poppins does civil disobedience.
She's a hard-nosed dreamer, the unlikely defier of the U.S.-inspired United
Nations' sanctions against Iraq. For nearly three years she has directed a
kind of alternative travel agency, arranging for a steady flow of Americans
to a land where they are not supposed to go, bearing medicine and school
supplies forbidden under the sanctions. She is determined to make this
largely unseen war visible, and that determination is continuously fueled by
the plight of the children.
She is a living explanation of the fact that pacifism is not necessarily
passive. "We ask soldiers to risk their lives, to lay down their lives, in
war. What do we ask of pacifists?" So she keeps going to Baghdad.
Hers is a ground campaign, a tactic that apparently still evades the
high-tech stuff with a very low-tech strategy. Getting to Baghdad today
requires a Rube Goldberg approach to travel that begins with a 12- to
15-hour flight from the United States to Amman, Jordan. In Amman, Voices in
the Wilderness delegations stay in a hotel -- two flights up off the street
and then to spartan rooms accessible by one tiny, creaky elevator -- for a
brief overnight before taking off around 5:30 the next morning on another
12- to 15-hour jaunt.
The final leg of the journey is through the vastness of the desert, hundreds
of monotonous miles through flat, beige landscape cut by surprisingly
well-maintained two-lane and four-lane highways. Travel is accomplished in a
van or bus loaded with bottled water for the stay in Iraq.
Two previous delegations have landed in a roadside ditch for hours because
drivers fell asleep. This time, Kelly insisted on two drivers, an extra
should the first driver get sleepy.
It takes about six hours to get to the border with Iraq, where the
bureaucrats in this lonely outpost are strangely welcoming as they go about
scratching who-knows-what on large, antiquated ledgers and stamping
who-knows-what on visas. They considerately use separate pieces of paper so
the Iraqi stamps don't show up on the passports, a matter that could
complicate travel to some other countries. The passports are then checked at
no fewer than four points as the bus winds through a maze of roadways that
makes sense, no doubt, to someone.
In between the passport checking is a stay of several hours, spent mostly in
a large reception room that looks like an outsized living room, carpeted and
with comfortable furniture and a wall-sized oil portrait of Saddam Hussein.
For the uninitiated, it is a foretaste of what is to come: Saddam the
ubiquitous. It seems a contest is on in Iraq to see how many ways and on how
many surfaces and in how many poses the leader of the country can be
depicted. It is the iconography of a dictatorship in which severe punishment
-- life imprisonment or death -- is constitutionally provided for
criticizing or speaking ill of the president.
In all, it takes 25 to 30 hours to get to Baghdad from the United States,
depending on your starting point. Kelly is almost a regular commuter. This
trip in mid-April is her ninth to Iraq in three years, the 23rd for Voices
in the Wilderness since it began shuttling delegations here in 1996. The
April delegation is also the largest, totaling 15, and made up mostly of
Catholic Workers. The senior in the group is 69-year-old Mary K. Meyer, who
for the past 11 years has run a Catholic Worker house for up to 25 homeless
men in Kansas City, Kans. The youngest is 24-year-old Jeff Guntsel, a former
punk rock drummer who now works full-time for Voices. The group is
accompanied by three journalists, two from the United States, one from
Argentina. It is an unwieldy group at times that taxes the good will of
Kelly's contacts in Iraq, but also perhaps is a sign of growing momentum
behind the movement.
The Catholic Workers, who live a life of voluntary poverty serving the poor
and marginalized in the United States, had to raise funds for their travel.
The groups, representing Catholic Worker houses or communities in Kansas
City, Mo., Kansas City, Kan., Binghamton, N.Y., Ithaca, N.Y., and Hartford,
Conn., were surprised at the outpouring of support. Some were able to raise
tens of thousands of dollars, far more than necessary, and donated the
unused funds to Voices in the Wilderness and to purchase medicine.
Civil disobedience is primary 
In Baghdad the medicine along with the bottled water is stashed in a room in
the Al Fanar Hotel, which serves as home base for the delegation and which
once must have been a fine hotel. Today it is dingy; paint is peeling from
the walls; a number of young men who work here sleep on the floor at one end
of the dining room at night.
The first floor reeks of the kerosene that the manager says is used to fire
the generator in the basement, a hedge against the constant electrical
blackouts. When driving through the city you can tell which neighborhoods
are undergoing blackouts by the dead traffic lights. "No, it was not like
this before the sanctions," said the workers at the hotel and the taxi
drivers. "Before sanctions, everything worked, everything was fine."
Except for two Italian women, representatives of an Italian peace group, who
maintain rooms at the hotel, and a native Jordanian, now from Holland, who
pronounces, the first evening in perfect English, that "all governments are
shit," the hotel appears empty.
Three days into our stay, two busloads of Muslims from India show up for
several days. They are touring holy sites on their way home from the hajj,
the trip to Mecca that all devout Muslims are encouraged to take at least
once in their lives. The group is gone most of the day, but as soon as it
returns in late afternoon so do several young Iraqis selling black leather
jackets. For some reason these Indians, in flowing pastel cotton garb, are
greatly attracted to the black leather jackets. Part of the sales pitch is
to hold a flaming lighter under one of the sleeves to prove the material
isn't plastic.
Soon after the Voices delegation arrives in Iraq, Kelly calls a meeting and
restates the points of a briefing that all of the groups have heard before
embarking on the trip. There are certain nonnegotiables about the purpose of
Voices in the Wilderness. Such clarity of purpose, we would learn later from
Westerners living here, has earned the organization valuable credibility. As
one seasoned observer told the journalists: "The government [of Iraq] is
using her to some extent, but then the government is using everyone. But she
is very clear about her purpose, and people [in the United Nations, for
instance, and among members of the press] have respect for her."
Kelly emphasized that Voices, though it brings into the country a token
amount of medicine, is not a relief agency, so she warns against making
promises of medicines or treatment or money. Do not give false hope. People
are desperate, she said, and saying no or explaining that nothing can be
done will be extremely difficult.
The organization is here to deliberately defy the sanctions, to set up a
nonviolent confrontation over a policy that the group believes is tantamount
to full-scale war against the most vulnerable in Iraqi society.
The sanctions that were first imposed in August 1990 by Resolution 661 of
the U.N. Security Council after Iraq invaded Kuwait have been in place
without letup for nearly 10 years. In modern history there has been no
parallel to the complete and total isolation from the rest of the world to
which Iraq has been subjected. The resolution set out "a full trade embargo
barring all imports from and exports to Iraq" except for medical supplies,
foodstuffs and other humanitarian items "as determined by the Security
Council sanctions committee," according to a document produced by the United
Nations Oil-For-Food program office in Iraq.
It was only in May 1996 that the Oil-For-Food program came into being,
allowing Iraq to sell a small amount of oil each year to purchase a minimal
amount of food and medicine.
Over the course of the embargo, the basic unit of currency, the Iraqi dinar,
was devalued to such an extent as to be virtually worthless. Before 1990,
one dinar was worth three-and-a-half U.S. dollars. Now it takes just under
2,000 dinars to make a dollar. So a 250-dinar note, the most commonly used
bank note these days, once worth about $800 in U.S. currency, is now worth
about 12 cents.
Iraq, which once imported nearly everything because of its oil riches, could
buy almost nothing after the embargo was put in place. Even under the
current system of oil for food, the country is purchasing but a fraction of
what it needs to sustain itself and certainly nothing that would begin to
rebuild the war's damage to oil production facilities and water and sewage
treatment plants.
Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, almost overnight, Iraq went from being one
of the richest, most progressive of the Arab states to a crippled society,
denied access to its principal natural resource, with a civilian
infrastructure and an economy in ruins.
Sanctions once may have been viewed as a humanitarian alternative to
bombing. In the case of the total freeze placed on Iraq, though, people like
Kelly are convinced that sanctions have become more deadly than bombs. They
are worse than bombing military targets, she argues, because they target the
most vulnerable and helpless in Iraqi society.
For acting on such convictions, Voices in the Wilderness was threatened in
December with a $120,000 fine by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's
Office of Foreign Assets Control for engaging in prohibited transactions
"relating to the embargo against Iraq." Specifically, the group has been
cited for delivering donated "medical supplies and toys" to Iraq. Four
members of the campaign face an additional $43,000 in fines for traveling to
In January, the Office of Foreign Assets Control again warned Voices against
traveling to Iraq and delivering medical supplies, noting that violation of
the embargo could draw criminal penalties of up to $1 million in fines and
up to 12 years in prison, and civil penalties of up to $250,000 per
violation. Those penalties, she advises all who travel in the delegations,
could be applied to anyone who joins the effort.
The threats have not stopped the campaign. Since that December warning, the
delegations have been almost constant, including one in early March made up
of Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Maguire of Ireland and Adolfo Perez
Esquivel of Argentina. They were accompanied by Jesuit Fr. John Dear,
director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA.
That was followed by a group from Boston. Just before the group of Catholic
Workers showed up, a delegation of activists from Philadelphia had been in
Iraq with a group representing Physicians for Social Responsibility. And
toward the end of the Catholic Workers' stay a group of Dominican sisters
from across the United States showed up. They had been moved by a letter
sent out a year ago by Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, who
wrote, on returning from a visit to Iraq, that the Iraqi Dominican sisters
had told him, "We are ground down, exhausted by years of death."
Radcliffe continued, "It is as if the embargo had sometimes seemed to shut
out even God. ... What this people hunger for more than anything else is a
word of hope."
So Kelly is once more explaining to another delegation the simple purpose of
Voices in the Wilderness and the need to abide by the rules that Iraq has
put in place in light of the bombings and sanctions. Taking pictures on the
street is prohibited unless a "minder," an employee of the Red Crescent
Society, the equivalent of the Red Cross in Muslim countries, says it is all
right to do so. Journalists with the group are advised that outside of
Baghdad interviews can be conducted only with a minder present and often
translating, and only those pictures allowed by the guides can be snapped.
She also warns against attempting discussions about Saddam Hussein. Because
of the severity of punishment for anything construed as critical, people
never mention his name. For a visitor to do so could place someone in
jeopardy. The assumption is that rooms are bugged and telephone lines are
The point is hammered home as we make our way through meetings and
interviews. Only the U.N. offices and the papal nuncio's sitting room are
free of pictures or portraits of Saddam Hussein. To this Westerner's ear, it
seemed that everyone had a version of an oath of loyalty to Saddam that was
part of any presentation. It was easy to imagine that, in a society where
conversations might quickly be reported up the line, such obeisance is a
natural part of any public exchange.
Even in the private quarters of Archbishop Djibrail Kassab of Basra, a
picture of Pope John Paul II was slightly off to the side above the bishop's
chair. A photo of Saddam Hussein with the bishop was directly above the
In the offices of the imam mentioned earlier, pictures showed Saddam in two
prayer poses, one in military uniform and one in civilian clothes.
In the southern city of Basra, the hotel we stayed in hosted a photo
exhibit, including disturbing images of children killed when American bombs
fell on a crowded neighborhood in the city. The exhibit was a celebration of
a national day for photographers. Sure enough, as the exhibit was put in
place, a large painting of Saddam Hussein, this time in a casual sport coat
with an open-collar shirt and straw hat, camera in hand, was placed on a
prominently positioned easel. Saddam, the universal tourist.
He was everywhere, but few mentioned his name.
The most wrenching rule of all: Don't hand out money to the shoeshine boys
in front of the hotel. Pay for shoeshines, pay generously if you like, and
get your shoes shined as often as you like, but do not just hand out food or
money. If the word gets out that is happening, the crowds of shoeshine boys
will be unmanageable and the work of future delegations of Voices in the
Wilderness will be compromised.
The shoeshine boys, about six of them outside our hotel, are wonderfully
personable kids who range in age from about 10 to 14. Kelly knows some of
their families. In other times, there were shoeshine boys throughout
Baghdad, say those familiar with pre-sanction days. In recent years,
however, their numbers have greatly increased, and many are doing it not
just for extra money, but to help support their families. The shoes of this
delegation were unrecognizably shiny by the time we left Baghdad.
Albright: A price worth paying 
The government of Iraq's media center is a drab building in central Baghdad.
The hallways are dimly lit, only a few light bulbs are working and there's
always the chance the electricity will go out. Yet even in the dimness, just
outside the Umm Al Ma'arik Research Center on the second floor, something
familiar catches the eye.
Taped to the wall, blown up large, is the 1996 exchange between Lesley Stahl
of the CBS program "60 Minutes" and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United
Nations Madeleine Albright.
Stahl, speaking of the results of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq: "We have
heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children
than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"
Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the
price is worth it." 
On the poster here, Albright's response is shortened to: "Yes, we think the
price is worth it." 
Granting that it is a hard choice, it is still difficult to read much
subtlety or nuance into that response. If it was the intention of Albright,
now U.S. secretary of state, to send the Iraqi government an unmistakable
message about U.S. resolve, she also sent along a public relations bonanza.
Even more chilling, in this 10th year of sanctions, is the degree to which
that response describes what is happening inside Iraq today. For whatever
else may be true -- and truth here can be as slippery as the oil that
remains underground -- the doctors we speak to, the United Nations observers
and workers, the papal nuncio and the archbishop of Basra all say children
are dying in inordinate numbers, of diseases that should not kill, because
of the U.S.-inspired sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
Other signs of cultural stress and deterioration are everywhere. Former
teachers are driving cabs and selling cigarettes on the streets. Former
accountants and other professionals are serving as translators and minders
for the Red Crescent. Elementary schools lack pencils and paper. College
students beg for current books and periodicals. They have no access to the
Internet. Doctors lack medicines and most haven't seen a current medical
journal in nearly a decade. Hospitals lack everything -- medicine, equipment
and such basics as linens and alcohol.
Baghdad, once a rich and bustling city, is deteriorating at a distressing
pace, according to Iraqis and non-Iraqis who have known it over time. Its
international hotels are mostly empty, and one of its prime boulevards, Abu
Nuwas Street, along the west bank of the broad Tigris River, has turned
shabby, its once beautifully landscaped park now a series of dusty patches
and weeds. The whole city seems on a march in reverse.
The ever-present little orange and cream cabs that clatter at breakneck
speeds around Baghdad look like survivors of some demolition derby. No spare
parts and no new autos for the common Iraqi have made it through the embargo
in almost a decade. Door handles have fallen off, upholstery is in tatters,
windows don't work and doors won't open. But the drivers keep driving, with
great abandon and in vehicles that burn minimally refined fuel and spew
clouds of fumes continuously. If Iraq has any advantage over the rest of the
world it is in its fuel prices. A liter sells for pennies, cheaper than a
liter of bottled water.
The general embargo that has virtually cut off this country from the rest of
the world has so far widely missed its main target -- Saddam Hussein and his
governing apparatus -- while apparently causing massive collateral damage to
innocent bystanders.
Nowhere is the slow dying of Iraq more evident or grotesque than in its
children. From the shoeshine boys who will follow a Westerner for blocks
before giving up the chance for a few dinars, to the increasingly frequent
hints of red in what should be rich, dark hair -- a sure sign, we are told,
of malnutrition -- the record that is building is a jarring one. The
relentless flow into the now-primitive hospitals of tiny bodies racked with
waterborne diseases, pneumonia, malnutrition and what doctors say is a
wildly accelerating rate of childhood cancers, is damning evidence that the
children of Iraq are paying the heaviest price for the political and
military struggle in which they have no say.
Inside the research center -- in name only at this point, since little data
is being gathered in any conventional sense in Iraq -- Nasra Sadoon, an
author and director of the center, noted the previous day's news of the
killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. "Clinton said
yesterday that 'We must teach our children to solve problems through
dialogue, not violence.' We wish he would apply the principle to Iraq.
"I think America wants to colonize Iraq. We cannot accept any foreign
hegemony," she said. "The American people should understand, they have no
right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country." Beneath the
swagger and clash of geopolitical titans, a culture is unraveling, a people
is being brought to its knees, and no one seems quite clear to what end.
Whatever the ultimate goals of the United Nations and the United States, say
those we interview, Iraq is slowly dying, quietly, largely out of sight of
most Americans. We are killing it softly with sanctions.
When Saddam was our ally 
How one views the current situation in Iraq may depend on the point at which
one drops into modern Iraqi history. President George Bush, for instance,
sold the public the Gulf War in 1991 in large part by demonizing Saddam
Hussein. In Bush's words, Saddam was a new Hitler, a threat to Kuwait and to
the American way of life. And Bill Clinton insisted that the bombing of
Baghdad and Basra as well as continuing bombing of "no-fly" zones in the
extreme north and south of Iraq was necessary to assure that Saddam's regime
would not be able to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Taking the Gulf War as a starting point, however, ignores significant recent
history, said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Public Policy
Studies in Washington, D.C. "We forget that 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 U.S.," said Bennis in an early April
speech in Seattle.
"Maybe it wasn't exactly a partner, but it was a junior partner, it was a
military ally and it was a major recipient of military intelligence,
military goods and weapons. And in the context of today's world, perhaps
most significantly, it was the recipient of massive amounts of weapons of
mass destruction, most notably biological weapons stocks."
Bennis in recent weeks was on a speaking tour with Denis Halliday, former
U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. He resigned in September, ending a
34-year career with the United Nations, in protest of the sanctions that he
argues are causing "for lack of a better word, what is genocide in Iraq
Those earlier shipments of biological weapons stocks were not from some
rogue company or secret agency, but were made under license of the U.S.
Commerce Department, said Bennis, who has analyzed Middle East and U.N.
issues for the past 20 years. The shipments included "the biological
material necessary for anthrax, E-coli, botulism and a host of other
diseases for military purposes."
"There was a debate about it," said Bennis. In fact, she said, some in the
Pentagon thought that even though the United States had been providing
weapons and intelligence to the Iraqis "that maybe it wasn't such a good
idea to send such really bad stuff off to Baghdad, given that this was an
unaccountable regime."
"And a few people in the State Department also seemed to be a little queasy
at the idea. But, what a surprise, the Commerce Department wins out, markets
trump disarmament and a license was granted," she said. Saddam had showed
his hand long before the United States decided to make Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait a global issue. He had already used chemical weapons against the
Kurdish population in northern Iraq and against the Iranian military in that
8-year war that ended in 1988.
The United States, said Bennis, had continued making shipments of military
equipment and biological and chemical weapons stocks through 1989. Six
months later, when Iraq occupied Kuwait, "the U.S. suddenly announced that
this was a government on a par with Hitler. This wasn't a new government,
there hadn't been a coup in Iraq. This was the same government that we had
been sending these weapons for the last 20 years."
In the end, Bennis and others conclude, war was waged not over concern for
human rights violations or the welfare of Kuwait, but because of oil --
access to and control of it.
Even some who supported the original military campaign against Iraq caution
against applying any lofty motives to the war. Iraq's importance will
increase in the future "and its importance can be reduced to one word --
oil," said Dr. Gawdat Bahgat, director of the Center for Middle Eastern
Studies at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.
"If it had not been for oil it would not have been important," he said in a
telephone interview in early April. Bahgat thinks the United States was
correct in the initial Gulf War since, he said, extended negotiations and
the imposition of sanctions preceded the military action. With the
international community increasingly dependent in the future on oil from the
gulf region and with seemingly intractable ethnic, religious and political
tensions creating instability, Bahgat thinks the United States will remain
deeply involved in Iraq and the rest of the region "for the next two to
three decades at least."
Bahgat, author of three books and 45 articles in English and Arabic on the
Middle East, said that even if the United States does not import anything
from the gulf, it is still interested, given the integration of the global
economy, in making sure no interruption of oil occurs from the gulf to Japan
and Europe. So the United States, he said, is unlikely to feel comfortable
with Saddam Hussein controlling 20 to 30 percent of the world's oil supply.
Iraq, he said, lies above about 10 percent of the world's supply, and Kuwait
holds approximately another 10 percent. Had Iraq been allowed to stay in
Kuwait, he said, it would have increased the chances of a takeover of Saudi
Arabia, which has the world's largest supply of oil.
Even so, Bahgat is uneasy with the continued application of sanctions. "The
wrong people are getting targeted by sanctions." Then, voicing the same
puzzlement about long-term goals repeated by so many in Iraq, he said,
"Nobody knows where this should go."
'We are responsible' 
The culpability of Saddam Hussein for the current condition of Iraq is a
constant question faced by those protesting the sanctions. Halliday meets
the point head-on at the start of his talk. "We are responsible" for the
deaths now occurring in Iraq, Halliday said of those countries imposing the
"If you wish, we can share the responsibility with Saddam Hussein, but we
have no influence over him. But we certainly have influence over ourselves
and over those we choose to represent us. As we sit here rather snug in our
democracy, in our universities, in our homes, with our opportunities and our
educations and our futures and our human rights intact, we are responsible
for a policy in Iraq which is taking away from the people of Iraq not only
their very lives, but the lives of their children, the lives of the next
generation. We are seeing children suffering from chronic malnutrition in
Iraq today who are going to be mentally and physically stunted for the rest
of their lives. And we are responsible."
It is not enough, he continued, to hide behind the United Nations. The
United Nations "is not the fig leaf for Washington policy. And Saddam
Hussein likewise. We cannot hide behind Saddam Hussein. Yes, he's a
miserable dictator and he's done some appalling things. None of us would
apologize or want to apologize for that. But the fact that we cannot
communicate with him, the fact that we don't make any progress in our
dialogue with him, does not allow us, does not empower us to kill the
children of Iraq."
Halliday dismisses -- as do most other U.N. workers we spoke to in Iraq --
the claims that Saddam Hussein is diverting and hoarding cash and goods,
including food and medicine.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for the U.N. Oil for Food program, would not flatly
rule out hoarding but said it is not being done on any significant scale.
Under the program, no cash is allowed to pass through the hands of Iraqi
officials. All payments are signed off by the Bank of Paris, which holds
Iraq's oil revenues and pays the vendors.
All of those connected with the U.N. humanitarian efforts speak of detailed
controls and monitoring programs to make certain the food and medicine goes
to those intended. They also list the logistic problems inherent in
distributing food and medicine in a country that has been unable to import
spare parts for trucks and other equipment and where there is a scarcity of
working refrigerated transportation.
Even with what has been judged a widely successful food distribution
program, Iraqis face serious problems. The inadequate diet of eight years
has been compounded by the problems accompanying contaminated water. The
water problems are linked to the bombing -- in 1991 and again in December of
last year -- of water treatment and distribution systems and the electrical
grids that power the plants.
And always, the children suffer the most. "We have acute malnutrition in
Iraq today," said Halliday. "In the 1980s, the main problem for doctors in
terms of young children in Iraq was obesity. Iraq was so prosperous, the
standard of living was so high, public health was so good. The quality of
education was equally outstanding, the services provided by the Baath party
were so comprehensive. This was a country of great prosperity, as rich as --
if not richer than -- any of the southern European countries of that time.
But we have reduced Iraq to a situation where child mortality is comparable
to Sudan."
Visiting a water treatment plant in the Basra area, some members of the
Catholic Worker delegation saw parts sitting in crates, unopened. Nearby was
a forklift with two flat tires. The operator of the system gave the
impression that he is constantly jerryrigging machinery to keep some of it
working. On this day, the plant was shut down.
Nowhere in Iraq, he said, are facilities adequate to clean water to drinking
quality. At best it is of use for cleaning and washing purposes only.
Halliday's opposition to sanctions comes with a warning. "We are in the
position of pushing Iraq to the limit," he said, and consequently opening
the door to those of an even more extreme bent than Saddam Hussein. "There
are young people in this country who are now the smaller politicians in the
Baath Party who are coming up behind the names we recognize. They're going
to run this country in 10 years," he said, and they find the current regime
too moderate. "They're ready to kick out the United Nations ... They're
ready for something more dramatic." And that something may be, Halliday
speculated, more rightist and fundamentalist, "something we do not need or
In the meantime, the sanctions are "killing the people, destroying the
society, damaging the culture, destroying a great country with a great
future. But right now it is in deep, deep trouble, and we are responsible."
Where civilization began 
Anyone who has taken a basic history of civilization course has been told
that the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Fertile
Crescent, in what is today central and southern Iraq is one of the places
where it all began. Though it still calls itself the Land of Two Rivers,
Iraq today is neither the seat of civilization nor especially fertile.
When the water supply system was pounded during the Gulf War bombing, say
spokespersons for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, Iraq's
ability to irrigate was seriously diminished.
The combination of high salt content in the soil, rapid evaporation due to
high temperatures and a lack of irrigation, has rendered much of the soil
On the highway going south from Baghdad to Basra, the condition of soil
salinity is apparent. Acre after acre of land is topped with a thin white
crust, the residue of salt and minerals left behind on the parched surface.
At the point where the two rivers meet to form the Shatt Al Arab waterway is
a hotel with a wide veranda overlooking the rivers. It was once a popular
tourist spot. A short walk away, legend has it, is the site of the Garden of
Eden, complete with the tree.
The hotel is now closed, the veranda in disrepair. The Garden of Eden has
gone shabby, and the tree, shown in a 1975 travel book in full leaf, appears
Overwhelmingly, what one sees in Iraq is a consequence of war -- eight years
of a bloody, costly war with its eastern neighbor, Iran, another 10 years of
bombs and sanctions at the hands of the United States.
But often the most dangerous wounds are the most difficult to detect. That
is the case of the relatively hidden costs of the war and the sanctions: the
continuing destruction of Iraqi culture that draws protests from North
American religious groups such as the Quakers and Mennonites, as well as
Voices in the Wilderness and from Catholic leaders inside Iraq.
It is the hidden costs that brought a passionate call for an end to
sanctions from Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the papal nuncio to Iraq. "We
have a sort of permanent non-declared war now," he said during a meeting
with the Catholic Worker delegation at his residence in Baghdad.
He said the undeclared war "is not less terrible or less tragic" than the
fighting in Yugoslavia "because children here are dying every day. And
nobody pays attention to that. They think it is just propaganda. It is not
Children die in Iraq of diseases that "in Europe or the United States and
elsewhere" would have been cured, Lazzarotto said. "But here they die
because they don't get the assistance they need. So it is sort of a
permanent war. But what is much worse than that is that people don't have
hope anymore. They have lost hope."
Such hopelessness, he said, leads to a drain of talent and intellect from
the country. Those who have the means and are given the slightest
opportunity are leaving the country. "That is the tragedy and the reality of
this ... Iraq won't be any more what it was just four, five years ago."
Though members of some professions, such as physicians, are now prohibited
by law from leaving the country and the cost to simply cross a border into
another country is prohibitive, people are still finding ways to emigrate.
Lazzarotto repeatedly expressed a wish that other bishops, particularly from
the United States, but also from Europe, would visit. Bishop Thomas
Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, has visited Iraq with Voices and has spoken
out strongly against the sanctions.
The nuncio said he has told other bishops, in conversations in Rome, that
the only way to show solidarity and concern for the people of Iraq is to
visit. "Because once you come, your eyes look at it in a different way, I
can assure you." If the sanctions were imposed because Iraq is not a
democratic country or because of human rights abuses, then sanctions should
be imposed on almost all the countries in the world, he said. "Because there
are very few countries in the world where human rights and democracy are
really respected." And some, he said, would include the United States in
that group.
"This is not the problem. ... If we sit down and discuss the kind of
government this country has, well, we can discuss it forever. But we have
people here dying and we have sanctions imposed for many, many years. On
which basis?"
In Basra, Archbishop Djibrail Kassab, a native Iraqi, was more blunt. "What
has happened to Iraq with the sanctions is wrong. We don't need help. We
want to sell our oil." Before 1990, he said, "We had a good country and a
good leader."
He ticked off the social benefits that everyone experienced before
sanctions: universal health care, universal education, plenty of money and a
high standard of living. Now, he said, people can't afford basics like food
and medicine. So the church has turned over buildings to the homeless, it
gathers medicine from whatever sources possible, to stock and give to the
sick. It feeds and clothes people.
He quoted an Arabic saying, "Everything will be finished one day." He added,
"We are living in hope."
But people generally do not expect the sanctions to end soon, and it is
difficult to imagine the situation in the hospitals becoming any more
Litany of ills 
Here, hidden behind facades that suggest modern health care facilities, is
the ongoing tragedy. I visited three hospitals, in Baghdad, Basra and
Amirra. The litany of ills was numbing. Bed after bed of children with
malnutrition and waterborne diseases. Ward after ward of young cancer
Exactly how many are dying each month is not known. The figure the United
Nations most consistently uses is an average of 4,500 youngsters a month
dying as a result of the sanctions -- often either from malnutrition or
diseases that elsewhere would be easily handled or prevented. There is no
absolute scientific verification of that figure. However, even Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, in a brief response to the "60 Minutes" interview
in which she placed the blame for the humanitarian nightmare squarely on the
shoulders of Saddam Hussein, did not dispute the figure of 500,000 children
dead by 1996.
The most conservative estimates would place the number of children dead
because of the sanctions in the hundreds of thousands. At times, we pressed
the medical staffs to come up with verification of estimates, and they would
shrug, saying the figures were kept by the ministry of health. And then, at
times, they would just stare, as if to ask: "How many will it take?"
A spokesperson for UNICEF said the agency representatives in Iraq recently
completed a systematic survey of conditions, and its report, with documented
figures, is scheduled to be released at the end of May.
Doctors in the hospital in Basra said they have seen a fivefold to sevenfold
increase in the number of juvenile cancers since the war. Again they could
produce no nicely printed sheets of hard data, just another weary litany of
what they don't have -- the drugs that would be taken for granted most other
places, the courses of antibiotics, the clean syringes, throwaway IV sets,
easily accessible purified oxygen, simple alcohol wipes, sheets and pillow
None of those items can be taken for granted. Lights in the hallways and
rooms can't be taken for granted because of electricity shortages.
In the case of the cancers, mostly juvenile leukemia, the suspect is the
depleted uranium that was used by the United States during the 1991 Gulf
War. Operation Desert Storm carried tons of depleted uranium into the Iraqi
desert, according to U.S. weapons experts. The residue from those attacks,
according to some researchers, has led to the outbreak of illness and death
among Iraqi children. The highly toxic substance was used as a solid inside
munitions used in the war and as a lining for armored vehicles. According to
the Pentagon, the substance renders munitions extremely hard and able to
easily penetrate armor plate.
Explosions result in the release of smoke that contains high concentrations
of depleted uranium that, say experts, could be easily dispersed into the
atmosphere and inhaled (NCR, Aug. 25, 1995).
The assumption among the medical community is that no comprehensive research
into the effects of depleted uranium will be done until the sanctions are
Almost as unnerving as the conditions in the hospitals are the measured
tones of the doctors, some of whom chose to remain here while many of their
colleagues took earlier opportunities to leave the country.
Most have been reduced to working for the equivalent of a few dollars a
month and with only the thinnest of staffs. And then only rarely does the
frustration show through. Dr. Ali Faisal Jawad, director of the Pediatrics
and Gynecology Hospital in Basra, after explaining that the hospital did not
even have alcohol for sterilizing needles because it is on the sanctions
list, said, "In England and America people use the latest things. Why not
also for Iraqis?"
A hospital was also the scene of a rare outburst of anger against the
sanctions. An old cleaning woman in one of them came running up to Mary K.
Meyer and grabbed one of her sleeves and the lapel of her jacket and looked
right in her eyes and said: "You're old. You've lived a good life." Then
making the motions to show what she meant, "You can get injections when you
need them. Our children can't. They are dying."
Later, Meyer, reflecting on the encounter, said, "I knew what she meant. She
was right in my face, and I understood her the way old people understand one
another. Old people understand pain differently. I guess it's because we've
seen so much that shouldn't be. People should not suffer the way they do."
When old people "look into each others' eyes, we know the frustration and
the hopelessness," she said. "When we look into each others' eyes, we
An old man in a market in Fallujah apparently understood something, too, as
he watched an exchange between Kelly and a small boy. Ahmed El Sherif, a
native of Sinai and now a U.S. citizen, was translating for the group and
recalls that the boy attracted Kelly's attention because he seemed so
serious and quiet in an otherwise noisy scene.
Kelly asked him through El Sherif what he was thinking. He said, "I am a
scholar of the faith." The old man was watching intently.
Kelly then asked the youngster what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I want
to be a pilot and bomb the United States," he replied. At that moment, El
Sharif nudged Kelly and motioned for her to look at the old man. Tears were
running down his face.
Later, Kelly said, the incident in Fallujah prompted her to recall the
experience in the mosque with the women. The welcome there was not
surprising because by far her experience in Iraq has been of unconditional
"I think that man's tears might have been because he sensed that here was a
child who was going to grow up with enmity and not hospitality as the first
foot forward. I think there is going to be a change," she said, from
"instant acceptance and hospitality" to a "new generation that is going to
grow up angry and rebellious."
A further worry for Iraqis is the deep penetration of hopelessness into the
fabric of a culture that in recent decades has produced a significant amount
of scholarship and a healthy middle class. Intellectuals and middle-class
professionals have either fled, are making plans to pull up stakes or have
found work outside their fields that at least allows them to survive.
Hans van Sponeck, a German national who took over for Halliday as head of
the U.N.'s humanitarian effort here, shows no sign of softening the
criticism of the effects of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. "It is frightening
... what is happening to people who are well-trained and who have no chance
to work with their full capacity in the area of their training," he told a
delegation representing Physicians for Social Responsibility.
In a videotape of the April 5 meeting in Baghdad with the delegation of
physicians, Von Sponeck said, "You have what I call a talent depletion
situation which is really quite serious." Part of that depletion involves
what he termed an "emigration without noise -- people who just quietly leave
because of the circumstances here."
He said he recently informed members of the U.N. Security Council that
"right now we are setting the stage for depriving another generation of the
opportunity to become responsible national and international citizens of
tomorrow. And that may be the most serious aspect of it all."
To illustrate the point, he asked the receptionist at his hotel to describe
some of her friends -- what training they had and what they were now doing.
Of nine examples, he said, none is working in the area for which he or she
was trained. He told of a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering who works now on a
weaving machine in a clothing factory. Another with the same degree is
working in a sweets shop. A graduate specializing in geography is driving a
taxi. Von Sponeck said that another acquaintance told him she had been
served ice cream by a qualified medical doctor.
The dean of the law school faculty at Baghdad University told him what is
going on under sanctions amounts to "intellectual genocide."
The head of the pediatrics department at the University of Basra told him,
"I occasionally get a paper which shows what modern medical research is
doing. Then I will try to make photocopies for my students -- if I have
photocopying paper. That is the circumstance."
As a result of such encounters, Von Sponeck said he pleaded with the
Security Council at the end of March "for the removal of educational
materials as items of embargo. I think that's cruel, it's cruel for the
wrong people."
If the United Nations is internally conflicted over its role in Iraq, its
humanitarian agencies still have a wide credibility. The humanitarian side
of U.N. operations here is involved daily with monitoring the distribution
of food and medicine. Those agencies know the moods of the country and the
depths to which anxiety and even despair have begun to sink into the
But part of the fallout of the war in Iraq and the ongoing sanctions is the
glaring contradiction between the mandate of the U.N. Security Council
imposing punitive sanctions and the United Nation's more traditional role as
an agency that alleviates suffering. That rift, though spoken about only off
the record, is a real concern.
The split constitutes a serious threat to the integrity of the United
Nations, some say, adding sarcastically that it is now an international
agency in the full-time employ of the United States.
Other examples of Von Sponeck's concern are easy to find. Rick McDowell,
co-coordinator of Voices with Kelly, told of a recent evening spent at a
celebration with a middle-class family. There was feasting and music and
dancing. At one point in the evening, though, some of the revelers stopped
and looked around and said, "It's over. In two to three years, we won't be
here doing this. Our children will not have this. For Iraq, it's over."
One might argue that is an overly pessimistic view. But a resident of Iraq
from the West told of a good friend, an Iraqi, who had just celebrated his
daughter's graduation from dental school. The man broke down. He had had to
sell everything he owned to pay for school and continue living.
It is an increasingly familiar tale. Von Sponeck told of new street bazaars
cropping up all over Baghdad where families are selling personal belongings.
Much of the inventory, he said, consists of books from private libraries.
On the last day of our stay in Baghdad, I was introduced to a young doctor
who had been at the top of his classes through medical school. The
26-year-old sat in the living room of his family's modest flat in downtown
Baghdad, the frustration written on his face and in his gestures. High on
the wall were two large pictures of his father in academic attire. Education
had always been a principal pursuit in this family.
Now, however, a life of high academic achievement and steady pursuit of a
medical career had ground to a halt for the son. He refused to take the next
step -- a residency in thoracic surgery -- in Iraq, where the latest texts
and medical journals were nearly a decade old.
Across the room his sister, 24, nearing the end of a master's program in
English literature, begged for books. Her thesis on Tennyson was languishing
because the most recent reference sources to be found in all of Iraq were
from the mid-1980s. The Internet was a familiar word to them, but neither
has ever had the experience of using the technology.
Their mother, who asked that their names not be used, had retired from a
career teaching school. Earlier, the father and an older son had left Iraq
and were now in Libya. The son, an engineer, was working, and the father had
found a new university teaching position. So the family was able to survive
with money sent in from the outside.
The son and daughter in Iraq, both of whom had earlier been educated in
England, and the father and brother in Libya represent the latest line of
casualties in the silent war.
The son in Iraq said he is hoping for a scholarship from a European school,
a development that would make it easier to leave the country, at least
temporarily. Otherwise, he will have to figure how much to pay to whom to
get out of the country. "We are locked up," he said. "We can't get out, and
nothing can get in."
Tom Roberts is NCR's managing editor. He can be reached at

The text of this article plus photographs can be found at:
This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To be removed/added, email, NOT
the whole list. Please do not sent emails with attached files to the list
*** Archived at ***

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]