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Squeezed to Death: The Guardian, 4/march

S Q U E E Z E D    T O    D E A T H

Half a million children have died in Iraq since UN sanctions were imposed -
most enthusiastically by Britain and the US. Three UN officials have
resigned in despair. Meanwhile, bombing of Iraq continues almost daily. John
Pilger investigates

THE GUARDIAN - March 4, 2000:

Wherever you go in Iraq's southern city of Basra, there is dust. It gets in
your eyes and nose and throat. It swirls in school playgrounds and consumes
children kicking a plastic ball. "It carries death," said Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a
cancer specialist and member of Britain's Royal College of Physicians. "Our
own studies indicate that more than 40 per cent of the population in this
area will get cancer: in five years' time to begin with, then long
afterwards. Most of my own family now have cancer, and we have no history of
the disease. It has spread to the medical staff of this hospital. We don't
know the precise source of the contamination, because we are not allowed to
get the equipment to conduct a proper scientific survey, or even to test the
excess level of radiation in our bodies. We suspect depleted uranium, which
was used by the Americans and British in the Gulf War right across the
southern battlefields."

Under economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council
almost 10 years ago, Iraq is denied equipment and expertise to clean up its
contaminated battle-fields, as Kuwait was cleaned up. At the same time, the
Sanctions Committee in New York, dominated by the Americans and British, has
blocked or delayed a range of vital equipment, chemotherapy drugs and even
pain-killers. "For us doctors," said Dr Al-Ali, "it is like torture. We see
children die from the kind of cancers from which, given the right treatment,
there is a good recovery rate." Three children died while I was there.

Six other children died not far away on January 25, last year. An American
missile hit Al Jumohria, a street in a poor residential area. Sixty-three
people were injured, a number of them badly burned. "Collateral damage,"
the Department of Defence in Washington. Britain and the United States are
still bombing Iraq almost every day: it is the longest Anglo-American
campaign since the second world war, yet, with honourable exceptions, very
little appears about it in the British media. Conducted under the cover of
"no fly zones", which have no basis in international law, the aircraft,
according to Tony Blair, are "performing vital humanitarian tasks". The
ministry of defence in London has a line about "taking robust action to
protect pilots" from Iraqi attacks - yet an internal UN Security Sector
report says that, in one five-month period, 41 per cent of the victims were
civilians in civilian targets: villages, fishing jetties, farmland and vast,
treeless valleys where sheep graze. A shepherd, his father, his four
and his sheep were killed by a British or American aircraft, which made two
passes at them. I stood in the cemetery where the children are buried and
their mother shouted, "I want to speak to the pilot who did this."

This is a war against the children of Iraq on two fronts: bombing, which in
the last year cost the British taxpayer 60 million. And the most ruthless
embargo in modern history. According to Unicef, the United Nations
Fund, the death rate of children under five is more than 4,000 a month -
is 4,000 more than would have died before sanctions. That is half a million
children dead in eight years. If this statistic is difficult to grasp,
consider, on the day you read this, up to 200 Iraqi children may die
needlessly. "Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to
factors," says Unicef, "the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such
deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security
Council and the effects of war."

Through the glass doors of the Unicef offices in Baghdad, you can read the
following mission statement: "Above all, survival, hope, development,
respect, dignity, equality and justice for women and children." A black
of irony will be useful if you are a young Iraqi. As it is, the children
hawking in the street outside, with their pencil limbs and eyes too big for
their long thin faces, cannot read English, and perhaps cannot read at all.

"The change in 10 years is unparalleled, in my experience," Anupama Rao
Singh, Unicef's senior representative in Iraq, told me. "In 1989, the
literacy rate was 95%; and 93% of the population had free access to modern
health facilities. Parents were fined for failing to send their children to
school. The phenomenon of street children or children begging was unheard
Iraq had reached a stage where the basic indicators we use to measure the
overall well-being of human beings, including children, were some of the
in the world. Now it is among the bottom 20%. In 10 years, child mortality
has gone from one of the lowest in the world, to the highest."

Anupama Rao Singh, originally a teacher in India, has spent most of her
working life with Unicef. Helping children is her vocation, but now, in
charge of a humanitarian programme that can never succeed, she says, "I am
grieving." She took me to a typical primary school in Saddam City, where
Baghdad's poorest live. We approached along a flooded street: the city's
drainage and water distribution system have collapsed. The head, Ali
wore the melancholia that marks Iraqi teachers and doctors and other carers:
those who know they can do little "until you, in the outside world, decide".
Guiding us around the puddles of raw sewage in the playground, he pointed to
the high water mark on a wall. "In the winter it comes up to here. That's
when we evacuate. We stay as long as possible, but without desks, the
children have to sit on bricks. I am worried about the buildings coming

The school is on the edge of a vast industrial cemetery. The pumps in the
sewage treatment plants and the reservoirs of water are silent, save for a
few wheezing at a fraction of their capacity. Many were targets in the
American-led blitz in January 1991; most have since disintegrated without
spare parts from their British, French and German builders. These are mostly
delayed by the Security Council's Sanctions Committee; the term used is
"placed on hold". Ten years ago, 92% of the population had safe water,
according to Unicef. Today, drawn untreated from the Tigris, it is lethal.
Touching two brothers on the head, the head said, "These children are
recovering from dysentery, but it will attack them again, and again, until
they are too weak." Chlorine, that universal guardian of safe water, has
blocked by the Sanctions Committee. In 1990, an Iraqi infant with dysentery
stood a one in 600 chance of dying. This is now one in 50.

Just before Christmas, the department of trade and industry in London
a shipment of vaccines meant to protect Iraqi children against diphtheria
yellow fever. Dr Kim Howells told parliament why. His title of under
secretary of state for competition and consumer affairs, eminently suited
Orwellian reply. The children's vaccines were banned, he said, "because they
are capable of being used in weapons of mass destruction". That his finger
was on the trigger of a proven weapon of mass destruction - sanctions -
seemed not to occur to him. A courtly, eloquent Irishman, Denis Halliday
resigned as co-ordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq in 1998, after 34
years with the UN; he was then Assistant Secretary-General of the United
Nations, one of the elite of senior officials. He had made his career in
development, "attempting to help people, not harm them". His was the first
public expression of an unprecedented rebellion within the UN bureaucracy.
am resigning," he wrote, "because the policy of economic sanctions is
bankrupt. We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as
simple and terrifying as that . . . Five thousand children are dying every
month . . . I don't want to administer a programme that results in figures
like these."

When I first met Halliday, I was struck by the care with which he chose
uncompromising words. "I had been instructed," he said, "to implement a
policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that
has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.
We all know that the regime, Saddam Hussein, is not paying the price for
economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is
the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of
untreated water. What is clear is that the Security Council is now out of
control, for its actions here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration
of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. History will slaughter those

Inside the UN, Halliday broke a long collective silence. Then on February 13
this year, Hans von Sponeck, who had succeeded him as humanitarian
co-ordinator in Iraq, resigned. "How long," he asked, "should the civilian
population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have
never done?" Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food
Programme in Iraq, resigned, saying privately she, too, could not tolerate
what was being done to the Iraqi people. Another resignation is expected.

When I met von Sponeck in Baghdad last October, the anger building behind
measured, self-effacing exterior was evident. Like Halliday before him, his
job was to administer the Oil for Food Programme, which since 1996 has
allowed Iraq to sell a fraction of its oil for money that goes straight to
the Security Council. Almost a third pays the UN's "expenses", reparations
Kuwait and compensation claims. Iraq then tenders on the international
for food and medical supplies and other humanitarian supplies. Every
must be approved by the Sanctions Committee in New York. "What it comes down
to," he said, "is that we can spend only $180 per person over six months. It
is a pitiful picture. Whatever the arguments about Iraq, they should not be
conducted on the backs of the civilian population."

Denis Halliday and I travelled to Iraq together. It was his first trip back.
Washington and London make much of the influence of Iraqi propaganda when
their own, unchallenged, is by far the most potent. With this in mind, I
wanted an independent assessment from some of the 550 UN people, who are
Iraq's lifeline. Among them, Halliday and von Sponeck are heroes. I have
reported the UN at work in many countries; I have never known such dissent
and anger, directed at the manipulation of the Security Council, and the
corruption of what some of them still refer to as the UN "ideal".

Our journey from Amman in Jordan took 16 anxious hours on the road. This is
the only authorised way in and out of Iraq: a ribbon of wrecked cars and
burnt-out oil tankers. Baghdad was just visible beneath a white pall of
pollution, largely the consequence of the US Air Force strategy of targeting
the industrial infrastructure in January 1991. Young arms reached up to the
window of our van: a boy offering an over-ripe banana, a girl a single stem
flower. Before 1990, such a scene was rare and frowned upon.

Baghdad is an urban version of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The birds have
gone as avenues of palms have died, and this was the land of dates. The
splashes of colour, on fruit stalls, are surreal. A bunch of Dole bananas
a bag of apples from Beirut cost a teacher's salary for a month; only
foreigners and the rich eat fruit. A currency that once was worth two
to the dinar is now worthless. The rich, the black marketeers, the regime's
cronies and favourites, are not visible, except for an occasional
tinted-glass late-model Mercedes navigating its way through the rustbuckets.
Having been ordered to keep their heads down, they keep to their network of
clubs and restaurants and well-stocked clinics, which make nonsense of the
propaganda that the sanctions are hurting them, not ordinary Iraqis.

In the centre of Baghdad is a monument to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which
Saddam Hussein started, with encouragement from the Americans, who wanted
to destroy their great foe, the Ayatollah Khomeini. When it was over, at
least a million lives had been lost in the cause of nothing, fuelled by the
arms industries of Britain and the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union and the
United States: the principal members of the Security Council. The monument's
two huge forearms, modelled on Saddam's arms (and cast in Basingstoke), hold
triumphant crossed sabres. Cars are allowed to drive over the helmets of
Iranian soldiers embedded in the concourse. I cannot think of a sight
anywhere in the world that better expresses the crime of sacrificial war.

We stayed at the Hotel Palestine, once claiming five stars. The smell of
petrol was constant. As disinfectant is often "on hold", petrol, more
plentiful than water, has replaced it. There is an Iraqi Airways office,
which is open every day, with an employee sitting behind a desk, smiling and
saying good morning to passing guests. She has no clients, because there is
no Iraqi Airways - it died with sanctions. The pilots drive taxis and sweep
the forecourt and sell used clothes. In my room, the water ran gravy brown.
The one frayed towel was borne by the maid like an heirloom. When I asked
coffee to be brought up, the waiter hovered outside until I was finished;
cups are at a premium. His young face was streaked with sadness. "I am
sad," he agreed matter-of-factly. In a month, he will have earned enough to
buy tablets for his brother's epilepsy.

The same sadness is on the faces of people in the evening auctions, where
intimate possessions are sold for food and medicines. Television sets are
most common items; a woman with two toddlers watched their pushchairs go for
pennies. A man who had collected doves since he was 15 came with his last
bird; the cage would go next. Although we had come to pry, my film crew and
were made welcome. Only once, was I the brunt of the hurt that is almost
tangible in a society more westernised than any other Arab country. "Why are
you killing the children?" shouted a man from behind his bookstall. "Why are
you bombing us? What have we done to you?" Passers-by moved quickly to calm
him; one man placed an affectionate arm on his shoulder, another, a teacher,
materialised at my side. "We do not connect the people of Britain with the
actions of the government," he said. Laith Kubba, a leading member of the
exiled Iraqi opposition, later told me in Washington, "The Iraqi people and
Saddam Hussein are not the same, which is why those of us who have dedicated
our lives to fighting him, regard the sanctions as immoral."

In an Edwardian colonnade of Doric and Corinthian columns, people come to
sell their books, not as in a flea market, but out of desperate need. Art
books, leather bound in Baghdad in the 30s, obstetrics and radiology texts,
copies of British Medical Journals, first and second editions of Waiting For
Godot, The Sun Also Rises and, no less, British Housing Policy 1958 were on
sale for the price of a few cigarettes. A man in a clipped grey moustache,
Iraqi Bertie Wooster, said, "I need to go south to see my sister, who is
Please be kind and give me 25 dinars." (About a penny). He took it, nodded
and walked smartly away.

Mohamed Ghani's studio is dominated by a huge crucifix he is sculpting for
the Church of Assumption in Baghdad. As Iraq's most famous sculptor, he is
proud that the Vatican has commissioned him, a Muslim, to sculpt the
of the Cross in Rome - a romantic metaphor of his country as Mesopotamia,
"cradle of Western civilisation". His latest work is a 20-foot figure of a
woman, her child gripping her legs, pleading for food. "Every morning, I see
her," he said, "waiting, with others just like her, in a long line at the
hospital at the end of my road. They are what we have been forced to
He has produced a line of figurines that depict their waiting; all the heads
are bowed before a door that is permanently closed. "The door is the
dispensary," he said, "but it is also the world, kept shut by those who run
the world." The next day, I saw a similar line of women and children, and
fathers and children, in the cancer ward at the Al Mansour children's
hospital. It is not unlike St Thomas's in London. Drugs arrived, they said,
but intermittently, so that children with leukaemia, who can be saved with a
full course of three anti-biotics, pass a point beyond which they cannot be
saved, because one is missing. Children with meningitis can also survive
the precise dosage of antibiotics; here they die. "Four milligrams save a
life," said Dr Mohamed Mahmud, "but so often we are allowed no more than one
milligram." This is a teaching hospital, yet children die because there are
no blood-collecting bags and no machines that separate blood platelets:
equipment in any British hospital. Replacements and spare parts have been
hold" in New York, together with incubators, X-ray machines, and heart and
lung machines.

I sat in a clinic as doctors received parents and their children, some of
them dying. After every other examination, Dr Lekaa Fasseh Ozeer, the
oncologist, wrote in English: "No drugs available." I asked her to jot down
in my notebook a list of the drugs the hospital had ordered, but rarely saw.
In London, I showed this to Professor Karol Sikora who, as chief of the
cancer programme of the World Health Organisation (WHO), wrote in the
Medical Journal last year: "Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy
drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British
advisers [to the Sanctions Committee in New York]. There seems to be a
ludicrous notion that such agents could be converted into chemical or other

He told me, "Nearly all these drugs are available in every British hospital.
They're very standard. When I came back from Iraq last year, with a group of
experts I drew up a list of 17 drugs that are deemed essential for cancer
treatment. We informed the UN that there was no possibility of converting
these drugs into chemical warfare agents. We heard nothing more. The saddest
thing I saw in Iraq was children dying because there was no chemotherapy and
no pain control. It seemed crazy they couldn't have morphine, because for
everybody with cancer pain, it is the best drug. When I was there, they had
little bottle of aspirin pills to go round 200 patients in pain. They would
receive a particular anti-cancer drug, but then get only little bits of
here and there, and so you can't have any planning. It is bizarre."

In January, last year, George Robertson, then defence secretary, said,
"Saddam Hussein has in warehouses $275 million worth of medicines and
supplies which he refuses to distribute." The British government knew this
was false, because UN humanitarian officials had made clear the problem of
drugs and equipment coming sporadically into Iraq - such as machines without
a crucial part, IV fluids and syringes arriving separately - as well as the
difficulties of transport and the need for a substantial buffer stock. "The
goods that come into this country are distributed to where they belong,"
Hans von Sponeck. "Our most recent stock analysis shows that 88.8% of all
humanitarian supplies have been distributed." The representatives of Unicef,
the World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organisation
this. If Saddam Hussein believed he could draw an advantage from obstructing
humanitarian aid, he would no doubt do so. However, according to a FAO
"The government of Iraq introduced a public food rationing system with
>from within a month of the imposition of the embargo. It provides basic
at 1990 prices, which means they are now virtually free. This has a
life-saving nutritional benefit . . . and has prevented catastrophe for the
Iraqi people."

The rebellion in the UN reaches up to Kofi Annan, once thought to be the
compliant of secretary-generals. Appointed after Madeleine Albright, then
US representative at the UN, had waged a campaign to get rid of his
predecessor, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, he pointedly renewed Hans von Sponeck's
contract in the face of a similar campaign by the Americans. He shocked them
last October when he accused the US of "using its muscle on the Sanctions
Committee to put indefinite 'holds' on more than $700 million worth of
humanitarian goods that Iraq would like to buy." When I met Kofi Annan, I
asked if sanctions had all but destroyed the credibility of the UN as a
benign body. "Please don't judge us by Iraq," he said.

On January 7, the UN's Office of Iraq Programme reported that shipments
valued at almost a billion and a half dollars were "on hold". They covered
food, health, water and sanitation, agriculture, education. On February 7,
its executive director attacked the Security Council for holding up spares
for Iraq's crumbling oil industry. "We would appeal to all members of the
Security Council," he wrote, "to reflect on the argument that unless key
items of oil industry are made available within a short time, the production
of oil will drop . . . This is a clear warning." In other words, the less
Iraq is allowed to pump, the less money will be available to buy food and
medicine. According to the Iraqis at the UN, it was US representative on the
Sanctions Committee who vetoed shipments the Security Council had
Last year, a senior US official told the Washington Post, "The longer we can
fool around in the [Security] Council and keep things static, the better."
There is a pettiness in sanctions that borders on vindictiveness. In
Customs and Excise stops parcels going to relatives, containing children's
clothes and toys. Last year, the chairman of the British Library, John
Ashworth, wrote to Harry Cohen MP that, "after consultation with the foreign
office", it was decided that books could no longer be sent to Iraqi

In Washington, I interviewed James Rubin, an under secretary of state who
speaks for Madeleine Albright. When asked on US television if she thought
that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying,
Albright replied: "This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is
worth it." When I questioned Rubin about this, he claimed Albright's words
were taken out of context. He then questioned the "methodology" of a report
by the UN's World Health Organisation, which had estimated half a million
deaths. Advising me against being "too idealistic", he said: "In making
policy, one has to choose between two bad choices . . . and unfortunately
effect of sanctions has been more than we would have hoped." He referred me
to the "real world" where "real choices have to be made". In mitigation, he
said, "Our sense is that prior to sanctions, there was serious poverty and
health problems in Iraq." The opposite was true, as Unicef's data on Iraq
before 1990, makes clear.

The irony is that the US helped bring Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to power
in Iraq, and that the US (and Britain) in the 1980s conspired to break their
own laws in order, in the words of a Congressional inquiry, to "secretly
court Saddam Hussein with reckless abandon", giving him almost everything he
wanted, including the means of making biological weapons. Rubin failed to
the irony in the US supplying Saddam with seed stock for anthrax and
botulism, that he could use in weapons, and claimed that the Maryland
responsible was prosecuted. It was not: the company was given Commerce
Department approval.

Denial is easy, for Iraqis are a nation of unpeople in the West, their
panoramic suffering of minimal media interest; and when they are news, care
is always taken to minimise Western culpability. I can think of no other
human rights issue about which the governments have been allowed to sustain
such deception and tell so many bare-faced lies. Western governments have
a gift in the "butcher of Baghdad", who can be safely blamed for everything.
Unlike the be-headers of Saudi Arabia, the torturers of Turkey and the
of mass murderers, Suharto, only Saddam Hussein is so loathsome that his
captive population can be punished for his crimes. British obsequiousness to
Washington's designs over Iraq has a certain craven quality, as the Blair
government pursues what Simon Jenkins calls a "low-cost, low-risk machismo,
doing something relatively easy, but obscenely cruel". The statements of
Blair and Robin Cook and assorted sidekick ministers would, in other
circumstances, be laughable. Cook: "We must nail the absurd claim that
sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people", Cook: "We
must uphold the sanctity of international law and the United Nations . . ."
ad nauseam. The British boast about their "initiative" in promoting the
latest Security Council resolution, which merely offers the prospect of more
Kafkaesque semantics and prevarication in the guise of a "solution" and
changes nothing.

What are sanctions for? Eradicating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, says
the Security Council resolution. Scott Ritter, a chief UN weapons inspector
in Iraq for five years, told me: "By 1998, the chemical weapons
infrastructure had been completely dismantled or destroyed by UNSCOM (the UN
inspections body) or by Iraq in compliance with our mandate. The biological
weapons programme was gone, all the major facilities eliminated. The nuclear
weapons programme was completely eliminated. The long range ballistic
programme was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq's threat, I
would say [it is] zero." Ritter resigned in protest at US interference; he
and his American colleagues were expelled when American spy equipment was
found by the Iraqis. To counter the risk of Iraq reconstituting its arsenal,
he says the weapons inspectors should go back to Iraq after the immediate
lifting of all non-military sanctions; the inspectors of the international
Atomic Energy Agency are already back. At the very least, the two issues of
sanctions and weapons inspection should be entirely separate. Madeleine
Albright has said: "We do not agree that if Iraq complies with its
obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be
lifted." If this means that Saddam Hussein is the target, then the embargo
will go on indefinitely, holding Iraqis hostage to their tyrant's compliance
with his own demise. Or is there another agenda? In January 1991, the
Americans had an opportunity to press on to Baghdad and remove Saddam, but
pointedly stopped short. A few weeks later, they not only failed to support
the Kurdish and Shi'a uprising, which President Bush had called for, but
prevented the rebelling troops in the south from reaching captured arms
depots and allowed Saddam Hussein's helicopters to slaughter them while US
aircraft circled overhead. At they same time, Washington refused to support
Iraqi opposition groups and Kurdish claims for independence.

"Containing" Iraq with sanctions destroys Iraq's capacity to threaten US
control of the Middle East's oil while allowing Saddam to maintain internal
order. As long as he stays within present limits, he is allowed to rule over
a crippled nation. "What the West would ideally like," says Said Aburish,
author, "is another Saddam Hussein." Sanctions also justify the huge US
military presence in the Gulf, as Nato expands east, viewing a vast new oil
protectorate stretching from Turkey to the Caucasus. Bombing and sanctions
are ideal for policing this new order: a strategy the president of the
American Physicians for Human Rights calls "Bomb Now, Die Later". The
perpetrators ought not be allowed to get away with this in our name: for the
sake of the children of Iraq, and all the Iraqs to come.

 John Pilger

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