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FT: An Embargo on Commonsense

>From the August 10, 2000, US and International editions of the Financial Times

An embargo on commonsense

Ali Abunimah and Anthony Arnove say sanctions on Iraq hurt ordinary people
and help Saddam Hussein to stay in power 

Ten years ago the United Nations imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq in
response to its invasion of Kuwait. Iraq was driven out of the country the
following year during the Gulf war. But the sanctions remain in place today
in spite of growing evidence that they have only hurt ordinary Iraqis. The
ruling elite is insulated from their impact and Saddam Hussein continues in

While a handful have grown rich off the black market, hundreds of thousands
of Iraqis, particularly children under five, have died from dehydration,
malnutrition, cholera, tuberculosis and other easily preventable diseases,
according to UN studies. 

The bombing of Iraq since early 1999 has received scant attention but it,
too, is inflicting casualties on the civilian population. 

Unemployment has rocketed and hyperinflation has destroyed the value of the
Iraqi dinar. Once well-to-do families now sell their furniture and books to
buy food. 

US and British officials argue that the UN's "oil-for-food" programme would
provide sufficient sustenance for Iraqis if it were not for the deliberate
obstruction of Iraq's government. But this is doubtful. Under the
programme, a UN committee must approve the majority of contracts for
imports to Iraq. US and British representatives have been repeatedly
criticised for holding up vitally needed supplies for hospitals,
water-treatment facilities, power plants, the oil industry and other basic
infrastructure. At present, about $1.6bn in contracts is being held up by
the committee. 

These kinds of measures cannot be justified, even if the ultimate goal is
to disarm Iraq. Indeed, there is growing consensus that Iraq is already
militarily crippled. Rolf Ekeus, the UN weapons inspector from 1991 to
1997, said in May that Iraq's military capabilities had been fundamentally
eliminated. Even Martin Indyk, former US assistant secretary of state,
admitted last autumn that there was no evidence to suggest that Iraq was
trying to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction. 

To make matters worse, Bill Clinton's government continues to shift the
goalposts on the conditions needed to lift the embargo. The sanctions will
stay in place "until the end of time, or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] is
in power", the president has said. Madeleine Albright, US secretary of
state, has also tied the sanctions to "regime change" in Iraq, an
interpretation fundamentally at odds with UN resolutions. 

Fortunately, the accumulating evidence of the bankruptcy of the embargo and
the futility of continued military attacks on Iraq is leading to a new
willingness to question the policy. 

In March, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, was forced to admit: "We
are in danger of losing the argument or propaganda war - if we haven't lost
it already - about who is responsible for this situation, President Saddam
Hussein or the UN," adding, "we are accused of causing suffering to an
entire population". 

Last February, more than 70 members of the US House of Representatives
wrote to Mr Clinton calling for an end to the economic sanctions. David
Bonior, a House representative and one of the leaders of Mr Clinton's own
Democratic party in Congress, called the sanctions "infanticide
masquerading as policy". 

The international community has become increasingly uncomfortable with US
unilateralism. Russia's unease over the Iraqi stalemate has led to hints
that Vladimir Putin, the president, might abandon the sanctions. Iraq owes
Russia billions of dollars from the Gulf war, and both France and Russia
have oil interests in Iraq that could prove profitable if the embargo were

More generally, there is growing recognition that sanctions do not meet
their objectives. In recent years, European countries have quietly
developed relations with Iran - an approach that the US has lately felt
compelled to follow - after the failure of two decades of boycotts and
confrontation. Britain has slowly restored relations with Libya, a country
with which it has had no shortage of differences. Could Europe now take the
lead in a new approach to Iraq? 

Even if the embargo were lifted today, it might take years to rebuild
Iraq's infrastructure and economy. It will take much longer to repair the
damage to a whole generation of Iraqi children. 

The Iraqi people should no longer be held hostage to the actions of a
government over which they have no control, and the world should not sit on
the sidelines as Washington dictates - or blocks - the way forward. 

Lifting the embargo will take away whatever legitimacy Saddam Hussein gains
by standing up to the west, and will allow the Iraqi people to extend their
gaze beyond mere survival. Perhaps then they will have the chance to
determine their own future. 

Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network. Anthony
Arnove is an editor at South End Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

[Although the Financial Times has a policy against mentioning books in
their author lines, on e-mail we can also add that they are respectively a
contributor to and editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of
Sanctions and War (Cambridge: South End Press; London: Pluto Press, 2000).
Info at or

Published: August 9 2000 19:31GMT | Last Updated: August 9 2000 19:36GMT on

Anthony Arnove
South End Press
7 Brookline Street #1
Cambridge MA 02139-4146
v 617-547-4002
f 617-547-1333

National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981

Editor of Iraq Under Siege (South End Press and Pluto Press, 2000):

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