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[casi] Don't Lift the Sanctions Yet!

Don't Lift the Sanctions Yet!

Published on Friday, May 9, 2003

By Rahul Mahajan

After five years spent working to end the sanctions on Iraq, I find myself
in an odd position. I'm opposed to the current U.S. plans to end the sanctions.

The new situation is fascinating. For a dozen years, every time we in the
anti-sanctions movement talked about the suffering caused by the sanctions
(well over 500,000 children under the age of five dead and a society in
ruins), the constant refrain  from the Bush administration, the Clinton
administration, and the Bush administration -- was that the suffering was
not caused by sanctions but by the regime. Once the regime is destroyed,
miraculously, the Bush administration realizes overnight that sanctions
were actually harmful and that it's necessary to remove that burden from
the Iraqi people in order to provide humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Adding to the confusion, the two countries on the Security Council
previously most against continuation of the sanctions, France and Russia,
did an about-face and opposed the U.S. plans. Both (especially Russia) have
insisted that sanctions cannot be lifted until U.N. weapons inspectors
certify that Iraq is disarmed of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is
true even though Vladimir Putin of Russia openly mocked Tony Blair about
the dramatically unconfirmed claims by "coalition" members that Iraq
possessed WMD that posed a threat to the world.

Did this administration, which tried to keep Iraqi infants from being
vaccinated for diphtheria and limited imports of streptomycin into the
country, see a blinding light on the road to Baghdad? And did other
countries suddenly decide that the deaths of Iraqi children was, as
Madeleine Albright put it in an interview in 1996, a price worth
paying  and this time merely in order to uphold a trivial legalistic argument?

Actually, it's not so confusing. The United States has moved to consolidate
control over Iraq. The talks being held by selected members of the "Iraqi
opposition" under the control of the U.S. military are not intended to
create an independent government, but rather one which is tightly
controlled by the United States  just as in Afghanistan. As in Afghanistan,
the meetings are excluding entire segments of the political spectrum. They
are being done with express disregard of calls across that spectrum for
meetings to be held under neutral U.N. auspices rather than under those of
an occupying power with clear plans for increased regional domination.

Those plans have become clear as well. The Bush administration wants to set
up permanent military bases in Iraq, making it the main Middle East staging
area for U.S. "force projection." The massive political leverage given by
this presence will be used as a club against Iran and Syria and also to
force the Palestinians to acquiesce to the Israeli occupation through the
latest "peace plan." The administration also wants not only to open up
future Iraqi exploration to foreign corporations (with U.S. and maybe
British corporations presumably favored) but to privatize, at least in
part, the state oil companies and their currently producing wells.

All of these things can be obtained through the U.S. military presence and
the creation of what will essentially be an Iraqi puppet government.
However, some problems are the kind that can't be solved by bombs. Existing
U.N. resolutions require Security Council approval for Iraqi oil sales and
for disbursement of oil money to pay for other goods. Other countries may
be leery of buying Iraqi oil without some clear understanding that what
they're doing is legal, so the United States cannot simply declare those
resolutions void by fiat, the way it declared war on Iraq.

The draft resolution being currently circulated would give the United
States very open, explicit control over Iraq's oil industry and the money
derived therefrom. Then, instead of being forced to disburse USAID funds to
corporations like Bechtel that are closely tied to current and past
administration figures in closed bidding processes with no foreign
corporations allowed, the United States will be able to use Iraq's money to
pay off mostly American corporations. In the process, it will try to escape
the legal obligation it shares with the United Kingdom: since they
committed an illegal aggressive war (with no Security Council
authorization) against Iraq, they are financially responsible for the
reconstruction. Iraq should not have to pay for its own reconstruction,
especially since for years to come its oil revenues will be barely enough
to meet the basic needs of its people.

This fundamental violation of the rights of the Iraqi people is being done
in the name of the immediate crisis faced. Yet the way that the sanctions
work is not the way they used to. Most imports are automatically approved
without any requirement for deliberation by the Sanctions Committee.
Furthermore, the biggest bureaucratic delays were created by deliberate
U.S. understaffing, so that there were never enough people to review all
the proposed contracts (see Joy Gordon's article "Cool War: Economic
Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, Harper's, November 2002).
Finally, all members of the Security Council have indicated willingness to
cooperate in expediting the release of all goods required for immediate
needs. In the long run, the sanctions must be lifted because they impose a
highly inefficient foreign control of the Iraqi economy, causing the
collapse of local economic activity and requiring money that should be
spent internally to be spent on foreign corporations; in the short run,
there is no compelling reason to lift them in the absence of a legitimate
Iraqi government that has the right to make choices about how Iraq's oil
wealth is to be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, not for U.S.
corporate boondoggles and plans for military-based political domination.

France and Russia are opposing this move (France rather weakly), not
because of any genuine concern about WMD, but for two reasons. First, the
venal one: they don't want to be completely shut out of any lucrative
postwar contracts and certainly want to hang on to oil concession deals
signed with the previous Iraqi regime. Second, a reason that activists in
the United States and elsewhere should support fully: they don't want to
retroactively legitimize U.S. aggression and thus contribute further to its
more and more openly imperial role in the world.

In fact, overt subordination of the United Nations to the United States is
a central part of the Bush administration agenda. It has served notice that
the U.N. has no role in anything "important"  not in weapons inspections,
in the Iraqi political process, in major reconstruction decisions, nor in
peacekeeping (where a multinational "coalition of the willing" is being
assembled). Instead, as George Bush said, the "vital role" of the U.N. is
easily defined: "That means food. That means medicine. That means aid." Or,
as Richard Perle said even more openly, in an op-ed shortly after the war
began titled "Thank God for the death of the U.N.," "The 'good works' part
will survive, the low-risk peacekeeping bureaucracies will remain, the
chatterbox on the Hudson will continue to bleat." No longer content with a
system where nominally the U.N. is the ultimate authority but the United
States dominates it by coercion and bribery, the Bush administration wants
explicit recognition that the U.N. should play only the roles allowed to it
by the United States.

An example from history helps to illuminate the fundamental principle
regarding the sanctions. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, one of
the first things it did was try to set up a puppet regime composed of
Kuwaitis to rule the country as a satellite of Iraq. It would actually have
withdrawn most of its army had that regime gotten any international
recognition. Instead, the sanctions that were levied at U.S. insistence
embargoed not only Iraq's oil sales but Kuwait's. Kuwaiti oil was not to be
sold so that an illegitimate regime could not plunder Kuwait's oil wealth
for the benefit of the Iraqi government. Those sanctions were indefensible
for reasons that don't apply today, including the almost complete
termination of food imports into Iraq (although food was technically
allowed under UN Security Council Resolution 666, in practice virtually
none got in). The principle, however, was sound.

Today, the United States is willing to (partially) withdraw after it
installs its own puppet regime (one that will presumably have more
independence than the one Iraq tried to install, but will still be
subservient to U.S. dictates). It also wants to plunder Iraq's oil wealth
for its own political purposes and for the benefit of U.S. corporations.
This is reason enough to keep the sanctions on until there is a legitimate
Iraqi government. This can only happen if U.S. and other "coalition" forces
withdraw, there is a multinational U.N. peacekeeping force with no
participation from any of the aggressor nations, and the Iraqis are given a
genuine chance to exercise their right to self-determination.

Rahul Mahajan is a member of the Nowar Collective
( His newest book, "Full Spectrum
Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond" will be out
in June 2003. His articles are collected at He
can be reached at

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