Killing Iraq

by John Pilger

The Nation magazine, December 14, 1998


Lesley Stahl: "We have heard that half a million children have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima.... Is the price worth it? "

Madeleine Albright: "...we think the price is worth it." - 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996


Although the Clinton Administration appears to have given Iraq a reprieve, it is itching to bomb Iraq. Bombing remains a soft option for a demonstration of US power at the end of a year when the Administration finally emerged from the distraction of the Lewinsky affair. The signals were clear in September when a UN Security Council resolution, engineered by the United States, "abandoned all discussion of sanctions against Iraq," in the words of one observer. It means that sanctions are to be maintained in perpetuity. Officially, the strategy is to bring Saddam Hussein to heel. Yet in the main categories of weapons inspection, Iraq has complied with the demands of the UN Special Commission. It has no long-range missiles. The International Atomic Energy Agency is satisfied Iraq has no nuclear program or nuclear arms capacity. Although there is concern over a potential to make nerve gas, this comes down to proving a negative; there is no reliable evidence.

Still, the people of Iraq must continue to suffer-and suffer in ways of which few outsiders are aware. Under rules drawn up by a UN sanctions committee in New York, which is in effect US-controlled, Iraq is prohibited from importing fertilizer and animal feed equipment. This has caused the collapse of much of the nation's agricultural production. Baby food and enriched powdered milk are banned, forcing mothers who are too malnourished to breast-feed to give their babies sugared water or sugared black tea. Most of these children have died; they are known as the "sugar babies."

In the hospitals, people are being operated on without anesthetic because vital equipment is blockaded, along with stethoscopes, X-ray equipment, scanners, water purifiers, bandages, sutures and medical swabs. A consignment of ambulances from France was stopped. Customs officers at London's Heathrow Airport recently confiscated antibiotics from a humanitarian delegation flying to Iraq and threatened to prosecute. Children's clothes, sanitary napkins, light bulbs, schoolbooks, paper, pencils, shoelaces-all are banned or have been lost in a cynical delaying process. The Austrian former chairman of the sanctions committee, Peter Hohenfellner, has admitted, "We are not inclined to take a more flexible view to all these goods [because] we want to maintain the pressure on Iraq." A Jordanian consignment of shroud material for the dead was vetoed by the United States and Britain.

"We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world stage," said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in August, "by people who do not like what we stand for, and that is, freedom, democracy and the fight against disease, poverty and terrorism." The irony of her words is bleak indeed; for, the threat of bombing aside, her government is engaged in a massive act of terrorism in Iraq in what amounts to a war on the civilian population, mostly children, in breach of both the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Anyone doubting the scale of this terrorism should read British historian Geoff Simons's scholarly and damning book, The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice. Eight years of sanctions have killed 2 million Iraqis, writes Simons, including perhaps as many as a million children. That is the child population of a medium-sized American city. The Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated 560,000 deaths based on extrapolations, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Iraqi Health Ministry's figure is 1,211,285 children, calculated in August 1997. It will be considerably higher now.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has led a commission of inquiry in Iraq since 1991, wrote that most deaths were preventable by the medicines and equipment denied Iraq. "They are dying," he wrote, "from wasting or emaciation which has reached 12 percent of all children, stunted growth which affects 28 percent, diarrhea, dehydration from bad water or food...common communicable diseases preventable by vaccinations.... There are no deaths crueler than these." As for humanitarian exemptions to sanctions, writes Simons, "these are for public relations. Sanctions are designed to kill. A doctor might as well call for the humane implementation of torture."

The continuing American obsession with Iraq has many undeclared aims; one is the general war against stereotypes of Islamic violence. In fact, not only have Muslims been responsible for only a tiny proportion of deaths caused by terrorism but in recent years it is they who have been the greatest sufferers from state terrorism. Another is the more immediate practical need to protect Saudi oil prices, and the Saudi economy, from the competition of cheaper Iraqi oil. Sanctions do that job nicely. But sanctions also strengthen Saddam Hussein, as the Kurds and Shiites, his bitter opponents, repeatedly point out. Like bombing, the aim of sanctions may simply be Washington's need to demonstrate its rampant power in uncertain economic times; that, after all, is the impulse of enduring imperialism in whatever guise.

"Few of us," wrote Arthur Miller, "can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And the evidence has to be internally denied." Sanctions should be lifted immediately. They are simply a crime against humanity.


John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker, reports on the Middle East.

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