Defying the Sanctions:
A flight to Iraq
by Michael Parenti
from the book
Project Censored 2001
by Peter Phillips and Project
Seven Stories Press, 2001, paper
Upon disembarking from the Olympic Airways
plane that brings me to Iraq in November 2000, I can see some
of the effects of the Western-imposed sanctions. What was once
a busy international airport is now a desolate strip. Two lonely
planes sit as if abandoned on the vast tarmac. There are no airport
personnel to speak of, no baggage carts or utility vehicles, not
even any visible security. On a wall inside the empty terminal
is a handmade sign in Arabic and imperfect
English, it reads: "Down USA."
A large portrait of Saddam Hussein gazes down upon us. His image
can be found along the road to the city, in the hotel, and on
various public buildings.
I am part of an international delegation
of Greeks, Britons, Canadians, and Americans. Included are journalists,
peace advocates, and members of the Greek parliament. Margarita
Papandreou, former first lady of Greece and devoted political
activist, leads the group. It is an especially moving moment for
her. It has been her dream for ten years to be able to fly directly
to Baghdad. And ours is the first flight to Iraq by a state-owned
commercial airline from the West in defiance of U.S./UN sanctions.
The Iraqi officials who greet us do not
try to hide how pleased they are about our arrival. "Your
presence is a statement against the inhuman means used against
us. Iraq is a prosperous country capable of fulfilling the basic
needs of the people but we are being prevented from doing so by
the UN sanctions," one of them says. "Feel free to go
anywhere and speak to anyone."
Iraq. Most Americans do not know that
Saddam Hussein was put into power by a CIA-engineered coup to
stop the Iraqi revolution-which he did by massacring the communists
and the left wing of his own Baath party. But in time Saddam proved
to be a disappointment to his mentors in Washington. Instead of
becoming the comprador ruler who opened his country to free-market
capital penetration on terms that were thoroughly favorable to
Western investors, he devoted a substantial portion of Iraq's
export earnings to human services and economic development. In
1972, Iraq nationalized its oil industry, and was immediately
denounced by U.S. leaders as a "terrorist" nation.
Before the six weeks of air attacks known
as the Gulf War (which ended in February 1991), Iraq's standard
of living was the highest in the Middle East. Iraqis enjoyed free
medical care and free education. Literacy had reached about 80
percent. Most Iraqi youth were educated up through secondary school.
University students of both genders received scholarships to study
at home and abroad. In the eyes of Western leaders, Saddam was
that penultimate evil, an economic nationalist, little better
than a communist. He would have to be taught a lesson. His country
needed to be bombed back into the Third World from which it was
The high explosive tonnage delivered upon
Iraq during the Gulf War was more than twice the combined Allied
air offensive of World War II. Within the first few days of bombing,
there was no running water in the country. More than 90 percent
of Iraq's electrical capacity was destroyed. Its telecommunication
systems, including television and radio stations, were demolished,
as were its flood control, irrigation, sewage treatment, water
purification, and hydroelectric systems. Farm herds and poultry
farms suffered heavy losses. U.S. planes burned wheat and grain
incendiary bombs and hit hundreds of schools,
hospitals, rail stations, bus stations, air-raid shelters, mosques,
and historic sites. Factories that produced textiles, cement,
chlorine, petrochemicals, and phosphate were hit repeatedly. So
were the refineries, pipelines, and storage tanks of Iraq's oil
industry. Iraqi civilians and soldiers fleeing Kuwait were slaughtered
by the thousands on what became known as the "Highway of
Death." Also massacred were Iraqi soldiers who tried to surrender
to U.S. forces on a number of occasions. In all, some 200,000
Iraqis were killed in those six weeks. Nearly all U.S. planes,
Ramsey Clark notes, "employed laser-guided depleted-uranium
missiles, leaving 900 tons of radioactive waste spread over much
of Iraq with no concern for the consequences to future life."
Our delegation got a grim glimpse of the
war's aftermath. We visited the Al Amerya bomb shelter where more
than 400 civilians, mostly women and children, had been incinerated
by two US missiles. Blackened ossified body parts, including a
child's hand, can still be seen melded into the ceiling. Along
one wall is the irradiated shadow of a woman holding a baby in
her arms, a ghoulish fresco created by the heat blast of the missiles.
The shadow of another figure can be seen on the cement floor.
The shelter has been made into a shrine, with candles, plastic
flowers, and pictures of the victims. The guide notes that U.S.
reconnaissance saw civilians using the shelter on a nightly basis
during the early days of the bombing, yet it was still chosen
as a target. In the ten years of "peace" since February
1991, an additional 400 tons of explosives have been dropped on
Iraq, 300 people have been killed, and many hundreds wounded.
The United States and United Kingdom, with the participation of
France, imposed a no-fly zone over the northern region of the
country, ostensibly to protect the Kurds. This newly found humanitarian
concern did not extend to the Kurds residing on the Turkish side
of the border. The next year, another no-fly zone was imposed
in the south, reputedly to protect Shiite settlements, effectively
dividing the country into three parts. By 1998, the French had
withdrawn from both zones, but U.S. and British air attacks on
military and civilian targets have continued almost on a daily
basis, including strafing raids against Iraqi agricultural developments.
Baghdad's repeated protests to the United Nations have gone unheeded.
Since 1998, three members of the Security Council-Russia, China,
and France-and various nonpermanent members have condemned the
raids as illegal and unauthorized by the Security Council.
To drive the point home to us, on the
second day of our visit, U.S. warplanes fired four missiles at
the village of Hmaidi in the southern province of Basra, one of
which struck the Ali AlHayaini school, wounding four children
and three teachers. Several homes were also hit.
Picking Up the Pieces. Despite the years
of bombings and the even greater toll on human life taken by the
sanctions, visitors to Baghdad do not see a city in ruins. Much
of the wreckage has been cleared away, much has been repaired.
In our hotel there is running water throughout the day, hot water
in the morning. Various streets in Baghdad are lined with little
stores, surprisingly well-stocked with household appliances, hardware
goods, furniture, and clothes (much of which has a secondhand
We see no derelicts or homeless people
on the streets of Baghdad, no prostitutes or ragged bands of abandoned
children, though there are occasional youngsters eager to shine
shoes or solicit spare change. But even they seem to be well-fed
and decently clothed. Obviously, despite all the destruction wrought
by the sanctions, Iraq still has not undergone sufficient free-market
A British member of our delegation who
has made more than a dozen trips to Iraq over the past decade
sees some changes for the better. A few years ago, the cars all
looked like "death traps"; tires were patched beyond
recognition, windows were cracked, and doors were falling off
the hinges, she tells me. Now the Iraqis seem to have procured
vehicles that are in better repair. In addition, large swaths
of the city used to be shrouded in complete darkness; now there
are lights just about everywhere, though mostly on the dim side.
There are more shops with more goods, "although 70 percent
of the people can't buy anything." Still, "people used
to feel hopelessly isolated and now there seems to be more hope
and better morale," she concludes.
The Silent Cries of Children. Not everyone
shows better morale. It is said that the most depressed officials
in Iraq can be found in the Ministry of Health-not surprisingly,
given the tragedies they confront. Aside from the 200,000 Iraqis
slaughtered during the Gulf War, an additional 1.5 million civilians
have died since 1991 as a result of the sanctions, according to
UNICEF reports and the Red Cross, many from what normally would
be treatable and curable illnesses. Of these victims, 600,000
are children under five years of age. Maternal mortality rates
have more than doubled, and 70 percent of Iraqi women suffer from
anemia. Given the tons of depleted uranium used during the Allied
attacks, cancer rates have skyrocketed: the childhood leukemia
rate is now the highest in the world. Most of the leukemia increase
is in southern Iraq where the bombing was heaviest.
We visit a children's hospital in Baghdad.
The familiar sight of skeletal-looking infants, racked with diseases
that make it impossible for them to retain or digest nutrients,
are no longer evident. Such dying children still can be found
in parts of Iraq but not at this hospital. Instead we encounter
something equally ominous: children suffering from acute forms
of multiple malignancies. Shrouded mothers stand by the beds like
mournful sentinels, their eyes filled with unspoken grief. The
journalists, photographers, and TV crews in our delegation descend
upon these sad people, clicking and flashing away with that intrusive
irreverence that is the press's modus operandi. A mother weeps
quietly against the wall. One of the doomed children smiles up
at us, which almost causes me to start weeping.
Things are getting worse, a doctor tells
us; more and more children are turning up with leukemia. The medical
staff is overwhelmed. One doctor says he sees 300 patients in
three hours: "We cannot treat them properly." Some of
the hospital rooms are lined with incubators that contain what
look like premature births. These turn out to be infants who are
the products of depleted uranium, born with serious deformities
and malfunctions, urgently in need of surgical intervention. The
hospital lacks the special instruments needed to operate on infants,
not to mention ordinary medications, anesthetics, antibiotics,
bandages, intravenous sets, and diagnostic equipment. Iraq's excellent
national health care system, with its universal coverage, is now
in shambles because of the embargo.
Things were supposed to get better when
the sanctions were eased in 1996, allowing Iraq to make "oil
for food" sales. Since then, $32 billion in oil was sold
abroad but only $8 billion worth of materials has reached Iraq,
less than $5 or $6 a month per person. Another $10 billion has
been allocated for "war compensation," in effect forcing
the Iraqis to pay the costs incurred by the U.N. aggressors when
Another $11 billion in cash sits in Western
banks. Worse still, many essential things needed to rebuild the
infrastructure-including the technological, medical, educational,
communicational, and industrial systems of the nation- are still
not available. Under the deleterious "dual use" doctrine,
many vital commodities and materials needed for humanitarian and
civilian purposes are banned because they conceivably could also
be used by the military: computers, components for electrical
transmitters and water pumps, even glycerin tablets needed for
heart ailments. (It would take millions of glycerin tablets mixed
with nitrogen to make one small explosive.)
The Foreign Minister Speaks. Iraq's Minister
of Foreign Affairs, Tariq Aziz, a calm congenial man, meets with
our delegation. In clear and precise English, he makes the following
points: Before 1990, the United Nations had placed sanctions upon
only a few nations, such as Rhodesia and South Africa, on a voluntary
basis. "It was left to the countries themselves and the world
to implement those sanctions or not implement them." Hence
the effects were mild. But since 1990, U.S. leaders with their
so-called New World Order have imposed the severest embargo, "encircling
Iraq with warships and airplanes that prevent even ordinary trips
and ordinary cargoes." As with the sanctions against Yugoslavia,
the minister notes, this policy has created a lot of suffering.
"Therefore, when we say that this embargo is an international
issue, it's not just anti-American propaganda. It's the truth.
And it is quite horrid." The collapse of the Soviet Union
has created a different international scene, he adds. With the
end of the Cold War, "a new hot war and warm war" has
been imposed on many nations, with Iraq as a prime target.
In spite of all the reports made by U.N.
agencies themselves "informing the Security Council about
the sufferings of the Iraqi people, and the deaths of so many
children, and the deterioration of the Iraqi economy," Aziz
reminds us, there is no likelihood of any change in U.N. policy
on sanctions because of the Security Council veto wielded by the
United States and Britain. Still the people of Iraq have not been
merely passive victims. They have "refused to yield to American
pressure and American blackmail." In addition, there is "the
will of other peoples, the free women and men in this world"
who refuse to support injustice and imperialism. After ten years,
U.S. propaganda "is wearing thin," and "a lot of
facts have become known to the peoples of the world" bringing
a dramatic increase in support for Iraq-as measured by the growing
number of air flights from various nations in defiance of the
sanctions. Not only Iraq but its trading partners have sustained
substantial commercial losses because of the ten-year embargo.
In 2000, more than 1,500 international companies from 45 countries
participated in the Iraqi trade fair. So, for both moral and legitimate
commercial reasons, "the embargo is beginning to crack."
"Ten years ago," concludes Aziz,
"we were told: history is over; from now on we will live
according to the diktat of U.S. leaders in a Pax Americana. And
those who do not accept this are 'rogue nations."' But U.S.
leaders are beginning to realize "that this new imperialism
is not working.... Despite all its power, the United States is
not God. It's not the Almighty. It's an imperialist force....
When a nation succeeds in refusing the dictate of imperialists,"
Aziz said, [and] succeeds in preserving its sovereignty, and its
independence and dignity, that is an achievement." Aziz's
closing plea was that we not rely on "the manipulated media"
of the United States, Britain and Canada. "One of the basic
human rights is that you have the right to make your own judgment,
not to buy judgments made by others that might not be honest and
true. So I hope that you will use this short visit to know what
is going on in this country and what the realities are."
The "Realities." On the closing
day of our trip, members of our delegation lay plans to carry
on the battle against sanctions. These include: lobbying the U.N.
Compensation Committee, which refuses to release the $11 billion
in Iraqi "oil-for-food" earnings; joining with Women's
International League for Peace and Freedom, and other NGOs to
lobby the U.N. Security Council; lobbying the U.N. Human Rights
Commission in Geneva and the parliament of the European Union;
lobbying elected representatives and religious leaders in various
countries; and sending messages through the Internet.
The sanctions wall is not about to crumble,
but it is showing cracks. In 1998 Scott Ritter, chief U.N. weapons
inspector in Iraq since 1991, resigned and accused the U.S. government
of undercutting U.N. weapons inspectors. Meanwhile U.S. leaders
and the press continued to portray Iraq as bent on nuclear aggression,
despite the fact that Baghdad cooperated fully with U.N. inspectors
who scoured the country in a vain search for weapons of mass destruction
or the capacity to build them.
Also in 1998, Denis Halliday, U.N. Assistant
Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, resigned
in protest of what the sanctions were doing to that country. In
early 2000, Hans von Sponeck, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in
Iraq and Jutta Burghart, head of U.N. World Food Program in Baghdad,
resigned in protest of the sanctions.
Still, the State Department and the U.S.
media continue to blame Saddam, not the sanctions, for the misery
endured by the Iraqi people. The claim that sanctions hurt ordinary
Iraqis "is outweighed by the sad truth that Saddam Hussein
is determined to keep portions of his population in poverty,"
intones a Washington Post editorial reprinted in the International
Herald Tribune (November 14, 2000). The Iraqi leader, the Post
assures us, is a "warmongering dictator" who needs to
be contained by a still more severe application of sanctions.
Upon being selected as the new U.S. Secretary of State in December
2000, General Colin Powell echoed this position, announcing that
he would strive to "reenergize" the sanctions against
Iraq. The Iraqi leadership could turn U.S. policy completely around
by uttering just two magic words: "free market." All
they would have to do is invite the IMF and World Bank into Iraq,
eliminate free education and free medical care, abolish the minimal
food ration that goes to every Iraqi, abolish the housing subsidies
and transportation subsidies, and hand over the country's oil
industry to the corporate cartels. To lift the sanctions, Iraq
must surrender to the tender mercies of the free-market paradise
as Yugoslavia has recently done under the newly minted, Western-sponsored
president, Kostunica, and as so many other nations have done.
Until then, Iraq will continue to be designated a "rogue
nation" by those policymakers in Washington who themselves
are the meanest profit-driven, power-mongering rogues on earth
MICHAEL PARENTl'S most recent books are
To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (Verso) and History
as Mystery (City Lights).
Michael Parenti page