Iraq Under Siege

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Stanley Heller

Iraq Under Siege.  The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War edited by Anthony Arnove (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000) 216 pages, $16 paperback.

THE GERMAN NAZIS killed two million Jewish children.  The Bush-Clinton sanctions on Iraq have killed over 500,000 Iraqi children with thousands more being added monthly.  As a crime against humanity, the scale of death, misery and environmental destruction visited on Iraq this past decade now rivals what the United States did to Vietnam from 1962-1975.

What should be regarded as an absolute horror is accepted, explained away and ignored.  Presidents have learned after Vietnam that as long as there aren’t many American casualties they can do anything they want to an “enemy,” whether soldier or civilian.

It’s all laid out in lacerating detail in Iraq Under Siege, the collection of articles edited by Anthony Arnove.  These articles are written by heroes and activists of the anti-sanctions movement.

Included are Kathy Kelly, who risks huge fines and jail terms for taking medicine and toys into Iraq; Denis Halliday, an Assistant United Nations secretary-general, who gave up his career to protest sanctions; Rania Masri, who keeps activists connected through the Iraq Action Coalition internet newsgroup; journalists John Pilger and Robert Fisk, media critic Ali Abunimah, human rights champion Noam Chomsky and eleven others.

For my taste, the book is a little lacking in rage and invective, as well as missing a detailed presentation of the war crimes committed by the enforcers of the sanctions and the names of the obvious war criminals (see below).  In all other respects it powerfully describes the agony of the Iraqi people and the lies of the New World Order.

Happily, there is no attempt at defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime as is found in the writings of Ramsey Clark and his associates.  Saddam’s tyranny and crimes are assumed, but the writers deny that his acts are justifications for atrocities against Iraqi civilians.

Noam Chomsky dissects the notion that the United States and Britain are acting out of fear of Saddam Hussein, “a man who used chemical weapons against his own people.” Chomsky points out that George Bush’s response to the gassing of Iraqi Kurds (late 1980s) was to increase assistance to Iraq!

Saddam had been destroying Kurdish agricultural areas.  As a result Iraqi food supplies had dropped.  So Bush granted killer Saddam Hussein a huge increase in agricultural credits.  Saddam was seen as the lesser of two evils during the period of his aggression against Iran. So the “ultimate horror” of the gassing needed to be overlooked.

Phyllis Bennis explains that before and after the gassing, biological warfare materials were being sold to Iraq by the American Type Culture Collection company.  This had the explicit approval of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Bennis’ specialty is examining the Machiavellian twists and turns of foreign policy where greed goes under the euphemism of “national interest.” She was interviewed along with Denis Halliday by David Barsamian.

Calling It Genocide

Halliday, who administered the UN’s oil-for-food program in Iraq ended his thirty-four-year career because, he said, “the Security Council is out of control.”

Halliday explained why he calls the sanctions genocide: “It’s certainly a valid word in my view when we see thousands of deaths per month, a possible total of 1 million to 1.5 million deaths .  .  .  The member states know what they’re doing and what the impact is.”

Halliday explains the workings of one of the mechanisms of genocide, the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council.  Every nickel raised in oil sales goes into a bank account in New York City. Every purchase Iraq makes from this money has to be approved by the Sanctions Committee.

So by delaying approval or by denying vitally needed items on the grounds that they might has some conceivable military use, the Committee manages the mass murder of the Iraqis.  Halliday describes how a request for 500 ambulances was first totally denied and then allowed in a hundred at a time for nine months.

John Pilger, who has twice won Britain’s highest journalism award, contributes a short article recalling his interviews with men administering sanctions like Peter von Walsum, the head of the Sanctions Committee, and James Rubin, Madeleine Albright’s Undersecretary.  Mostly they dodge his questions and repeat cliches about dealing with the “real world.”

Pilger also recounts a meeting with the conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra, whose wife burned to death in front of him because of a faulty kerosene lamp. Iraqis use these antiquated lamps because sanctions cuts off electricity for a good part of every day.

Ali Abunimah and Rania Masri collaborate on an article about the media assistance to the genocide.  They did an exhaustive review of the non-coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths, studying articles on Iraq, major network TV reports and NPR radio coverage for a two week period in December 1998 and a three month period in 1999.  Importantly, they list methods for activists to have impact in the media.

Robert Fisk, also a prize-winning British journalist, writes about the effects of nuclear radiation released during the war. Over 10,000 “depleted uranium” (DU) shells were fired at Iraqi targets, leaving radioactive particles that are causing cancers and hideous birth defects.  They are also a chief suspect in Gulf War Syndrome.

Fisk shows how the British go to great lengths to collect any particle of radioactivity that results from a DU test firing in Britain.  He contrasts that to the total indifference American and British authorities have shown to the effects of DU not only on Iraqis, but also on their own soldiers.

Kathy Kelly is an authentic antiwar hero. She and a small group encamped on the Iraq-Saudi Arabia border in 1991 trying to prevent warfare.  During the war against Iraq she served on medical convoys delivering medicine in the war zone. Since then she’s headed Voices in the Wilderness and has brought medicine and toys into Iraq.

Kelly’s article describes her visits to Iraq and the $160,000 fine her group was told to pay for its illegal distribution of medicine and toys. VITW refuses to pay and welcomes a trial as a way of publicizing the atrocities against Iraqis.

Why is the child death rate declining in autonomous northern Iraq while it is increasing in the rest of Iraq?  Is it because, as the State Department alleges, Saddam is deliberately starving his population as a way winning sympathy for removing all the sanctions?

Peter Pellet, professor of Nutrition at UMASS in Amherst, writes an essential article that demolishes that spectacularly dishonest charge.  Pellett headed the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) study team in 1995 that estimated there had been 500,000 child deaths due to the sanctions.

Pellet shows that north is far better off than the rest of Iraq. It has 13% of the population, but 48% of farmland.  Its infrastructure wasn’t destroyed in the war. Per capita it gets more oil-for-food supplies and more international aid than other parts of Iraq.

The World Food Program “fully met the food needs of the vulnerable” in the north while it supplied only 20% of the needs in the rest of the country.  That was the reason child mortality rates in northern Iraq went down after 1994.

Arrest the Criminals

There are other fine articles in the book, but some things are missing.  There is no systematic treatment of war crimes by U.S. and British officials.  Ramsey Clark’s book The Fire This Time is superior in this aspect.

The sanctions are not just cruel; they are completely illegal.  The United Sates and Britain are party to international treaties that forbid what is being done to Iraq, and make plain that violations are criminal acts.

The Geneva Convention of 1948 and 1977 make it a war crime to starve the civilian population, to destroy its water supply or to target it in any way. Genocide is not merely a heinous act. It’s a violation of international law and a specific U.S. law. (See the website for details.)

By knowing the law we have an answer for the Madeleine Albrights who say the sanctions are “worth it” because they prevent another Gulf War. The answer is, “That’s irrelevant.  Killing civilians is a grave violation of international law and your acts have made you a war criminal.”

Naming the monster of death, Albright, brings up my other complaint.  I wish the book were a lot more angry and named names.  The genocide is not a mistake.  The perpetrators are not ignorant of what they do. The criminals’ names should be named and the authorities in the United States and Britain should be urged to do their duty and arrest them.

In addition to the obvious heads of state there’s the super-popular Colin Powell, who devised the strategy of destroying the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, and Dick Cheney who approved it as Secretary of Defense.  There’s UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, whose wild charges served as the basis for the December 1998 bombing blitz.

There’s national security advisor Sandy Berger and the aforementioned James Rubin, who prolong the sanctions by carefully crafted propaganda.  There’s Al Gore and Joe Lieberman who never wavered in their support for Iraqi megadeath.

Let’s not forget the British.  Name Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his idiotic claim that “Saddam threatens the whole world.” Name the execrable Minister of State Peter Hain and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who saw John Pilger’s new documentary on Iraq and dismissed it, saying that Britain had abandoned “ethical foreign policy because this is not an ethical world.”

The list goes on and on, but let’s not fail to mention the oil companies who lobby in favor of sanctions and the media moguls and academics who promote mass murder in newspapers, TV and in the classroom.

Those who want to get involved in fighting the genocide are encouraged to buy Iraq under Siege, and to visit the websites of National Mobilization to End the Sanctions on Iraq and Middle East Crisis Committee and join the newsgroup discussion,

Stanley Heller is Chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee in New Haven, Connecticut.  See also Heller’s article “Trying to Arrest Madeleine Albright,” in Against the Current #81 (July-August 1999).

ATC 89, November-December 2000