The U.S. Movement Against Sanctions on Iraq

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Rae Vogeler

MORE THAN 100 activists representing 60 organizations came together February 17-18, 2001 at the Second National Organizing Conference on Iraq. The conference was held in Denver, Colorado, and hosted by the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace.

Out of this very productive and well organized conference was born the National Network to End the War Against Iraq, an ongoing coalition of anti-sanctions activists throughout the country. Up until now, activists have worked locally, or formed ad hoc coalitions for national actions. The time has come for unity.

Activists traveled to the conference from over twenty states, spanning New York to California, and Minnesota to Florida.(1) They came from diverse social, religious and political perspectives: Catholic Workers, Muslims, Quakers, Arab-Americans, students, teachers, pacifists, socialists and others.

Some participants represented groups that work exclusively on the sanctions issue. Most organizations were more broad-based, involved in Middle Eastern issues such as the war on Iraq and the Palestinian struggle. Still other groups worked globally against U.S. imperialism, including the ongoing war against Iraq, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and the U.S. military buildup in Colombia. Yet, all had the common goal to form a national network on Iraq.(2)

The Network decided on basic goals, which are listed here from the Network web site at

* Ending the sanctions against Iraq. We seek the ending of the sanctions that are starving the children of Iraq by cutting off food, medical supplies, water and sewer treatment supplies, at the staggering rate of 5,000 deaths per month among children under the age of five.

* Ending the no-fly zones and ongoing bombing. We seek an end to the ongoing, indiscriminate bombing occurring three to four times per week, which is responsible for hundreds of Iraqi civilian casualties since December 1998 — and the ending of the “no fly zones” over Iraqi airspace maintained by the United States and Britain, in direct contravention of the UN Charter, which exists to protect member states from such violations of sovereignty.

* Telling the stories of Iraqis. We will work on projects designed to expose the American people to some of the cultural, artistic and scientific achievements of the Iraqi people and to show the remarkable intelligence, resourcefulness, and resolve with which Iraqis go about life under the most severe economic blockade in modern history.

* Cleaning up depleted uranium munitions, and banning their future use. We call for the banning of depleted uranium munitions, and a complete cleanup operation of the battlefield in southern Iraq, where radioactive debris from close to a million rounds of DU weapons fired during the Gulf Conflict and after has been associated with an epidemic of cancer, leukemia and congenital birth defects among not only Iraqis but also U.S. veterans who fought in the Gulf Conflict.

Unrelenting Bombing

On February 16, 2001 — the day before the Second National Organizing Conference on Iraq — twenty-four U.S. and British planes bombed Iraqi air defense facilities near Baghdad. The air strikes dominated the media, bringing increased attention to Iraq.

As anti-sanctions activists converged on Denver, the media reported not only on the bombings, but also on the national conference. The night before the conference, two dozen activists organized a protest in the streets of Denver, blocking traffic. This action gained favorable local media attention, raising public awareness about the continued bombings and sanctions.(4)

Many U.S. media outlets portrayed the February 16th bombing of Iraq as a new aggression, even though President Bush aptly characterized it as “a routine mission to enforce the no-fly zone.”(5)

Although the February 16th attack was the first bombing outside the no-fly zones since 1998, it was a continuation of the ongoing war against Iraq. In the December 1998 “Desert Fox” campaign, the United States and Britain relentlessly bombed Iraq for four days, dropping more than 300 cruise missiles and hundreds of bombs.(6)

The Desert Fox operation damaged Iraq’s civil society. People died, and schools, hospitals and water systems were ruined.

This was preceded by the 1991 Gulf War, which killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis and destroyed essential infrastructure such as water and sewage treatment plants, pharmaceutical suppliers, electrical production facilities, and oil pipelines and refineries.(7)

In the two years since the 1998 “Desert Fox” campaign, the U.S. and Britain have continued to bomb Iraq. According to Iraqi air defense command, 21,600 U.S. and British warplanes were detected since December 1998. Even in the days leading up to the February 16th bombing, the U.S. and Britain attacked Iraq on February 9th, 11th and 13th.(8)

The Gulf War and subsequent decade of bombing constitute the United States’ longest sustained air campaign since the Vietnam War.

The February 16th air strikes were condemned by Arab nations. The Christian Science Monitor had reported: “Apart from Israel, most governments in the Middle East, including key U.S. allies — such as Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey — have strongly criticized the military action.” Esmat Abdel-Meguid, secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, explained, “This raid, which has killed a number of innocent civilians, has no justification, violates international law, and has provoked anger and resentment in the Arab world.”(9)

Ongoing Sanctions

The decade-long embargo on Iraq is another form of warfare. On August 6, 1990, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iraq did withdraw from Kuwait in February 1991, but the sanctions — the most comprehensive ever enforced by the United Nations against a country — continue to this day.

In 1999, Iraq’s Gross Domestic Product was one tenth of what it had been prior to the Gulf War. With a GDP of $5.7 billion, Iraq’s economy was worth about four B-1 bombers, or 2% of the U.S. military budget. A UN humanitarian panel reported that Iraq had “experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty” and that Iraq’s “infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world.”(10)

Due to the sanctions, over one million Iraqis have died — half of them children — for lack of food, medicine, and clean water. Diseases such as polio, measles, and malaria (virtually unknown ten years ago in Iraq) are rampant.(11)

As world attention is drawn to Iraq, the U.S. and Britain have become increasingly isolated in their policy. France, China and Russia — three permanent members of the UN Security Council — have criticized both the bombings and the sanctions against Iraq.(12)

In addition, many countries have defied the sanctions. Over eighty planes have flown into the newly reopened Baghdad airport since last fall, carrying people and supplies. These flights have originated from France, Russia, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Turkey, and even the United States and England. Americans who travel to Iraq can face severe penalties from the U.S. Treasury Department, including twelve years imprisonment and fines of up to one million dollars.(13)

Religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II and over fifty U.S. bishops, oppose the sanctions. Numerous religious organizations and human rights groups have also criticized the sanctions, including the American Friends Service Committee, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopalian Church, to name a few.(14)

United Nations officials have also come out strongly against the sanctions. After thirty-four years of service to the UN, Denis Halliday resigned in October 1998 to protest the sanctions. Halliday, the former UN Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq, explained, “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that.”(15)

Halliday’s successor to the UN Oil-for-Food Program, Hans von Sponeck, resigned in February 2000, also in protest of the sanctions.

Oil-For-Food Flawed

For the past six years, Iraq’s main source of foreign income has come from oil sales though the Oil-for-Food program. This program was established in April 1995 by UN Security Council Resolution 986. Revenues from oil sales go to a special UN-administered escrow account in New York City.(16)

Not all of the income is available for Iraq to purchase commodities, since 25% goes toward war reparations, primarily to Kuwait; and 4% is siphoned off for UN administrative costs. Despite $42.7 billion in oil sales since December 1996, the twenty-three million people of Iraq have received less than $13 billion in goods.(17)

A major flaw of the Oil-for-Food program is that all contracts must be approved by the UN 661 Sanctions Committee. This committee is made up of representatives of the UN Security Council. Iraq, which is not represented on the committee, must submit contracts to the committee to purchase goods.

Any member of the 661 Sanctions Committee can put a contract indefinitely on hold if just one item in the contract is considered to be of dual use. Dual use means an item has civilian and “possible” military use. In 1999, the process changed slightly with UN Security Council Resolution 1284, allowing “green lists” of fast-tracked, pre-approved items.(18)

The United States is responsible for most of the vetoes and holds on Iraq’s contracts. Currently, over 1600 contracts are on hold, including more than $3 billion in humanitarian supplies.(19)

The Oil-for-Food Program, often touted as a “humanitarian aid” program, is nothing of the sort. Iraq is using its own money to purchase goods. Furthermore, the program is insufficient to meet the needs of the Iraqi people. In March 2000, Hans von Sponeck reported that the program totaled only $252 per person per year, or less than seventy cents per person per day.

In addition, Iraq is forced to purchase supplies outside of its borders. This does nothing to rebuild Iraq’s economy and infrastructure. Massive unemployment and poverty persist.(20)

“Smart Sanctions”

The U.S. and Britain are attempting to rally world opinion. They’ve repackaged the sanctions with a fresh name, called “smart sanctions.” Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the Middle East this past February, trying to sell this so-called “new policy” to Arab nations. Iraq, flatly rejecting the “smart sanctions,” and responded by announcing a cutoff of all official oil sales.

Organizations such as Voices in the Wilderness, Education for Peace in Iraq Center, and the National Network to End the War Against Iraq have come out resoundingly against the “smart sanctions.” As one activist explained “. . . we are merely looking at the same policy, just dressed up in a `new’ suit.”(21)

What are the “smart sanctions”? In May 2001, British officials at the United Nations briefed reporters on a plan that was developed by Britain in consultation with the United States.

This plan, “smart sanctions,” was hatched in response to growing opposition to the sanctions and the tattered UN Oil-for-Food Program.(22) The National Network to End the War Against Iraq described the British proposal:

“. . . under the new proposal, contracts would automatically go through unless they contain items on a list [“red list” –RV] of specifically banned or questionable items because of possible military use. Contracts could no longer be placed on hold, but simply approved or denied. Members of the Committee could also exercise a line-item veto, instead of denying entire contracts. Lifting of the sanctions would still be conditioned, as in the past, on UN weapons inspectors certifying Iraq as completely free from weapons of mass destructions or the means to make them … The proposal also contains measures to bring Iraq’s oil trade with Jordan, Turkey, and Syria under the control of the 661 Sanctions Committee.”(23)

Why do anti-sanctions activists oppose the “smart sanctions”? Because the “smart sanctions” would not fundamentally improve conditions in Iraq. The English weekly newspaper The Economist summed it up: “The British proposal of `smart sanctions’ offers an aspirin where surgery is called or.”(24)

Here are some of the proposal’s defects:

* It is basically a continuation of the Oil-for-Food Program.

* The proposal still contains many banned items, over thirty pages worth.

* Iraq’s infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. Even if more commodities are allowed into Iraq, this does not address the issue of economic planning and revival.

* Iraq will still not control its income from oil sales. The UN Sanctions Committee will continue to maintain power over what goods Iraq imports and when.

* The proposal increases, from 25% to 30%, the proportion of income from oil sales that is siphoned off to the UN Compensation Committee. This Committee allocates money to victims of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, including such “victims” as the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, which received $15.9 billion.(25)

What’s Needed

Rather than a bandaid like the Oil-for-Food program or “smart sanctions,” Iraq needs freedom from U.S. domination — complete lifting of sanctions, an end to the no-fly zones and the bombings, and enough money to rebuild and clean up the toxic contamination from war. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck estimate that it will take over $100 billion in capital investment to rebuild Iraq.(26)

Rather than over $300 billion spent on the U.S. military and $3-5 billion in annual aid to Israel, the U.S. government could use this money more productively by saving lives, instead of taking more.(27) No amount of money can compensate for the suffering and ruination that Iraq has experienced, but at least war reparations would enable Iraq to begin to heal.


  1. Conference packet from the Second National Conference on Iraq, February 17-18, 2001.
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  2. Rae Vogeler attended the Second National Conference on Iraq. These are her impressions.
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  3. Information directly quoted from the web site of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq,
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  4. “Denver protestors decry airstrikes,” Rocky Mountain News, February 17, 2001; “U.S. air strikes play into Hussein’s hands,” Denver Post, February 18, 2001; “Conference focuses on hardships of Iraqi people under sanctions,” Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 2001; “Group seeks to aid Iraq citizens,” Denver Post, February 18, 2001.
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  5. “Arab nations warn air strikes could fan tensions in Mideast,” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 2001.
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  6. Sharon Smith, “Building the Movement to End Sanctions,” Iraq Under Siege (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000, edited by Anthony Arnove), 185.
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  7. 1991 Censored Foreign Policy News Stories from Project Censored,
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  8. Edward Cody, “Under Iraqi Skies, US Bombs Paint a Canvas of Civilian Deaths, Washington Post, June 16, 2000. Voices in the Wilderness, “Statement on U.S./Britain Bombing of Baghdad,” 2/16/01, http://www.nonviolence.or/vitw/.
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  9. “US attack on Iraq keeps ricocheting — Arab leaders said the bombing last Friday is hardening anti-US sentiments in the region,” Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2001.
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  10. Ali Abunimah, “Iraq’s Chilling Economic Statistics,” March 18, 1999, Iraq Action Coalition, United Nations, Report of the Second Panel . . . concerning the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, March 30, 1999, Iraq Action Coalition,
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  11. World Health Organization, Iraq Action Coalition, UNICEF,
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  12. Voices in the Wilderness, “Myths and Realities Regarding Iraq and Sanctions,” Iraq Under Siege, op. cit., 72-73.
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  13. “Iraq’s UN allies launch move to soften sanctions,” Associated Press, The Indian Express, September 24, 2000, Gregory Elich, “Personal Journey: A Flight Against the Iraqi Brigade, SWANS Commentary,”, Iraq Approves Several Requests to Operate Regular Flights,” INA (Baghdad), December 20, 2000.
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  14. Voices in the Wilderness, in Iraq Under Siege, op. cit., 73.
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  15. Denis Halliday, an interview conducted by Miriam Ryle, recorded by Grant Wakefield in London, April 17, 1999, Citizens Concerned for the People of Iraq website,
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  16. National Network to End the War Against Iraq, “Summary
    of the Recent U.K. Proposal,”

  17. Education for Peace in Iraq Center, “EPIC Action Alert: Powell Advocates Easing Sanctions & House Bill Introduced.” United Nations Office of the Iraq Programme, oil for food,
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  18. United Nations, “United Nations Resolution 1284 (1999),” National Network to End the War Against Iraq, “Second posting of the National Iraq Update List,”
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  19. Education for Peace in Iraq Center, “EPIC Responds to President Clinton’s Interview on Democracy Now,“ Friends Committee on National Legislation, “National Call in Day for the People of Iraq,”
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  20. Education for Peace in Iraq Center, “About the Crisis in Iraq,”
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  21. “Iraq Slams `Smart Sanctions,” CBS News, February 27, 2001. Patrick Carkin, “Smart Sanctions or Just More Dumb Policy?” NH Peace Action,
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  22. “U.S. Wants to Change Sanctions on Iraq,” NewsMax.comWires, May 17, 2001.
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  23. United Nations, “United Nations Resolution 1284 (1999),” National Network to End the War Against Iraq, “Second posting of the National Iraq Update List,”
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  24. The Economist, February 24, 2001.
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  25. National Network to End the War Against Iraq, “Talking Points on Smart Sanctions.”
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  26. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, “Questions and Answers: II. Regarding Alternatives to Sanctions and Suggested Post-Embargo Plans,” Voices in the Wilderness,
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  27. White House, Office of Management and Budget, Susan Abulhawa, “US aid to Israel — Tax Dollars Soaked in Blood,” Richard H. Curtiss, “True Lies About U.S. Aid to Israel,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,
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from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)