Sanctions Hurt Iraqi People But They Do Not Weaken Saddam

23 February 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Though the Gulf War ended in 1991, the United States has been fighting Iraq ever since. When the conflict escalated with Fridayís bombing of military installations near Baghdad, President Bush correctly pointed out that the United States and Great Britain have been patrolling and enforcing no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq for a decade. Even more significant, though, have been the sanctions that the United Nations (UN) has placed on Iraq.

Before the Gulf War broke out, the UN clamped down on Iraq with a trade embargo. The restrictions have been relaxed somewhat since then, with the institution of an oil-for-food program. This program allows Iraq to export some oil, but requires that the revenue be spent on humanitarian items -- food and medical supplies. The intent is to make sure that the sanctions hurt Saddam Husseinís regime more than the Iraqi people. The past ten years have proven the current sanction plan to be ineffective.

The stated purpose of the sanctions is to damage Husseinís regime. Like in Cuba (where sanctions have also been brilliantly unsuccessful), the aim is to destabilize the dictator and motivate the people to overthrow him. Indeed, the United States has given direct aid to anti-Saddam groups within Iraq.

Despite these plans, all the sanctions have so far accomplished is to hurt the Iraqi people. Average incomes have plummeted 80 percent since the sanctions were imposed. According to UNICEF, rising child mortality rates have led to half a million deaths above what would be expected based on pre-sanction figures. Literacy rates are only three quarters what they once were. Britain and the United States maintain the official position that Hussein could end the humanitarian disaster at any time by complying with the Gulf War cease-fire agreement, but that is little help to the Iraqi people.

Yet Hussein does not seem to be weakened. He was secure enough in 1998 to expel UN weapons inspectors whose report, if favorable, could have led to the easing of sanctions. Firing on planes patrolling the no-fly zones resumed after Fridayís bombings, demonstrating that Hussein is not cowed by actions against him.

The key to the failure of sanctions on Iraq is Husseinís ability to use them to his own benefit. He is able to circumvent their restrictions to his own gain, while allowing the Iraqi people to feel the brunt of the sanctions and encouraging them to blame the United States and the UN.

In Iraq and across the Arab world, blame for the sanctionsí devastating effects rests on the UN and the United States, to the point of making Hussein a hero in some quarters.

The ability of Husseinís regime to put a spin on American action to stoke anti-American hatred was demonstrated in Iraqi television coverage of Fridayís bombings. The United States billed the bombing as an attempt to take out radar installations used against aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone, and pointed out that it was conducted on a Muslim holy day (when most staff would not be at work) to minimize casualties. However, Iraqi television portrayed the bombing as an attack on civilians, emphasizing the casualties that did occur.

Meanwhile, Hussein has been remarkably successful in circumventing the intent of the oil-for-food program. He has been able to sell more oil than allowed, but spend less money on humanitarian needs.

Iraq smuggles 400,000 barrels of oil a day to neighboring states, and thence to the world (particularly the oil-hungry United States). One of the biggest recipients of smuggled oil is Turkey. The United States is reluctant to tackle the problem because it relies on Turkey as a base for patrols of the northern no-fly zone.

The black market is more expensive than legitimate trade, but it pays off for Hussein -- he is able to pocket all of the revenue. Money made from oil sold through the UN oil-for-food program would have to be deposited in a UN-controlled account, which would allow the Secretary-General to make sure that it was spent on approved food and medicine. Husseinís greed is underlined by his attempt (albeit unsuccessful) to add a surcharge, payable to his treasury, to each barrel of oil bought through the oil-for-food program.

This has led to misuse of the oil-for-food program. It is certainly a better deal for Hussein if he can sell oil for profit and also reinforce the perception that the UN is starving the Iraqi people.

These facts about the failure of the sanctions on Iraq and calls to lift them are not new. This weekend, Bush will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss making the sanctions "smarter" -- that is, more targeted at Hussein rather than at the Iraqi people.

While it is uncertain whether Bush and Blair could come up with an effective set of "smart" sanctions (the oil-for-food program was meant to be a "smart" sanction), it is a step in the right direction. It is understandable that they would be reluctant to abandon sanctions altogether, as that would look like a "win" for Hussein.

The usefulness of "smart" sanctions is underlined by Husseinís protests that they would be "poison." He has learned to manipulate the current sanctions regime to deflect the burden to the Iraqi people. The UN must be careful to use changes in sanctions, or the threat thereof, to compel Hussein to comply with the cease-fire agreement, rather than simply provoking him to further recalcitrance. As long as we refrain from an invasion of Iraq, Hussein retains a measure of control over the peace process.

Getting Hussein to comply with international agreements and standards is a worthy goal, but we must be sure not to enforce standards at the expense of the Iraqi people.

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