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Iraq Under Siege

Ten Years On

Anthony Arnove is an editor at South End Press and contributing editor to the International Socialist Review. He is editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War (Cambridge: South End Press; London: Pluto Press, 2000). Arnove traveled to Iraq in March 2000.

It has been ten years since the United Nations imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq. The sanctions were adopted on August 6, 1990, forty-five years to the day after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing an estimated one hundred thousand people and leaving a toxic legacy that still affects the population of the area. The bombing was soon followed by an attack on Nagasaki. The coincidence is a telling one. For all the US government’s rhetoric about halting the use of weapons of mass destruction, the United States stands in a league of its own in using and proliferating them. As horrific as the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was, perhaps five to ten times as many people have died in Iraq as a consequence of the war led by the United States and Britain, under United Nations (UN) auspices, during the last decade.

The UN adopted the sanctions four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and reaffirmed them after the brutal 1991 Gulf War, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, expelled Iraq from Kuwait, and in the process reduced the country to a “pre-industrial” state, as a UN-led delegation observed just after the war.1 Sanctions were allegedly extended to disarm Iraq of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Little was said at the time about the contradictions of the United States and other members of the Security Council—the countries responsible for the overwhelming majority of sales of arms in the region and internationally—voicing such concern over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Even less was said about some other inconvenient facts, among them that the Iraqi government had developed its destructive and repressive capacity with the support and encouragement of its friends in Washington, London, and other Western capitals, and that Israel had a nuclear weapons arsenal of some two hundred warheads and continued to occupy southern Lebanon, as well as the territories it had illegally seized in 1948 and 1967, in violation of numerous unenforced UN resolutions.

Ten years on, despite evidence from top former UN arms inspectors and from other international agencies that Iraq has been “qualitatively disarmed,” the sanctions remain in place. Sanctions will be maintained “until the end of time, or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] is in power,” President Bill Clinton explained. While US policy now calls for a “regime change” in Iraq, the US government consciously kept Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the Gulf War, preferring “an iron-fisted Iraqi junta,” in the words of New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman, to a popular rebellion.2

In reality, the US government would like someone from within the military to take power and rule the country, as Hussein did when he was a US ally during the 1980–1988 war with Iran and through the invasion of Kuwait. However, the United States would like it to be someone without any regional ambitions that conflict with the first rule of Middle East politics: the United States calls the shots. The ridiculously named Iraq Liberation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, has set aside ninety-seven million dollars for the alleged Iraqi opposition, a badly divided group based in London and entirely lacking any social base in Iraq. Among the forces receiving US funding and support is a group that hopes to restore the Iraqi monarchy.3

In the meantime, ordinary Iraqis are dying in numbers that defy comprehension, as a deliberate and predictable consequence of a policy designed to strangle the Iraqi economy. The people paying the price are the poor, the working class, and, especially, children—rather than the alleged targets of the sanctions, President Hussein and his inner circle in the ruling Baathist Party. In fact, the sanctions have benefited the government in many respects, while weakening and dividing the population. A small group of people has grown fabulously wealthy from the black market generated by the embargo. In downtown Baghdad, one sees pristine new Mercedes sedans and sport utility vehicles amid the dilapidated deathtraps ordinary Iraqis drive, negotiating dangerous four-way intersections without functioning stop-lights. Though the sanctions have kept Iraq from importing items essential for maintaining its water sewage and sanitation system, including chlorine, the tiny elite in Baghdad smuggles in chlorine for their private swimming pools. There has been a boom in private pool construction in Baghdad during the embargo.4

After extensive countrywide surveys, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that the Iraqi mortality rate for children under five has doubled in southern and central Iraq, largely as a result of the Gulf War, its impact, and the sanctions. In a country of twenty-two million people over nearly ten years, that translates into five hundred thousand “excess” deaths. The number one killer of children under five in Iraq today is dehydration from diarrhea. The State Department argument that these deaths are “all Saddam’s fault,” as evidenced by the improvement in under- five mortality rates in the autonomous region in northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds, doesn’t hold up to a moment’s examination. The north is far richer agriculturally than the south and center; receives more humanitarian aid per capita, including cash assistance forbidden in the rest of the country; benefits from the porous Turkish border; and did not suffer nearly the infrastructural damage and pollution from the Gulf War as the south, where the US military fired more than one million rounds of munitions tipped with radioactive depleted uranium.5

Iraqis now face widespread malnutrition and other diseases endemic to the poverty-stricken third world, such as malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. As repressive and undemocratic as the government was then, Iraq had an advanced medical, educational, and social infrastructure by the end of the 1980s. It has been destroyed. The UN sanctions committee, which must approve any purchases the Iraqi government wants to make with the revenues of its oil sales, routinely denies permission for contracts to rebuild this infrastructure under its “dual use” criteria: Iraq cannot import civilian goods that might have a potential military application. Among the items that have been kept out through this mechanism, primarily through the veto power of the US representative on the committee, are ambulances, chlorinators, and even pencils. Currently, some 1.8 billion dollars worth of items requested by Iraq are “on hold,” thanks to these restrictions, in some cases making other items that have been imported, such as spare parts, worthless.

London-based investigative journalist John Pilger recently confronted Peter van Walsum, the chair of the UN sanctions committee, about how its decisions are made.

Pilger: How much power does the United States exercise over your committee?

van Walsum: We operate by consensus.

Pilger: And what if the Americans object?

van Walsum: We don’t operate.6

In 1990, one Iraqi dinar exchanged for around three US dollars. Now, in the currency exchanges of Baghdad, one dollar trades for 2200 dinars. As a result, the savings and earnings power of almost every Iraqi has been destroyed. Children now leave school earlier, if they start at all, to help their families piece together the means to survive. In a seventh-grade classroom I visited outside Baghdad in March 2000, with a delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Voices in the Wilderness, a teacher stood before a room full of students without the benefit of a single piece of paper, pencil, book, or notebook. When she asked the students in Arabic to raise their hands if they had to work after school, every hand went up. Some of the children will shine shoes or sell kerosene; others will sell their bodies for sex. Later, in the hallway, the teacher explained to us that she also had to work after school because she could no longer live on her teaching salary, now the equivalent of around three dollars a month, and could not afford medical treatment she needed.

Blood for Oil

To understand what is happening in Iraq, you need to start with a simple fact that is rarely discussed in the media: after Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Some 11 percent of the world’s oil is under Iraq, and because it is so close to the surface, it is among the world’s cheapest oil to extract, making it more profitable than oil from the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea.

While some have attempted to explain US policy in Iraq by pointing to the price of gas at American pumps, the picture is more complicated. The leading supplier of oil to the United States is actually Canada, which only recently displaced Venezuela from the top position. The US interest in Middle Eastern oil goes deeper. In addition to being so profitable, US planners have long understood that Middle Eastern oil is of unparalleled geostrategic importance. As early as 1945, the US State Department noted that oil “has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity.”7 In particular, the government recognized that control over the region’s oil would give it strategic leverage over competing capitalist states, especially Japan and Germany.

Iraq was dominated by British interests in the 1930s and 1940s. But when explorations uncovered large oil reserves in Iraq in the early 1950s, the United States quickly moved to push the United Kingdom aside. “Conditions changed dramatically” in Iraq in the 1950s, explains historian Samira Haj. “Production rates increased, royalties rose sharply, and oil became the leading sector of the [Iraqi] economy.” As socialist Tony Cliff observed:

When speaking about imperialism in the Middle East, what comes to mind first and foremost is oil….If we were talking about Middle East oil before the Second World War, we would have spoken mainly of British oil imperialism. Then Britain controlled 100 per cent of Iranian oil and 47.5 per cent of Iraqi oil; the US interest was only 23.75 per cent in Iraq (equal to France’s). Since then the situation has changed radically: in 1959 the US share rose to 50 per cent of all Middle East oil, while that of Britain declined to 18 per cent (France had 5 per cent, the Netherlands 3 per cent, other, including the local Arab governments, 24 per cent). Now oil imperialism is really United States imperialism.8

The United States emerged from the Second World War with unprecedented economic and military power, and immediately sought to capitalize on the advantages it had gained. Seeking to develop “a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security” (in the words of State Department planner George Kennan, writing in an internal planning document in 1948), the United States established close ties with client regimes in the region, coming to rely especially on Israel and Iran under the Shah.9 But the regional “pattern of relationships” underwent significant changes in 1979. When the US-backed Shah was expelled from Iran in a revolution, the government looked to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, who had risen through the Baathist Party power structure to become president in 1979, to “contain” Iran. During its brutal war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, the United States armed and supported Iraq, while also secretly playing the two countries against one another.

Today, the media describes at great length how Hussein “gassed his own people.” Yet when the thousands of Kurds were gassed in the March 1988 Halabja massacre, the US government increased agricultural credits to his regime and sent a delegation of Washington politicians, including Senator Robert Dole, to encourage better relations between the two countries and to advise Hussein on how to deal with the American media.


Hussein, of course, would soon go from being a dictator whose weapons and repression were favored (since they were stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”) to the government’s greatest enemy, the subject of endless discussions of the evil that the United States confronts on the world stage. As historian Howard Zinn comments, “It’s as if the United States never encountered a dictator before,” the Shah in Iran, Suharto in Indonesia, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now Congo), and Hussein in Iraq aside.10

1979 was significant in another respect, in terms of the shifting balance of power in the Middle East. When Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in September 1978, leading to a March 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the question of who in the Arab world would “take up the mantle of strategic deterrence vis-à-vis Israel,” in Naseer Aruri’s formulation, was up for grabs.11 Hussein hoped Iraq could fill that void, an ambition that would place him on a collision course with the United States.

Iraq represented a clear example of what Alex Callinicos has described as “the rise of sub- imperialisms in the Third World:”

The key factor in the development of a more pluralistic and more unstable world order has been the rise over the past two decades of the sub-imperialisms—that is, of Third World powers aspiring to the kind of political and military domination on a regional scale which the superpowers have enjoyed globally. The Middle East, as the most unstable region since 1945…is unfortunate enough to have the largest number of contenders for this role—Israel, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.12

Hussein crossed the line in the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The United States had built up the Iraqi regime against Iran for strategic purposes, but would not allow Hussein to achieve his regional ambitions unchecked, especially if they threatened US control over oil. The Gulf War alone ensured this fact, savagely destroying Iraq’s infrastructure, as well as targeting sites of historic and cultural importance. The embargo has prevented Iraq from rebuilding, while bleeding the population and holding it hostage to the US commitment to “political and military domination.”

The Hidden War

While sanctions have been presented as an alternative to military intervention, they have taken a greater toll than even the Gulf War; and the embargo has been punctuated by numerous military assaults on Iraq. One of President Clinton’s first acts in office, after turning back Haitian refugees seeking asylum, was to send missiles into downtown Baghdad, killing a number of Iraqis, including the Iraqi artist Leila al-Attar. Since the brutal Operation Desert Fox bombing of December 1998, American and British jets have been bombing Iraq on an almost-daily basis.

“Civilian deaths and injuries are a regular part of the little-discussed US and British air operation over Iraq,” the Washington Post acknowledged in a rare article discussing the attacks in what are known as the “no-fly” zones over Iraq. The two countries claim to be “enforcing” a nonexistent UN resolution in carrying out the bombings; the zones have no legal basis. The multibillion dollar operation has far exceeded the scale of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) operation in the Balkans last year, but has been consciously insulated from public attention by the Clinton and Blair administrations. According to Pentagon figures, US and UK fighter planes have flown more than 280,000 sorties since the zones were first established. Since the massive escalation of the attacks starting in December 1998, the UK has dropped an estimated seventy- eight tons of weapons on southern Iraq alone, compared with 2.5 tons during the previous six years.13

In Basra, Iraq’s major southern city, I met Iqbal Fartous, who now calls herself Um Hydir (“mother of Hydir”) after the son she lost in one such bombing in January 1999. Hydir was killed with several other neighbors on a close-knit urban street. Her other son, Mustafa, who is now six, survived. But Um Hydir pulled up his shirt and pulled down his pants to show us the multiple shards of glass and debris that are clearly visible beneath the surface of his skin. UN officials, including Hans von Sponeck, who recently resigned as UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq to protest the sanctions, have documented that the bombings have routinely hit civilians and essential infrastructure, as well as livestock.

The United States claims the “no-fly” zones were established to protect Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south. Yet they have done nothing of the sort. The hypocrisy of the US position was exposed again in April when Turkey—a major US and NATO ally, which “plays a critical role in protecting American security interests in the region” (according to the New York Times) and serves as a base for US military operations in the region, including the “no-fly” zone assaults—staged a massive incursion into northern Iraq in an ethnic cleansing campaign intended to eradicate the very Kurds allegedly being protected by Western forces. “In what has become an annual event that marks the arrival of spring,” the Guardian newspaper in Britain reported, “thousands of Turkish troops have crossed the border into northern Iraq during the past few days to hunt down members of the rebel Kurdistan Worker’s Party….Almost anywhere else in the world, thousands of heavily armed soldiers crossing an international border would be big news. But this latest Turkish incursion into Iraq will be greeted with barely a murmur in the west.”14

Turning the Tide

As hard as the proponents of sanctions have tried to hide the evidence of the human toll of the war on Iraq, they are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive, thanks to pressure from a growing international activist movement opposed to the embargo. “The [Clinton] administration’s policy toward Iraq faces intensifying diplomatic criticism and international concern that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are punishing the Iraqi people, not Mr. Hussein’s government,” the New York Times reported in July. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is “faced with growing criticism of embargoes that fail to deter dictators but often hurt civilians” and “is having a hard time responding to critics of sanctions against Iraq, where, according to a new estimate from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 80 percent of the civilian population has been negatively affected.” In late March, US Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted, “We are in danger of losing the argument or propaganda war—if we haven’t lost it already—about who is responsible for this situation, President Saddam Hussein or the United Nations.” Annan added: “we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population.”15

Hans von Sponeck’s resignation this spring made him the second top UN official in Iraq to resign, following the principled example of Denis Halliday, the former humanitarian coordinator who stepped down in fall 1998 and has since dedicated himself to ending what he describes as “genocide” in Iraq. Just after von Sponeck stepped down, Jutta Burghardt, the director of the UN World Food Program operation in Iraq, also resigned. “I fully support what Mr. von Sponeck was saying,” said Burghardt. “It is a true humanitarian tragedy what is happening here and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of the sanctions on the population will not deny that he is right.” Tun Myat, von Sponeck’s replacement, reported in October that “although [Iraq’s food] distribution system ranked among the world’s best, the lot of ordinary Iraqis has failed to improve because their living conditions remain mired in chronic deprivation.” 16

The mainstream media have begun reporting on the war in a way that we have not seen in the past ten years. The Economist magazine recently observed that:

Sanctions impinge on the lives of all Iraqis every moment of the day. In Basra, Iraq’s second city, power flickers on and off, unpredictable in the hours it is available….Smoke from jerry-rigged generators and vehicles hangs over the town in a thick cloud. The tap-water causes diarrhea, but few can afford the bottled sort. Because the sewers have broken down, pools of stinking muck have leached through the surface all over town. That effluent, combined with pollution upstream, has killed most of the fish in the Shatt al-Arab river and has left the remainder unsafe to eat. The government can no longer spray for sand-flies or mosquitoes, so insects have proliferated, along with the diseases they carry.

Most of the once-elaborate array of government services have vanished. The archeological service has taken to burying painstakingly excavated ruins for want of the proper preservative chemicals. The government-maintained irrigation and drainage network has crumbled, leaving much of Iraq’s prime agricultural land either too dry or too salty to cultivate. Sheep and cattle, no longer shielded by government vaccination programs, have succumbed to pests and diseases by the hundreds of thousands. Many teachers in the state-run schools do not bother to show up for work any more. Those who do must teach listless, malnourished children, often without the benefit of books, desks or even black-boards.17

Activists in the United States successfully targeted commencement addresses last spring by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a vocal supporter of the sanctions, at University of California at Berkeley, George Washington University, and Northeastern University. At Berkeley’s graduation, Fadia Rafeedie, who was awarded the university’s highest honor for a graduating senior, gave a powerful speech condemning the war on Iraq’s people. Albright was spared having to hear Rafeedie’s words because the university rearranged the program to put Albright ahead of her. As protestors inside held up banners describing Albright as a “war criminal,” security guards quickly escorted her out, driving her past a large protest outside the auditorium; fifty-nine protesters were removed from the hall.

Such activism was critical to ending the Vietnam War and became closely connected to a broader struggle in this country for women’s liberation, gay liberation, civil rights, and socialism. At a time when growing numbers of people have been radicalized and are questioning the price ordinary people here and abroad pay for US imperialism and its domination of institutions such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, the opportunities for reviving the anti-imperialist left in this country have never been better. It is not an exaggeration to say that the lives of billions depend on building that anti-imperialist movement, starting with the immediate task of ending the sanctions on Iraq.


  1. Martti Ahtisaari, The Impact of War on Iraq: Report to the Secretary-General on Humanitarian Needs in Iraq in the Immediate Post-Crisis Environment, March 20, 1991 (Westfield, New Jersey: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series 7, 1991), p.5.
  2. Barbara Crossette, “For Iraq, a Dog House with Many Rooms,” New York Times, November 23, 1997, p. 4: 4, and “US Monitor Now Argues Iraqis Have Little to Conceal,” New York Times, July 3, 2000, p.A7. Thomas L. Friedman, “A Rising Sense that Iraq’s Hussein Must Go,” New York Times, July 7, 1991, p. 4: 1. Tim Russert, interview with Madeleine Albright, NBC, Meet the Press, January 2, 2000.
  3. See Ken Silverstein, “Crazy About Hussein,” The Nation 268: 17 (May 10, 1999): 19–23.
  4. See Sandro Contenta, “The Rich Get Richer, the Poor…,” Toronto Star, June 25, 2000.
  5. UNICEF and Government of Iraq Ministry of Health, Child and Maternal Mortality Survey 1999: Preliminary Report (Baghdad: UNICEF, 1999) and related documents, available online at See Peter L. Pellett, “Sanctions, Food, Nutrition, and Health in Iraq,” in Anthony Arnove ed., Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000; London: Pluto Press, 2000), pp. 161–163.
  6. John Pilger, “Collateral Damage,” in Arnove, Iraq Under Siege, p. 63.
  7. Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 294.
  8. Samira Haj, The Making of Iraq, 1900-1963: Capital, Power, and Ideology (New York: SUNY Press, 1997), p. 71. Tony Cliff, “The Struggle in the Middle East,” in Tariq Ali, ed., The New Revolutionaries: A Handbook of the International Radical Left (New York: William Morrow, 1969), p. 219–220.
  9. State Department Policy Planning Study, February 23, 1948, cited in Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (Boston: South End Press, 1987), pp. 15–16.
  10. Howard Zinn, “Iraq Under Siege,” April 10, 2000, New York. Transcript available from Alternative Radio (
  11. Naseer Aruri, “America’s War Against Iraq: 1990–1999,” in Arnove, Iraq Under Siege, p. 25. See also Ivor Lucas, “Twenty Years of Saddam Hussein, 1979–1999,” in Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq (CASI), Sanctions on Iraq: Background, Consequences, Strategies (Cambridge: CASI, 2000), p. 15.
  12. Alex Callinicos, “Marxism and Imperialism Today,” in Alex Callinicos, et al., Marxism and the New Imperialism (Chicago and London: Bookmarks, 1994), p. 45.
  13. Edward Cody, “Under Iraqi Skies, a Canvas of Death,” Washington Post, June 16, 2000, p. A1. David Usborne, “The West’s Forgotten Conflict,” Guardian, June 23, 2000. Richard Norton-Taylor, “Step-Up in Bombing of Iraq Questioned,” Guardian, June 8, 2000.
  14. Chris Morris, “Turks Pursue Kurds Inside Northern Iraq,” Guardian, April 3, 2000, p. 13.
  15. Steven Lee Myers, “Flight Tests Show Iraq Has Resumed a Missile Program,” New York Times, July 1, 2000, p. A1. Barbara Crossette, “UN Council to Review its Policy on Sanctions,” New York Times, April 18, 2000, p. A10, and “Annan Exhorts UN Council on ?Oil for Food’ for Iraqis,” New York Times, March 25, 2000, p. A3.
  16. Agence France-Presse, “UN Food Aid Chief Joins Protest Against UN Resolution on Iraq,” February 16, 2000. Christopher Wren, “Iraq Poverty Said to Undermine Food Program,” New York Times, October 20, 2000, p. A16.
  17. “When Sanctions Don’t Work,” The Economist 354/865 (April 8-14, 2000): 23–24.

2000, Volume 52, Issue 07 (December)
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