Cost of War in Iraq
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Sanctions: Remembering Iraq's Recent History

by Ali Tonak


Perspective and context are two domains that have been crushed by the
U.S. mainstream corporate media. Even amongst the left, Iraq is
presented time and time again within the context of terrorism,
geopolitical calculations and oil revenues. The perspective of the
Iraqis is hardly contextualized. Take the life-shaping conditions of a
24 year-old Iraqi youth from Baghdad. Born into the 8 year war between
Iraq and Iran, which killed over 300,000 people, his/her consciousness
is developed witnessing the Persian Gulf War. Very possibly, a loved
one was killed during this time, perhaps in the Al Ameriyah bomb
shelter bombed by the US military, who to this day claims it was an
underground bunker, and where 408 civilians were burned to death. As an
adult now under occupation, the atrocities are painfully apparent. In
between the two U.S. led wars, s/he came of age under the sometimes
forgotten but most brutal sanctions regime in history.

The US and UN led sanctions regime was not a glamorous war. There
weren't cruise missiles lighting up the urban sky, nor hi-tech robots
such as those the U.S. plans to deployed in April. Yet in terms of the
devastation it caused Iraqi society it is unrivaled. More than 1.5
million civilians perished due to the effects of the sanctions, more
than 500,000 of them children (figures reported by UNICEF). The
nonchalant attitude of the then US administration toward this has been
exemplified by then Secretary of State Madeline Albright many times. On
December 5, 1996 she answered 60 minutes reporter Lesley Stahl's
question, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I
mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is
the price worth it?" with this shocking answer, "I think this is a very
hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it." Readers
might have heard of this quote, but in a search conducted by Rahul
Mahajan in 2001 there was only one reference to it in the mainstream
media: an op-ed in the Orange County Register. Albright was not the
only one with sanctions on her mind; many of Bin Laden’s recruiting
videos also referenced the sanctions in calling for the war which was
soon to hit the US.

For much of the liberal left in the United States, the United Nations
is heralded as a champion of multilateralism, of diplomacy and
self-determination. Because of this, the first major bombing of a
western target in Baghdad came as a surprise to the liberals. The UN
mission was bombed on August 19, 2003, killing 17 people including the
UN special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injuring
100 others. Analyzing the effects of the sanctions provides clues to
the impetus of the bombing. (Oh no did I just say that!? Here comes a
"Ward Churchill")

I traveled to Iraq in 2001 to analyze those effects. The world was a
different place back then. When I left Clinton was still president, and
when I came back Bush was in office. As I protested on the 10th
anniversary of the first gulf war in Baghdad, little did I know I would
be protesting on the second anniversary of a second war on Iraq, the
pretenses of which had not yet materialized. The UN mission had not yet
been bombed but there was enough hatred against it that it probably
would have been, had it not been for Saddam's brutal dictatorship.

The magic words in understanding the sanctions imposed upon Iraq are
"dual use." Products such as chlorine, the chemical used to disinfect
98% of the US water supply, were termed “Dual Use” ,and therefore
banned by the sanctions, because they can potentially also be used to
make chemical weapons. This re-categorization of everyday items killed
Iraq's civilian infrastructure. Once again in the words of Madeline
Albright, "Even shoes can be considered 'dual use' items, since it all
depends on whether they are going to the general population or to the
military." It is difficult to summarize the devastation caused by the
sanctions. All aspects of daily life were affected by the total
crumbling of all civilian infrastructure. To give some examples, I will
discuss the effects sanctions had on water and medicine.

Once again it is important to put things into perspective. Before 1991,
Iraq's highly sophisticated education and healthcare system attracted
people from all over South West Asia. Almost overnight the "Paris of
the Middle East" became a city of ruins while the value of the Iraqi
dinar fell 4000%. The sanctions destroyed Iraqi society. At the Saddam
Children's Hospital, Dr. Sami Dilaimi informed us that a week before
our arrival the 661 committee (the Security Council committee that
oversaw Iraqi contracts) had rejected an order requesting blood
transfusion bags on the grounds that they were “dual use” items. The
hospital resorted to sanitizing the bags by boiling and reusing them.
Another medical crisis resulted from the use of weapons containing
depleted uranium. This heavy metal, used in missiles and other
projectiles, combusts into a fine dust upon explosion, exposing the
surrounding population to its radiation effects. The half-life of
depleted uranium is around 4.5 billion years which means that it will
take another span of our planet's existence for half of the material to
disintegrate. This type of weaponry was used intensively in southern
Iraq by the US and the result was a 100% increase in leukemia and a
242% increase in all malignancies in the southern city of Basra.

The country’s inability to purify the public water system left many
children suffering from dehydration and diarrhea, two of the main
causes for infant mortality, which consequently doubled during the
sanctions in Iraq. Dehydration could be cured with re-hydration tablets
that cost 12 cents a pop, unavailable under the sanctions. The 42-day
bombing campaign took out nearly all of the water treatment plants and
seven of Iraq’s eight dams. These were never repaired since obtaining
pipes, motors and spare parts was impossible under the sanctions. While
pre-sanctions Iraq had no cases of cholera, in 1994 there were 1800
cases and by 1999 only 41% of the population had access to clean water.
The destruction of the public water infrastructure was much more
malicious than a mere side effect of the sanctions. Thomas Nagy of
Georgetown University unearthed a Defense Intelligence Agency document titled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities." The report, which circulated one day after the beginning of the first Gulf War, analyzed
the weaknesses of the Iraqi water treatment system, the effects of
sanctions on an already bombed out system and the health effects of
untreated water on the Iraqi population. In fact, this report also went
into detail about the effect that banning chlorine imports would have
and continued to calculate that "Iraq could try convincing the United
Nations or individual countries to exempt water treatment supplies from
sanctions for humanitarian reasons."

The sanctions skimmed the spotlight recently, but once again through a
warped context, that of the corruption of the UN led Oil-for-Food
program. The Oil-for-Food program was set up as a relief fund in 1996
after the humanitarian disaster became apparent to the world. No one
has recognized the Oil-for-Food program as a full success, and two
directors of the program, Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck,
resigned expressing frustrations at the Security Council's
unwillingness to compromise in the face of the devastation. The
majority of the gross Oil-for-Food revenues went to pay the UN and
corporations that were affected by the Gulf War. Even corporations such
as Toys 'R Us got a slice from the petroleum pie due to the company’s
inability to operate in Kuwait while the war took place. From the gross
$64 billion in Iraqi oil sales the U.N. took off 35 percent and 30
percent was given to Kuwait. Yet we are expected to think that the
actual problem in the Oil-for-Food program was the connection between
Kofi Annan's son and Cotenca, one of the companies involved in Iraqi
contract administration. The US seized upon this as an opportunity to
further weaken the UN. In the words of former Oil-for-Food director
Dennis Halliday, "This so-called scandal is a fiction in my view. Now
if some members of the Secretariat broke the rules, they must be
prosecuted like any other normal human being. I don't believe the
Secretariat is the problem. The problem is the United Nations and its
member states, particularly Washington and London, who make the
decisions, who designed the sanctions, who designed the Gulf War. They
are the ones who knew what was happening. " (Democracy Now!, December 3, 2004)

The sanctions regime failed to empower the Iraqi population and instead
starved them to their death. It also increased the already existent
dependency the population had on Saddam; their livelihood depended on
handouts administered by the Bath Party's food distribution program. It
allowed for Saddam to steal even more from the Iraqi people by way of
smuggling oil out of the country, under the cover of sanctions, and
using it for his personal advancement. But the most important effect
that the sanctions had on the Iraqi consciousness was to demonstrate,
beyond a doubt, the adversarial relationship between themselves and the

Ali Tonak can be reached at:


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