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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 25-26

Special Report

Oil-For-Food Deal Will Not End Iraqi Crisis

By Geoff Lumetta

In the cancer ward of the Al Mansour hospital in Baghdad, a group of Americans met eight Iraqi children suffering from leukemia. Although this cancer is treatable with the right medications, the Al Mansour hospital, like many in Iraq, has been suffering from a lack of medicine and basic supplies since the Gulf war six years ago. When the group returned home to Chicago in August of last year, members started a fund-raising campaign with these children in mind. Their goal was to raise enough to bring anti-leukemia drugs back to Iraq. "We thought that putting faces with the names would help get people involved and raise sympathies," said Kathy Kelly, a member of the group Voices in the Wilderness, that has been running humanitarian missions to Iraq since 1991.

Equipped with photos and United Nations studies about the thousands of children dying in Iraq each month, Kelly and others appealed to people in their area for funds. They left for Iraq in March with $2,000 worth of medicine and supplies. When they arrived, however, they found it was too late for the children in their pictures. Three already had died from cancer-related diseases, and another was too sick to be saved.

"We decided that this isn't a plan that can work because we just can't get back fast enough," Kelly said. She added that, with so many needy children, distributing a small amount of medicine posses a dilemma for doctors.

From 1990 to 1996, an estimated half-million children have died in Iraq from disease and malnutrition and the number of children diagnosed with cancers like leukemia has reached alarming proportions. Many Iraqis also suffer from dehydration and typhoid due to a lack of clean drinking water. The pictures coming out of Iraq of starving and diseased children are extraordinary for a nation whose economy rivaled many European countries less than a decade ago. According to a 1995 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, some 4,500 children die every month in Iraq and more than a million people have died since the Gulf war.

The 88 members of Voices in the Wilderness believe the U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq are the cause of this suffering, and members have violated a U.S. travel ban to document conditions there. While few people disagree that there is a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, there is heated debate over the best policy solution for the country. The sanctions the U.N. imposed on Iraq six years ago have made it impossible to export petroleum, and shortages have made food and other necessities in Iraq too expensive for the average Iraqi. Though the oil-for-food program initiated in December 1996 will improve conditions, it will have to be increased and extended to have a lasting effect on disease and malnutrition.

Saddam's Role

Many experts blame Saddam Hussain, not U.S. sanctions, for the crisis. They say he could have had the U.N. lift sanctions by opening his weapons program to inspectors, as required by the cease-fire agreement in 1991. Others claim that Saddam does have the capability to care for his people, but he chooses to spend Iraq's money on his military regime.

On March 20, the first food and medical supplies purchased through the oil-for-food program began to arrive in Iraq. U.N. Security Council Resolution 986 allows Iraq to sell $2 billion worth of oil over six months. The money from this sale was used to purchase food staples such as chick-peas, rice and vegetable oil. This has taken some pressure off the United States and the U.N. from the international community, which has become increasingly critical of the sanctions.

But according to Dr. Peter F. Pellett, professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of the 1995 FAO report on Iraq, $2 billion worth of food and medicines is not nearly enough. Under the current distribution system, about 25 cents per person will be spent in Iraq, with the rest of the money going to the Kurds in northern Iraq and to pay war reparations.

"This is why the Iraqis held out for so long [before approving Resolution 986]," Pellet said, adding that the extra food will be very helpful but will not transform the situation. "It's to assuage the conscience of the United States," he said.

Even this small amount of money will nearly double the per capita caloric intake in Iraq, bringing it to 2,000 calories a day, about 30 percent fewer calories than Iraqis were getting before the sanctions. While these are enough calories to prevent starvation, Pellett said children and the elderly may still suffer from malnutrition without the proper amounts of vitamins and proteins. Evidence of this already exists in Iraq, where children have been seen in hospitals suffering from edema or swollen stomachs, a condition generally seen only in the poorest African countries.

To Pellet, the sanctions are a direct assault on Iraqi civilians, and the U.S. and U.N. hold a large share of the blame for Iraq's plight. "This is as good a crime against humanity as you can get," he said. "International law in this area is very clear. The Geneva Convention says sanctions should only be aimed at the military population." Though the sanctions are meant to cripple Saddam's military machine, Pellet said this tactic rarely works. "Sanctions almost by definition are going to hit the vulnerable," he said.

Phebe Marr, an Iraq scholar and professor at the National Defense University, agrees that the sanctions have been severe, but she believes Saddam could have been doing more for civilians. "Saddam had enough money to put down an internal rebellion," Marr said, "and replenish his military industrial complex by siphoning off scarce resources coming into Iraq and giving them to his military supporters." Marr added that Saddam had it in his power to get the sanctions lifted by complying with U.N.resolutions. However, "he has deceived and lied to the U.N. inspectors and he has been caught trying to smuggle prohibited military technology," Marr said.

Under U.N. Resolution 687, Iraq must disband all its chemical, biological and ballistic missile programs. But as recently as April 25, the U.N. Special Commission on disarming Iraq (UNSCOM) found evidence that Iraqi technicians have been continuing research in a sophisticated biological weapons program. This is only the latest in a series of violations the U.N. has uncovered over the past six years. While Iraq has complied with some U.N. demands, Rolf Ekeus, the senior UNSCOM inspector, said he could not allay fears over Iraq's chemical and germ warfare potential despite years of probing. Ekeus said on April 6 that Iraq was becoming more hostile toward U.N. inspectors and there was even an Iraqi attempt to sabotage a U.N. helicopter.

Despite this deceit on Saddam's part, Marr said there is still a "moral dilemma" in the U.N. sanctions policy. The United States and the West do not want to starve Iraqi civilians, but they also do not want to allow Saddam Hussain to rearm his military machine.

"These are the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed anywhere," Marr said. "All exports are embargoed and imports, except for food, medicine and other neccessities, are prohibited. Iraq is diplomatically isolated."

But even countries such as France and Russia, which would like to see Iraq resume oil sales so it can pay back millions in loans, are not yet willing to lift the sanctions. Marr said the main stumbling block in easing sanctions is Saddam Hussain and his tendency toward aggression.

"He has caused two major conflicts in the region and no one is confident that he has given up entirely his aggresive aspirations," Marr said. "We have been given no reason to trust him." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has stated publicly that she could not foresee any situation where America would be able to lift the sanctions while Saddam is in power, but the U.S. would work with a "successor regime." Marr said that a change of regime is certainly preferable for the United States, but it is difficult to achieve by outside powers. "Replacing Saddam would be the responsibility of key people inside Iraq," she said. Saddam has experience at keeping would-be assassins away while intimidating his military, which could pose a threat to his government, Marr added.

Despite years of sanctions, Saddam's power is as entrenched as ever in Iraq. Andrew Parasiliti, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the sanctions have met U.S. interests by keeping Iraq contained, but they have not affected Saddam's government as American officials would have liked. "They are effective in terms of weakening the Iraqi state, civil society and infrastructure," he said. "But the effect on the regime is less clear." In September 1996, then-CIA Director John Deutch told Congress that Saddam's position "has been strengthened in the region" and that organized opposition to the regime was dwindling.

If the sanctions were intended to bring down Saddam's regime, they have been a major failure. But Patrick Clawson, an economic sanctions expert at the National Defense University, said the purpose of the sanctions policy has changed drastically since its inception in August 1991. "At the time Resolution 687 was adopted, the U.S. and U.N. official expectation was the sanctions would end soon," Clawson said. "Nobody designed these sanctions to be in place for six years." He said it wasn't until the spring of 1992 that the U.S. realized Saddam was not going to comply with the resolution and responded by "digging in its heels" on the sanctions. The sanctions then became a method of continually pressuring and punishing Saddam for noncompliance with the cease-fire resolution.

Those who oppose the sanctions, however, say it is only the Iraqi people who are being punished. Bert Sacks, a Seattle engineer who went to Iraq with the Voices in the Wilderness group, asks if any policy goal is worth the deaths. "I have to wonder about my government if it has come to the conclusion that it is willing to have so many people die in order to apply pressure on Iraq," he said. While it has been the U.S. intention to keep Saddam from rearming, Sacks asks why food and other humanitarian assistance couldn't have been brought in sooner. To Sacks, the answer is that the U.S. policy goal of containing Iraq and Iran was being carried out by the sanctions, regardless of the civilian casualties.

Six years after the Gulf war, whether U.S. and U.N. sanctions are a sound policy or a brutal policy is still being debated. Dr. Pellet said the answer lies in the policy's motivations. "The main question of the sanctions is: are you actually aiming at the regime while suffering unfortunate collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties, or are we specifically aiming at the civilian population to put pressure on the regime? The latter is not an acceptable policy."