John Pilger visits Iraq

(1999?)



The memories of my journey to Iraq last autumn are almost surreal. Beside the road to Baghdad from Jordan lay two bodies: old men in suits, their arms stiffly beside them. A taxi rested upside-down beside them. The men had been walking along the road, each with his meagre belongings, which were now scattered among the thornbushes. The taxi's brakes had apparently failed, and it had cut them down.

Local people came out of the swirling dust and stood beside the bodies: for them, on this, the only road in and out of Iraq, it was a common event. The road on the Jordan side of the border is one of the most dangerous on earth. It was never meant as an artery, yet it now carries most of Iraq's permissible trade and traffic to the outside world.

Two narrow single lanes are dominated by oil tankers, moving in an endless convoy; cars and overladen buses and vans dart in and out in a kind of danse macabre. The inevitable carnage provides a gruesome roadside tableau of burnt-out tankers, a bus crushed like a tin can, an official UN Mercedes on its side, its once-privileged occupants dead. Of course, brakes fail on rickety taxis everywhere, but the odds against survival here are shortened to zero. Parts for the older models are now non-existent, and drivers go through the night and day with little sleep. With the Iraqi dinar worth virtually nothing, they must go back and forth, from Baghdad to Amman, Amman to Baghdad, as frequently and quickly as possible, just to make enough to live.

And when they and their passengers are killed and maimed, they, too, become victims of the most ruthless economic embargo of our time. The inhumanity and criminal vindictiveness of the "sanctions" struck me one afternoon in Baghdad, in the studio of the great Iraqi sculptor Mohamed Ghani. His latest work is a three-metre figure of a woman, her breasts dry of milk, a child pleading with her for food, the small, frail body merged into her legs.

Her face is dark and ill-defined, "a nightmare of sadness and confusion" as he describes it. She is waiting in a line at a closed door. The line is recognisable from every hosiptal I visited; it is always the same, stretching from the dispensary into the heat outside as people wait for the life-giving drugs that are allowed into Iraq only when the UN sanctions committee feels like it: rather, when the Clinton administration and its sidekick, the Blair government, feel like it. "The longer we can fool around in the (Security) council and keep things static, the better," an American official boasted to the Washington Post, explaining Washington's general strategy toward Iraq. While I was in Iraq, the list of "holds" on humanitarian supplies included 18 on medical equipment, such as heart-and-lung machines. Along with water pumps, agricultural supplies, safety and fire-fighting equipment, these were "suspected dual use": Saddam Hussein might also make weapons of mass destruction from wheelbarrows, which were on the list.

So was detergent. In hospitals and hotels, there is the inescapable, sickly stench of gasoline, which is used to clean the floors, because detergent is on "hold". While I was in Iraq, Kofi Annan, normally the most compliant of UN secretary-generals, complained to the Security Council about "holds" amounting to $700 million. These included food, supplies and equipment that might restore the power grid, the water-treatment plants and the telephones. The deliberate bombing of the civilian infrastrucutre in 1991 returned Iraq, a modern state, to "a pre-industrial age".

The strategy was bomb now; die later. It is the new style of "humanitarian war". The statistics of those who have since died are breathtaking; for this reason, no doubt, they have been consigned to media oblivion. In May 1996, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked on the CBS programme 60 Minutes if the death of more than half a million children was a price worth paying. "We think the price is worth it," she replied. After returning from Iraq, I flew to Washington and interviewed State Department spokesman James Rubin.

He claimed that Albright's words on 60 Minutes were taken out of context. I had with me a transcript of the programme; her statement was clear, and I offered him a copy. "In making policy," he said, "one has to choose between two bad choices and unfortunately the effect of sanctions has been more than we would have hoped." He referred me to the "real world" where "real choices have to be made." In mitigation, he added, "Our sense is that, prior to sanctions, there was serious poverty and health problems in Iraq." The clear implication was that the children would have died anyway. The opposite is, of course, true.

As UNICEF has reported, Iraq in 1990 had one of the healthiest and best-educated populations in the world; its child mortality rate was one of the lowest. Today, it is among the highest on earth. UNICEF has reported that more than 5,000 children under five die on average every month in Iraq, in part because of "the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of the (Persian Gulf) war" on the population.

Today, foreign visitors cannot escape the sight of children dying. Doctor after doctor wrote in my notebook the names of vital drugs and equipment they needed. These arrive only sporadically and after a long journey through the arcane bureaucracy of the sanctions committee in New York. Doctors are denied even blood bags, even drugs as basic as those that treat preventable dysentery and preventable tuberculosis, even morphine that allows the terminally ill to die with dignity.

"It's like torture," said Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist. "Maybe we can treat patients 20 per cent of the time, but I think that's almost worse than no treatment at all, because it gives people hope, and for many, there is none."

The words of the playwright Arthur Miller come to mind. "Few of us," he wrote, "can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied." At the United Nations in New York, this internal denial is as surreal as anything I saw in Iraq. There is a fine, subsidised buffet restaurant not far from where you can read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its rights to liberty, and above all, life.

I met Kofi Annan and asked him, "As secretary-general of the United Nations, which is imposing the sanctions on Iraq, what do you say to the parents of the children who are dying?" He replied that the Security Council was considering "smart sanctions". These will "target the leaders", rather than act as "a blunt instrument that impacts on children". He had no details, and none have been forthcoming since, apart from a resolution that offered Iraq partial suspension of sanctions in return for further weapons inspections, which Saddam Hussein turned down, predictably. Meanwhile, the "blunt instrument impacts on children" at the rate of around 150 deaths every day.

Peter van Walsum is the Netherlands' ambassador to the United Nations and the current chair of the sanctions committee of the Security Council. What struck me about this diplomat with life-and-death powers over milllions of people half a world away was that, like James Rubin, he seemed to associate Iraq, the civilised society, with Saddam Hussein, the murderer, as if they were one and the same. He also seemed to believe in holding innocent people hostage to the compliance of a dictator over whom they have no control. Such moral and intellectual contortion is common in the United Nations Plaza, the State Department and the Foreign Office in London as a justification for the "genocidal destruction of a nation", as Denis Halliday described the effects of sanctions after he resigned in protest as the UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad.

I had the following conversation with Van Walsum: Why should the civilian population, innocent people, be punished for Saddam's crimes? VW: It's a difficult problem. You should realise that sanctions are one of the curative measures that the Security Council has at its disposal and obviously they hurt. They are like a military measure.

But who do they hurt? VW: Well, this, of course, is the problem but with military action, too, you have the eternal problem of collateral damage.

So an entire nation is collateral damage? Is that correct? VW: No, I am saying that the sanctions have (similar) effects, you see, you understand, we have to study this further.

Do you believe that people have human rights no matter where they live and under what system? VW: Yes.

Doesn't that mean that the sanctions you are imposing are violating the human rights of millions of people? VW: It's also documented that the Iraqi regime has committed very serious human rights breaches. There is no doubt about that.

But what's the difference in principle between human rights violations committed by the regime and those caused by your committee? VW: It's a very complex issue, Mr Pilger.

What do you say to those who describe sanctions that have caused so many deaths as a "weapon of mass destruction", as lethal as chemical weapons? VW: I don't think that's a fair comparison.

Aren't the deaths of half a million children mass destruction? VW: I don't think you can use that argument to convince me. It is about the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Let's say the Netherlands was taken over by a Dutch Saddam Hussein, and sanctions were imposed, and the children of Holland started to die like flies. How would you feel about that? VW: I don't think that's a very fair question. We are talking about a situation which was caused by a government that overran its neighbour, and has weapons of mass destruction.

Then why aren't there sanctions on Israel (which) occupies much of Palestine and attacks Lebanon almost every day of the week? Why aren't there sanctions on Turkey, which has displaced 3 million Kurds and caused the death of 30,000 Kurds? VW: Well, there are many countries that do things that we are not happy with. We can't be everywhere. I repeat, it's complex.

How much power does the United States exercise over your committee? VW: We operate by consensus.

And what if the Americans object? VW: We don't operate.

 

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