Protesters raise voices against Iraq sanctions

US demonstrators begin a 40-day fast against the 11-year UN economic embargo.

New York - Across the street from the United Nations, the sun beats down hard on a small group of poster-toting protesters. They call themselves Voices in the Wilderness, and they come from Chicago to demand that UN sanctions against Iraq be lifted.

Denis Halliday, a former UN assistant Secretary General, perspires visibly in a business suit as he explains to onlookers why the sanctions are a crime against humanity. He says they're not only hurting Iraqi people, but killing them.

"It is of great urgency for those member states not yet irreparably corrupted by the United States to end the killing," Mr. Halliday says gravely. He's standing beside eight members of Voices in the Wilderness who are embarking on a 40-day fast to mark the 11-year anniversary of the sanctions.

Halliday, who first protested the sanctions in 1998 by resigning as UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, is part of a continuing effort by small, determined groups to end the embargo.

They truly are voices in the wilderness, fighting for a spotlight here in New York. One reason for the national media shrug may be that protesters are discussing what is already a general consensus: The sanctions have had a negative effect on the people of Iraq.

"Those who protest seem to forget ... that Hussein represents a very real problem," says Timothy McCarthy, a senior analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who spent five years in Iraq as a weapons inspector. "They over-generalize the problem. If they refine their argument a little more sharply, they would have more credibility."

Kathy Kelly, who has represented Voices in the Wilderness on 13 trips to Iraq since 1996, says the problem is not so complex. "The sanctions don't work," Ms. Kelly says.

Events in Iraq could also be muffling the protesters' cries for change. On Sunday, a US-led naval force rescued 12 Iraqis on a sinking tanker in the Persian Gulf. The crew was smuggling 2,083 tons of Iraqi oil when the Maritime Interception Force, a 12-nation team devised to enforce the UN oil embargo, pulled the oil-drenched crew from the fast-sinking tanker.

Then, after the US announced Monday that it would pause plans for a large military air strike against Iraq, US fighter planes on Tuesday became the target of Iraqi surface-to-air missiles. They responded by dropping two laser-guided bombs on an air-defense site in northern Iraq.

Much like the disappearing and reappearing of the protesters in the media, Tuesday's bombing is just one in a series of clashes between Iraq and the US. But over the years, there has been one constant that not even the Bush administration denies. The Iraqi people are bearing the brunt of international political tensions.

"Although we had never intended to hurt Iraqi people, it was clear Saddam exploited their suffering as a means of fighting the UN and the US," says Greg Sullivan at the State Department. "Saddam is a dictator, a brutal dictator, who manages to stay in power by blaming the West for the shortages that exist. If he loses that, it's going to cause him difficulties in justifying the manner through which he ruled the country in the past two decades."

Protesters insist the sanctions do nothing to stifle the powers of Saddam Hussein. "As UN members return [in September] to discern their progress, we want to be here and hold up a report card," Kelly says. "A lethargy of indifference has set in."

Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations says the protesters spend too much time blaming the UN and not enough focusing on the role of Hussein.

"This humanitarian issue bubbles up," she says, "but this is a really bad regime, dangerous to its neighbors."

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the UN imposed the toughest sanctions and oil embargo in its history. Under Security Council resolutions, sanctions may not be lifted until Iraq has fully dismantled its weapons of mass destruction. But when the US and Britain launched a four-day attack on Iraq in 1998, Saddam Hussein denied UN inspectors admission into Iraq to gauge the dismantling progress, and they have yet to be readmitted.

In response to increased criticism, the Bush administration drafted "smart sanctions" in June that, while tightening the weapons embargo, aim to ease the flow of civilian goods to the Iraqi people.

Despite endorsement by 4 of the 5 permanent Security Council members, Russia threatened to veto the sanctions. Plans were withdrawn, and the deadline for revision has been pushed back from July to November.

Meanwhile, Halliday, speaking sternly with reporters, says he is losing patience with what he calls American self-interest. "There is a time to question authority, and a time to refuse orders," he says. "We have no choice but to speak out."

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