Iraqis Already Pay the Price of One 'Weapon'
While US bombs may soon drop on Iraq, the country buckles under years of sanctions.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — For many Iraqis, American bombs would be only one more "weapon" bringing tragedy to their lives.
In daily life for seven years, people here in Iraq have paid a very real human cost. Millions lack enough food and medicine. Death rates, especially for children, have risen dramatically.
The "weapon" causing all this is political: UN economic sanctions - or rather, as US officials say, the refusal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to meet UN demands to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
"Sanctions are unbearable, inhuman," says Moyassar Hamdon Sulaiman, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. "They [in the West] speak about 'weapons of mass destruction,' but we call this a 'weapon of mass suffering.'"
The suffering of Iraqis, either from sanctions or possibly next week by American firepower, has become part of the diplomatic equation in the tense standoff over UN inspections of suspected weapons sites.
Years of sanctions have caused widespread malnutrition and overburdened the health system, Western and Iraqi relief workers say. One-third of Iraqi children under 5 - 960,000 children - are chronically malnourished, the UN says.
"Sanctions have turned Iraq into a ruin," says a senior UN official. "The impact has been horrendous." American officials say their top priority is to make the world safe from Saddam's weapons and sanctions, for now, are the best way.
The sanctions were never designed to last so long - or to have such a negative human impact. United States-led allies victorious in the 1991 Gulf War believed that the backlash from Iraq's defeat would bring the downfall of Saddam within one or two years.
Officially, sanctions are to be lifted when Iraq complies with UN Security Council resolutions to give up weapons of mass destruction. But American officials say Saddam lacks peaceful intentions and the sanctions may have to last as along as he's in power.
Washington claims that sanctions are meant to harm the regime, not Iraqi civilians. But the result so far appears to have been exactly the opposite.
Critics wonder aloud if the current American threat to launch airstrikes - ostensibly to force Iraq to open up sensitive "presidential sites" to UN inspectors - will again yield contrary results that will hurt Iraqis and strengthen their leaders.
In apparent recognition that the UN is not the only one responsible for their plight, for example, hospitals seem to hang few portraits of Saddam Hussein that are ubiquitous everywhere else.
Citing reasons of national sovereignty, Iraq agreed only in December 1996 to accept a UN-monitored "oil-for-food" program, which enabled Iraq to sell $2 billion of oil every six months and spend most on food and the health system.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested in January to more than double that figure to $5.2 billion.
For Iraq's poor, however, those figures mean little. For them, the "food basket" of the oil-for-food program doesn't provide enough nutrition. An example of this monthly handout is on display in the foyer of the UN offices here: One sack holds a large bag of wheat flour, and there is cooking oil, beans, sugar, rice, tea, soap, and six tins of infant formula.
"It's not much, is it?" notes one UN official, walking past the glass-enclosed display.
The Clinton administration argues that under sanctions, Saddam Hussein has given up $110 billion in oil sales - enough to have rebuilt Iraq's military several times over.
But those with money - most often top officials or profiteers taking advantage of the sanctions economy - have only increased their grip on power. Their children go to schools where they learn Arabic, French, and English.
And they shop at well-stocked supermarkets where they can buy Uncle Ben's rice - "American Rice," the label boasts - and choose from 11 different brands of mayonnaise.
But for the majority, seven years of grinding sanctions have depleted food stocks and led to impoverishment. UN statistics show the scale of this damage: infant mortality has doubled since the Gulf War. Far more disturbing, UN officials say, is the fact that the number of deaths per month due to malnutrition-related problems has increased ten-fold since 1989, to 5,750 in 1996.
"Malnutrition is running at an all-time high," says Eric Falt, the United Nations spokesman. "Even if the statistics are not 100 percent accurate, there is no question about the scale of the catastrophe."
That view is shared by a small group of American and British nationals called "Voices in the Wilderness," who arrived last week on their 11th visit since 1996, bringing $110,000 worth of medicines to deliberately break the sanctions.
"Most Americans have the impression that only one person [Saddam Hussein] lives in Iraq, because he is the only one they hear about," says Kathy Kelly, a cofounder of the group from Chicago.
"I'm certain that if there was daily coverage of Iraqi suffering, Americans would stop [any attack]," she says. "Clearly the suffering of the children - and the deaths of half a million of them - has been shrouded."