After punishing Saddam Hussein for nine years, the Clinton administration is coming under increasing pressure to amend its sanctions against Iraq.
Efforts to lift or change the sanctions are gaining momentum both abroad and in the US Congress, where 70 lawmakers recently signed a letter of protest asking President Clinton to allow more nonmilitary goods to enter Iraq.
The lawmakers, mostly Democrats, argue that the measures against Iraq are doing little to erode Saddam Hussein's power, while at the same time they are hurting the country's 22 million citizens.
"Economic sanctions strengthen the Iraqi regime by unjustly targeting the Iraqi people," said Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio at a Feb. 16 press conference.
US diplomats have faced similar difficulties in trying to use sanctions to hurt Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In each case, the sanctions have resulted in greater isolation of the country - which has strengthened the leader's grip on power.
But the mounting humanitarian concern is running up against strategic issues. US officials believe that Saddam is trying to make weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, Iraqi officials have denied UN inspectors access to the country - access that was part of the settlement ending the Gulf War. The inspectors are supposed to look for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and UN officials say they will curb the sanctions once they are allowed to do their jobs.
Clinton mulls options
On Feb. 25, President Clinton said he was considering if there was "some way to continue our policy of meeting human needs without allowing Saddam Hussein to rearm." But, says a State Department official, "there is no change in policy."
The topic of sanctions against Iraq is drawing more and more attention from grass-roots activists and religious groups. But it still has a long way to go before it would have enough support to lead to a change in policy, analysts say.
"We're pushing a rock uphill," says Casey Beyer, the chief of staff for Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican who signed the protest letter sent to President Clinton.
In addition to restricting the amount of oil that Iraq can sell, the UN has prevented Iraq from importing "dual use" goods that have the potential to be used for military purposes. The US has used its seat on the UN Security Council, for example, to freeze more than 1,000 contract requests for parts that would help Iraq repair its damaged oil industry.
The Iraqis have been accused of trying to put everything from paternal kits to ambulances to military use. But critics of the sanctions say that some of the banned imports are needed for Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the US and Britain have been enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq with regular bombings. Lt. Col. Pat Sivigny, a Pentagon spokesman, estimates that the alliance has had to "respond to provocation" at least 17 times in the first two months of this year. On Feb. 28, allied pilots bombed northern Iraq after they were shot at while patrolling.
Critics of Washington's policy say the combination of sanctions and bombing is damaging Iraq to the point where basic health and food services are no longer available to much of the country.
"If we were to compare Iraq today with Iraq before the invasion of Kuwait, we would see a dramatic difference," says Rania Masri, who runs a group called the Iraq Action Coalition, which is based in Raleigh, N.C. "They have gone from affluence to poverty."
A UN agency published a report this summer saying that Iraqi children under age five are dying twice as fast as they were before the sanctions were imposed in 1990 as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait In February, two top UN officials in Iraq resigned in protest of the sanctions, which have been criticized by UN Security Council members France, China, and Russia.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is considered more sympathetic to Iraq than is the US, is looking into proposing "soft" sanctions that would make life easier for the ordinary Iraqis.
Saddam diverting money?
But US officials and some analysts here say there may be other causes for Iraq's poverty. According to Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iraq is getting enough money from oil exports that it should be able to support its people. But, he says, Saddam is using it for personal means and to try to rebuild his military.
Iraq is allowed to export oil under the UN "oil for food" program, but some of the compensation is withheld by the UN.
"With no inspectors in Iraq, there is no way to check up on what is going on there," says Mr. Clawson. "Saddam has to pay the price."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society