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"First I sold my television, then my furniture, then my car, then my house," said Mohammed Abdul Razaq, a retired office worker. "Everything that I built up over a lifetime is gone. A bomb is something you hear far away, or at worst, it kills you in a second. Sanctions kill you every day."

Smart Bombs, Dumb Sanctions

New York Times
January 3, 1999

By Stephen Kinzer

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- From the terrace of his home on the outskirts of Baghdad, a carpet dealer named Ziad al-Kadhimi watched the mid-December bombing while sipping a fruit drink.

"It broke some windows in our house, but we saw it more or less as a show," al-Kadhimi said. "Bombing is nothing. Maybe it hits a few military buildings, but it doesn't really affect ordinary people. The sanctions hurt a hundred times more."

In much of the outside world, the U.S.-led bombing campaigns against Iraq that have been launched periodically since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 are viewed as devastating though perhaps necessary assaults. Many Westerners assume that when this country is not being bombed, it enjoys relative tranquillity.

Iraqis assert just the opposite. They say that bombings are increasingly precise and all but harmless to civilians, while economic sanctions devastate their entire society.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq eight years ago as part of an effort to force President Saddam Hussein to curb his weapons development program, compensate Kuwaitis for his 1990 invasion of their country, and loosen his despotic rule.

As in some other places where sanctions have been imposed, they do not appear to have had much of the desired political effect. Some diplomats say they are steadily weakening Saddam by showing senior officials and clan leaders that Iraq faces only hardship as long as he is in power. Others are dubious.

What seems clear, however, is that the sanctions have plunged this once-prosperous country into poverty, and in the process created deepening anti-Western and especially anti-American sentiment.

The Clinton administration, which is the principal backer of sanctions, has vowed to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to prevent them from being lifted. It has not, however, ruled out supporting expansion of a U.N. program under which Iraq is allowed to sell limited amounts of oil and use part of the income to buy food and medicine.

U.S. officials fear that lifting sanctions would allow the Iraqi government to import an array of products it would use to rebuild its arsenal. They point to Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990 as evidence that Saddam's regime is incurably aggressive and untrustworthy.

Officials in Washington pride themselves on the pains they have taken to assure that U.S. bombs hit only military targets in Iraq, and to keep civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. But at the same time, they assert that the sanctions, which probably kill more civilians each month than bombs have killed since 1991, are a regrettable necessity.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many people here and elsewhere are increasingly cynical about U.S. claims that the United States has no desire to hurt ordinary Iraqis. Because of tight censorship, Iraqis know nothing about Saddam's purchases of luxury items for his palaces over the last few years. They are acutely aware, however, of their daily hardships, and unhesitatingly blame them on the United States and President Clinton.

Whether the human cost of sanctions is worth what they may accomplish in curbing or changing the Iraqi regime is being hotly debated at the United Nations and in many world capitals. Russia, France and China, together with several Arab countries, have called for new approaches that could lead to lifting or relaxation of the sanctions.

U.N. humanitarian workers here are among the most outspoken critics. Their last chief, Denis Halliday, resigned his post in protest three months ago and said sanctions "are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis and turning a whole generation against the West."

In his Baghdad office last week, Farid Zarif, deputy director of the U.N. humanitarian aid program here, held up a pencil as an example of items that may not be imported under sanctions.

"We are told that pencils are forbidden because carbon could be extracted from them that might be used to coat airplanes and make them invisible to radar," Zarif said. "I am not a military expert, but I find it very disturbing that because of this objection, we cannot give pencils to Iraqi schoolchildren."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council in March that despite the oil-for-food program, which was launched in 1996, about one-fourth of Iraqi children are now malnourished. The program does not provide Iraqis with protein- and vitamin-rich foods such as milk, fruit, vegetables, eggs or meat.

A U.N. report issued in April concluded that the sanctions "have had a devastating effect on the majority of the Iraqi people." According to the report, 40,000 more children and 50,000 more adults now die each year in Iraqi hospitals than died before the sanctions were imposed. Rates of polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, malaria and viral hepatitis were said to have sharply increased.

Aid workers like Michel Nahhal, a Lebanese national who has been living in Baghdad for seven years as a representative of the Middle East Council of Churches, say they see U.N. statistics vividly translated into daily life.

"Sanctions are the severest thing that can happen to a country," Nahhal said. "Here in Iraq, the industrial sector is at a standstill. Agriculture is collapsing because no fertilizers can be imported and there is no electricity to power irrigation pumps. The biggest employer was the oil sector, and that has all but disappeared. Health conditions are terrible because there are no pumps to flush the sewage pipes and not enough trucks to pick up garbage. You see children playing in sewage with no shoes and no shirts.

"People are trying to survive, trying to make ends meet. It's very hard on them. They do whatever they can. There is a lot of prostitution. Boys are prostituting themselves at a very young age. A few bombs landing on military bases every couple of years is nothing compared to this."

For ordinary Iraqis, sanctions have meant an almost surreal descent into a poverty they believe they do not deserve.

"First I sold my television, then my furniture, then my car, then my house," said Mohammed Abdul Razaq, a retired office worker. "Everything that I built up over a lifetime is gone. A bomb is something you hear far away, or at worst, it kills you in a second. Sanctions kill you every day."

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