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Iraq: The Impact of Sanctions and U.S. Policy

An interview with Phyliss Bennis and Denis Halliday

By David Barsamian


Denis Halliday, of Ireland, worked for the United Nations for more than 30 years. He was Assistant Secretary General and the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator of the oil-for-food program in Iraq. On September 30, 1998 he resigned his position in protest over the continuation of economic sanctions. Phyliss Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, where she is responsible for UN and Middle East programs. As a journalist she has covered the UN for many years. She is the author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.


BARSAMIAN: You arrived in Baghdad to take over the oil-for-food program in the fall of 1997. You've reported that initially you had difficulty in making your views known at UN headquarters in New York. What was going on?


DENNIS HALLIDAY: My direct communication was with the office of the Iraq program. They were somewhat reluctant to see the difficulties and the failure of the oil-for-food program and slow in supporting my approach to doubling the program. I found it necessary to go outside the UN system and draw down on the French Ambassador, the Russian Ambassador, the Chinese Ambassador, and the three permanent members of the Security Council. They very quickly picked up on the latest UNICEF data on mortality rates and malnutrition and were instrumental in having the Security Council agree that the Secretary General should present a case for doubling the program, which did happen.


How quickly upon your arrival in Iraq did you notice that something was seriously amiss?

DH: It took about three or four weeks. Then we had the new UNICEF report and I very quickly worked with UNICEF on how we would begin to address this. The simplest way was to start doubling the program. As I found later, of course, that was not the solution.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think the point is that the oil-for-food program was designed to ameliorate the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions regime, which is quite indefensible. The only appropriate action should have been to lift the sanctions altogether. It was clear soon after oil-for-food was imposed it was not going to be sufficient, and as we see now, the inability of Iraq to pump enough oil to reach even the existing ceilings on the oil-for-food levels mean that it's unable to get anywhere close to the amount of money it needs even for basic food and medicines, let alone the longer-term solution to malnutrition, which includes repairing the water treatment facilities and sewage treatment. There's no money for any of that, and as long as that's going on, we're going to continue to see children dying.


What about the sharp drop in world oil prices?

DH: The crash in oil prices has undermined the efforts of the Iraqi government and the UN to bring in adequate revenue to allow the Iraqis to buy the basic foods, medicines, and other aspects of rehabilitation of the civilian sectors. The diminished capacity of Iraq to produce oil has further undermined this effort. We're still creaming off some 40 percent of this revenue for overhead costs of the UN, for UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission), the military inspection program, and 30 percent goes into the UN for compensation payments, which I feel under the circumstances of high mortality should be postponed until such time as Iraqi children no longer are dying directly from the impact of sanctions.


These are compensation payments being made to Kuwait?

DH: They're being made to individuals, to companies and to states, of which Kuwait would be one.

Noam Chomsky has called the air and missile attacks during the Gulf War on sewage treatment plants, irrigation systems, and water purification plants acts of biological warfare.

PB: I think that's a pretty accurate term. The U.S. was very proud in announcing throughout the world that its war against Iraq in the early part of 1991 was a "clean" war that we used "smart weapons" that only targeted what we wanted. Aside from the fact that those claims later proved to be absolutely false, the vast majority of the bombs were not smart bombs at all, and of the so-called smart bombs many missed their targets. But aside from that, the targets included water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, electrical generating plants, communications centers, on the theory, I suppose, of dual use, that the Iraqi military also needs clean water, sewage treatment, communications, etc. and therefore the fact that the 23 million people of Iraq might be denied clean water was considered an acceptable consequence of that. So there were very direct efforts made by the U.S., and they were very successful efforts, to destroy these kinds of infrastructure centers. The result has been absolute devastation for the civilian population at enormous cost in the future to be repaired. As they erode further, the cost of rebuilding them of course will climb even higher. During this last set of military strikes, Operation Desert Fox, last December, at least one oil refinery was deliberately targeted on the grounds that that particular refinery's output was being used for smuggling. Whether it was or not, I don't know. But whether it was or not, it is a violation of international law to deliberately target an economic target, as was chosen here, meaning that everyone in the Pentagon involved in that decision is guilty of a war crime. The inability of Iraq to make those repairs means that the continuation of malnutrition, of inadequate water supplies, and most importantly, perhaps, the largest number of casualties today, is the result of dirty, contaminated water because of inadequate sewage treatment and water treatment facilities. What that means is that children are dying in Iraq of eminently treatable diseases: diarrhea, typhoid, and other contaminated-water-borne diseases, in a country whose advanced health care system was so developed before the sanctions regime and before the bombings that the most important problem faced by Iraqi pediatricians was childhood obesity.

You've also said that the oil-for-food program was "highly politicized from the very beginning." What do you mean?

DH: It was never intended to actually resolve the humanitarian crisis. It was designed to stop further deterioration. It was designed to build on what the Iraqi government was already doing and is still doing. They have a separate food distribution program for those on fixed incomes, orphans, war widows and others, which has continued throughout. The politicization is seen most conspicuously in New York, where you have the sanctions committee of the Security Council, which is second-guessing the contractors and the contracting and the content and cost of supplies that the Iraqi government seeks with in almost every case the approval of the World Food Program of UNICEF or the World Health Organization or the Food and Agricultural Organization. So for example when the Iraqis asked for 500 ambulances, approved by the World Health Organization as minimal under the circumstances, these were initially blocked in their entirety and then slowly, over a period of six to nine months, were released 100, 200 ambulances, really picayunish stuff, inexcusable. Likewise throughout the medical drug area, medical equipment for hospitals and clinics, refrigeration, and even in education, paper, books, pencils, unreal, something that is a complete no-no in the context of humanitarian programs.


Why was UNSCOM such a focus of controversy and attention?

DH: I believed it escaped from the UN and became an entity unto its own, staffed not with UN people but with people from other entities on loan to the UN but actually loyal to their employing organizations, whether it's military intelligence, other intelligence agencies, military backgrounds, whatever. And that's very unfortunate. We've seen the results. Of course now it's all finally come out in the open. The Iraqis have for years been saying that the UNSCOM inspectors were spying and collecting data which was then used against them in military strikes. I think now we've seen Washington admit that. Scott Ritter has contributed to exposing the great weaknesses of UNSCOM. I think for the future when we continue international monitoring of capacity building in Iraq and elsewhere, we've got to learn from that lesson and make sure we don't have that problem yet again.

PB: The irony is that one of the things that have been lost in all of the attention about the controversy over UNSCOM is that its work, in the early years in particular, was quite successful. Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM, who's been now so discredited for his alleged provision of information to the U.S., the Israelis and others, has said himself as late as last October that if the disarmament of Iraq were a five-lap race, we would be three-quarters of the way around the final lap. That's an extraordinary statement for someone who then issued a report that was essentially designed to justify a further military set of strikes on the basis of lack of Iraqi disarmament. What it really reflects is that the disarmament aspect of UNSCOM's job has essentially been completed. Whatever shreds of chemical or biological material that may have escaped is sitting in a jar in someone's refrigerator somewhere and is never going to be found. That's clear. The significant aspects of the weapons programs have been found and destroyed. One of the really terrible parts of UNSCOM's program is that the Security Council from releasing the information it found has forbid it, and over the last several years information is its primary target, documenting the sources of Iraq's weapons materials. So we don't know where to start. UNSCOM has that information. We can't get it to identify potential sources that may also be even now sending military equipment, biological or chemical weapons, to other countries in that arms-glutted region. These are companies that should be identified, put under pressure to stop this kind of export, and yet UNSCOM is forbidden from making the information public.

Critics of U.S. policy in Iraq say that the U.S. keeps moving the goalposts. Initially it was compliance with Resolution 687, the "mother of all resolutions." Most recently, it is for "regime removal," as Madeline Albright termed it. Is there any credence to that?

PB: Absolutely. What that does is give the Iraqi government a negative incentive that essentially tells them, why should you comply? Even if you comply we're not going to lift the sanctions anyway. So this has a devastating impact on the possibility of the Iraqis feeling any compulsion to comply. I must say also, though, that when we speak about 687 it's important to think about another aspect that often gets ignored. Besides the imposition of sanctions and dealing with weapons of mass destruction, 687 also calls for creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone and a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East. That's very significant, because the U.S. refuses still to officially acknowledge Israel's nuclear arsenal. It has been the primary repository and responsible party for providing the weapons of the Saudi arsenal, including missiles, chemical weapons and others--Turkey, Israel, all of these countries of the region are now arms-glutted. One of the reasons we're on this speaking tour is to talk about those aspects of Resolution 687 and the need to move towards regionalizing the disarmament efforts, establishing a weapons of mass destruction-free zone, not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.

In your contacts with Iraqi officials, did you hear any resonance of the fact that in a sense whatever they did it would never be enough?

DH: That is exactly the feeling among the ministers that I know and the technocrats in the ministries throughout Baghdad. They think it's a lost cause, and there's nothing they can do that will satisfy the U.S., which they recognize as the main proponent, so to speak, of this policy. It's a desperate plight for these people, who are well intentioned, highly skilled technocrats doing their best for their own people. They themselves, their own families are victims. They are dependent on the oil-for-food program. I think they're very disheartened by the fact that the UN is no longer in control. It's greatly damaged the reputation of the UN not just in Iraq but also in the entire Middle East. The very policies of the UN, as they see quite clearly, are diminishing the Iraqi people while strengthening the regime of Saddam Hussein.

You've been a company person. You worked for a company, the UN, for 34 years. You served in New York, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, and your last stint was in Iraq. Why didn't you stay inside the company and work from within?

DH: The company has two large components. One is that aspect of the member states, which actually own the UN and provide the decision-making within the UN, for whom we all work. That's where we have the crisis. The Secretariat has many problems common in any administration, any group of civil servants. I've had a very satisfactory and good career throughout my years. Development assistance is very satisfying. We have great relations with recipient governments all over the world, working together with the agencies of the system, with the private sector, with NGOs. It's been a very positive experience, and I would do it again tomorrow. Where we get into deep trouble is where we see the member states, particularly of the Security Council, manipulating the organization for their own national interests. That's where the crisis has come, and that's what hit me and very quickly in Iraq. Not that I was unaware. After I was the head of Human Resources Management under Boutros-Ghali for three years. I know what political pressure is. But we dealt with it fairly well and we were beginning to make significant changes. But in Iraq I think it's out of control. I think the Security Council is out of control. I think we've got to have an international review process to look at those resolutions and bring them back into line, compatible with the Charter, with the Declaration of Human Rights and various other international conventions.


But what informed your choice to leave rather than to stay inside and fight?

DH: Because the issue was not within the Secretariat, where I had some influence. It was with the member states. I could not stand up as a civil servant and criticize the member states. That's not the way the game works. Therefore I needed to be free to do what I am doing with you today.

You resigned at the end of September 1998. You come to the U.S. and start talking about these kinds of issues. What's the response been?

DH: It's been encouraging. I've discovered that both in Europe and the U.S. there are thousands, possibly millions of individuals who are disheartened and disgusted with the policies of their respective governments, Europe included. In the U.S. already on this tour we've met thousands of Americans by now directly and spoken to many more on the radio and by other means. I think there's a groundswell of Americans who are finding out for the first time what dreadful results are coming from the policy decisions in Washington. They're anxious to try to have their views felt. They're not clear as to how that can best be done. They're not experienced in political activism. They need help and support. We're hoping to encourage that.


You've spent time in Iran and Iraq. Iran is almost entirely an Islamic Shiia country and Iraq is something like 65 percent Shiia. Nevertheless, they have been historic enemies. What are the possibilities of rapprochement between the two countries?

DH: Very real. That process has begun. Vice President Ramadan, Foreign Minister al-Sahaf, other officials in Baghdad went to Teheran in January of 1998 for the Islamic Conference. They have told me themselves that they had an extraordinary reception there. They were delighted with the treatment of the Iranian officials. In off time, when they were able to go down into the old city and walk through the bazaar, they also found that even the ordinary Iranians were very happy to see Iraqis in Iran again and to start rebuilding this relationship, which was a very mixed one. If we go back thousands of years we know the back-and-forth nature of it. This is very important. I think it's not fully understood in Washington, perhaps because there is no representation of the U.S. in either country, which is a major oversight. The fact is that trade delegations have gone back and forth. There's a lot of contact. Iran is critical for a future move that Iraq might want to make in terms of the UN, of closing down the oil-for-food program. They could not do that in my view without the assistance of Iran, both in selling oil and also in providing foodstuffs and other fundamentally important supplies.

What would the implications be for U.S. policy in the region if Iraq and Iran were to have a rapprochement?

PB: Abstractly, it would represent a major setback to U.S. efforts to remain the dominant power in the region. It would transform that power center to the region itself. You would now have an indigenous power center at the heart of the region. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that it is going to take years, perhaps decades, for Iraq to rebuild enough to function in a real way as a regional power. Even when the sanctions are lifted, it's going to take a very long time to get Iraq's oil-pumping infrastructure back into sufficient shape to pump enough oil to then begin this process of rebuilding, which UN estimates indicate will take somewhere between $50 and $60 billion to rebuild the entire infrastructure. So in that context I don't see the emergence of a new powerhouse in the region by any stretch of the imagination. The Iraqi military has been decimated, so there's no way that Iraq's and Iran's military forces are going to somehow be an even match. So the rapprochement that goes on between the two countries is going to be a very complex one, with a very wide disparity of power on the military side, a cautious and presumably somewhat tentative kind of alliance taking shape gradually, but with some shared understandings of the need to keep regional power, regional economies central to the region and avoid the problem of outside domination. In that context, both see the U.S. as a primary interferer in the affairs of the region as a whole.

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi, wrote a book called The Republic of Fear, describing the internal terror that exists in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Did you have any experience of that?

DH: I had on the UN team several hundred Iraqi staff. They were excellent people, committed to doing a good job and happy to work for the UN, although they felt uncomfortable in many respects in so doing. There was an element that they might be seen as disloyal to the Iraqi regime by serving the UN. I know also that many were under pressure to report to the intelligence authorities as to exactly what this guy Halliday was doing and other senior staff. So they kept track of our activities. Otherwise, you do not come across Iraqis, privately or otherwise, who are very quick to give you their views on Iraq today and what's happening and the regime and Saddam Hussein. That's pretty dangerous. There is an underlying fear that if you're seen talking to foreigners, or they come to your home, watch out. You're going to be asked to explain yourself. It's there at all times. It doesn't necessarily frighten people who reside there on a temporary basis, but for the average Iraqi it must be an overwhelming concern. It's there and they really do have to watch themselves. Despite that, however, they remain very courteous people. I never received any abuse, verbal or otherwise. I was always received with courtesy. It's an extraordinary country where even regular Iraqis seem to be able to distinguish quite ably between individuals, whether they're American, British, Irish, whatever, and whatever activities their respective governments are being held responsible for by the same Iraqi people, such as the sanctions regime, of course, which is paramount in everybody's life and mind every hour of the day. It never goes away. The impact is constant.

PB: I think it's important to keep in mind a kind of human rights framework. For 20 years, the Iraqi government denied pretty consistently the civil and political rights of the population. At the same time, the economic and social rights were very well respected. It was a country with a high standard of living, a terrific educational system, and the best public health system in the region. Many Iraqis had access to advanced education and to training abroad for advanced degrees. Now, in the context of the sanctions regime, we still have the violations of civil and political rights for many Iraqis. There is no free press. But now they also have no economic and social rights as the result of the sanctions regime imposed by our government. So the U.S. response to the denial of one kind of human rights is to deny all the other human rights and do nothing about the first denial. So it's a tragically ironic policy decision on the U.S. side.

Talk about good Kurds, bad Kurds. It seems that the U.S. in its foreign policy formulation has clearly identified Iraqi Kurds as good Kurds. We like them. We support them. We will protect them. But their brethren right across the border in Turkey have come under a different set of criteria. What's going on there?

PB: I think that the view of the U.S. about who's a good Kurd and who's a bad Kurd is something that is determined less by the Kurds themselves than by the government under which they're forced to live. Kurdistan is divided between the authorities of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and a large component in Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds are good Kurds because they have a bad leader, so the Iraqi Kurds are seen as a potential for undermining the Iraqi regime. The Turkish Kurds, who are oppressed as Kurds far worse than the Iraqi Kurds or the Kurds anywhere else, are not allowed to use their own language in broadcasts, not allowed to teach in Kurdish in the schools. It's a terribly repressive environment. But they are considered bad Kurds because their government, Turkey, however repressive, is an ally of the U.S. So it's a completely instrumentalist view of various Kurdish communities.

DH: I think I would portray the relationship between the U.S. and the Iraqi Kurds less positively, perhaps, than that. I think the U.S tragically misled Mustafa Barazani. He was the father of the present Barazani. He was the main leader of the Iraqi Kurds for many years. He was misled by Washington and expected all sorts of support, which never materialized. He found very quickly, as the Kurds have found repeatedly in the last several hundred years, they are abused and misused as it suits other forces. So for example, when Kissinger and Nixon were in Teheran talking to the Shah, the Shah very quickly changed his position on the Kurds and pulled the rug out entirely. The Kurds have been abused by the U.S. as recently as 1991, when they were given all sorts of indications of military support if they were to rise up against Saddam Hussein, who was vulnerable after the Gulf War. When they did that and took an incredible risk, there was no support. George Bush backed down. The promises were empty. In fact, the CIA and other forces were withdrawn and the Kurds were very badly damaged by the Iraqi forces that remained armed, thanks to the Schwarzkopf policy. His failure to prohibit helicopter gun ships resulted in the Kurds being massacred in very large numbers. That's a real tragedy. So today, to see the U.S. still interfering in that part of the world, in combination with the Turks, with Israel, is a very unfortunate development. I think the Kurds really deserve much better. They have a tremendous problem of leadership among themselves. They've had their own differences, which continue, sadly, between Barazani and Talabani, hopefully to change. But now they need to focus on their relationship with Baghdad. I think they've understood for some time, and they've said it repeatedly for some time, that the future of Iraqi Kurds lies within Iraq, hopefully in better relations with Baghdad, hopefully with autonomy and the recognition of ethnic needs and language and other cultural aspects of their existence.

PB: The message we send to Washington needs to de-link those devastating, killing sanctions from the need to continue disarmament efforts and military sanctions.


Can you suggest some sources for information?

PB: There are several very good Websites. The Middle East Report magazine (MERIP) site, Foreign Policy in Focus, an institution connected to IPS, my institute, is available at There are hosts of other Websites. There are coalitions throughout the country. The organizations that are sponsoring our tour on a national level all have local affiliates. Those include the American Friends Service Committee, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Pax Christi, the Mennonite Central Council, and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. There are a host of other organizations. Peace Action has chapters across the country and is also a sponsor of our tour. There's a range of work going on. It's a very exciting time to be getting involved.


For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:

David Barsamian Alternative Radio P.O. Box 551 Boulder, CO 80306 (800) 444-1977 E-mail: [email protected]


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