When the Gulf war ended, a fresh nightmare began for the Iraqi people: life under sanctions. Today, their suffering is growing worse, while Saddam Hussein, whom sanctions were meant to weaken, seems more firmly in control than ever. This special report counts the cost of UN policy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GENERAL Abdul Khalil Abdul Aziz, governor of the province of Karbala, in southern Iraq, is sure there will never be another uprising against Saddam Hussein. After all, he was posted to Karbala by the President to ensure that there would not be. O n the general's desk sit 11 telephones. "One to the police; one to the Interior Ministry; one to the President - just in case," he chortles, in an avuncular way, standing in his perfectly creased green fatigues. By his elbow is a vase of paper flowers, c overedin dusty Cellophane.

On the walls of the general's office are many pictures of the Iraqi President. There is even a portrait of Saddam making a pot of tea. The general says that there used to be a better selection of pictures, but that many were destroyed when the "rebels" set fire to the building. "All the official buildings in Karbala were burnt in the uprising, and the rebels killed many members of the local Baath Party. They hanged them in the mosque," he says, glancing across to one of the two magnificent golden domes standing in the desolate landscape of rubble and twisted metal that was once the commercial centre of the town.

Within the portals of the mosque courtyard, laughing children play at skittles, while crouching mothers share out dates and bread. The families have come to pass the time - to stroll, to chat, and, of course, to pray. The mosques - each a shrine to a martyred Shia prophet - are their sanctuaries from a grim and confusing world.

On 2 March 1991, just after the end of the Gulf war, the Shia population of Karbala and southern Iraq rose up against Saddam's minority Sunni regime. Two weeks earlier, George Bush, the US President, had urged the Iraqi people to try to topple Saddam. But the rebels of Karbala received no help from the coalition forces, and their pathetic rebellion was brutally crushed. At one point the rebels took refuge in the mosque, but Saddam's tanks soon caught up with them, flattening the area all around as they advanced. An estimated 16,000 Shia rebels died here and in the nearby town of Najaf.

Nobody in Karbala then could understand why the US had urged them to overthrow Saddam and then failed to come to their aid. And today in Karbala, nobody can understand why they and the rest of the Iraqi people should be punished by UN sanctions because the West allowed Saddam to remain in power.

It is now nearly four years since the end of the Gulf war and the beginning of economic and military sanctions. At the start, the purpose appeared to be to weaken Saddam so that another attempt might be made to overthrow him. But there is strong evidencethat he has consolidated his power internally, despite sanctions - perhaps even because of them. And while the purpose of continuing the blockade has become less and less clear, the human cost of the punishment grows clearer every day.

TO TRAVEL to Baghdad today is to pass down a long funnel to a strange, grim land dislocated from the world. You have to drive into the "pariah state", because there have been no planes into Iraq since the end of the Gulf war, apart from UN aircraft. The journey from Amman takes 14 hours across monotonous desert. Well before the Iraqi border there is a sense of entering a country under siege. At stores along the road everyone is loading up with water, eggs and dehydrated milk. Cars are laden with spare tyres, canned vegetables, toilet rolls - whatever can be squeezed in. And every visitor should pack a syringe, because Iraq imposes its own sanction on the "diseased West" by testing every foreigner crossing its border for HIV.

"Welcome, welcome," say border police to journalists, hoping that publicity might help to ease their country's plight. "You CNN?" Yet Iraq is not, on the whole, a country which flaunts its misery, and at first sight the suffering isn't obvious. In Baghd ad, the roads, bridges and government buildings destroyed by allied bombing have largely been rebuilt, and the centre of the city appears to be in good working order. Cars hum along the roads, and shops have produce in the windows. But soon you notice garbage piling up in streets with children picking over it, putting rotting vegetables into plastic bags. You notice that almost every car windscreen is smashed, while the taxis are a patchwork of spare parts. There are no people in the shops. There is nomedicine in the hospitals. There is little food in people's stomachs. And then you learn that a chicken in Iraq costs an average month's salary.

This country of 18 million people, once a sophisticated energy-dependent society, was bombed into the pre-industrial age in the Gulf war. It was built on the revenue from oil sales, which at their height reached 4 million barrels a day. After the war, the country began to rebuild its infrastructure using existing reserves of materials and wealth, but these are now exhausted, and degeneration is accelerating. Industrial plants are said to be running at only 10 per cent of capacity. Food ration s were imposed almost immediately after the war, allowing Iraqis enough to meet 60 per cent of their calorific needs. In October these rations were cut by up to half. Rice rations were reduced from 2kg per person per month to 1kg; bread from 9kg to 6kg; and sugar from 1.5kg to 1kg. A recent survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) found that in some areas nearly 10 per cent of children are suffering from malnutrition. Since the reduction in rations the number of cases of marasmus and kwashi orkor - diseases caused by acute malnutrition - has risen.

Food shortages have been less serious in rural areas, where people can turn to the land. In the Karbala area, for example, there are more than 2 million date trees, and people live off vegetables and dates. But there can be no doubt that millions are going hungry.

Humanitarian needs - food and medicines - are in theory excluded from the sanctions, but nowadays little gets through. The UN offered to let Saddam make a one-off oil sale worth $1.6 billion to help alleviate the suffering, but the restrictions to be imposed by the UN on using the proceeds of the sale were too stiff for Saddam to stomach. And now, say Iraqi officials, there is no money left to pay for food and medicine.

The sanctions bureaucracy does not help, complicating every transfer. For example, attempts to boost food stocks through improved agricultural production in the fertile Tigris and Euphrates valleys have been hit by bans on pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides, which the UN sanctions committee says are convertible for use in chemical weapons. An angina drug was recently held back because the sanctions committee said that it could be used as an explosive. In Baghdad's hospitals, doctors are unable to offer even basic painkillers or antibiotics. Medicine imports, once worth $500m a year, have dropped to a tenth of that. Patients besiege Baghdad's main pharmacy, and fights often break out at the counter.

At the Baghdad building housing UN aid agencies, no one seems in any doubt that sanctions are hurting the wrong people. As one UN aid official put it: "The civilian population are not responsible for war. They are the ordinary people; mothers and children. They are totally innocent." So the aid agencies distribute what little food they can afford to buy, and try to help mend electricity and water installations. But all the time the powerful UN sanctions committee in New York is cutting across their efforts. Every spare part applied for by a UN aid agency in Iraq has to go before the UN sanctions committee, and often such requests are turned down or delayed.

As the effect of sanctions has deepened, funding for the UN aid agencies in Iraq has been cut. "Iraq has been forgotten, more or less," says one agency chief. "There have been other calamities in the world." Unicef received $70m last year for its operations in Iraq, but this year that has been halved. Yet the suffering - and its long-term legacy of bitterness - has, if anything, increased.

Magne Raundalen, a renowned child psychologist, says that Iraq has the most traumatised child population he has ever encountered. It is, he says, "a land where childhood is dead". The Iraqi government claims that infant mortality has tripled since the Gulf war, and puts the number of deaths among children under five in the past month at 29,558. Unicef's report says that children have been at serious additional risk since new rations were imposed in October.

Once, 92 per cent of Iraqis had access to free, high-quality health care, from a hi-tech medical system dependent on Western pharmaceuticals and equipment. Now the system lacks disposable syringes, medical cotton, X-ray film and tyres to keep ambulances on the road.

Yet the strain on people's faces is caused not just by physical pain or hunger, or by the suffering of children. All the talk is of sanctions; it is like a fever which grips the whole nation, and which has many symptoms. One is raging inflation. ("Peoplehad money in their pockets; now they just have pieces of paper," said one diplomat; 1kg of cucumber costs 100 dinars, or $300 at official exchange rates.) Another is the depression caused by lack of hope. Then there is confusion, and frustration: "When will it all end? What is happening out there? Does the world not know what we are suffering?" These are cries heard by every foreign journalist in Baghdad. And nearly every discussion includes the wistful phrase, "Before the sanctions . . ."

THE US and Britain are the countries most resolute in their support for continuing the embargo. Whatever the present human cost, it would be far greater if Saddam were rehabilitated, American diplomats argue. In 1989 Saddam tried to exterminate 3 millionKurds, now protected in their own semi-autonomous state, who could be threatened again if Saddam felt strong enough. The Iraqi despot continues, viciously, to repress opposition among the Shias, who constitute 65 per cent of the population. And up to 50,000 Marsh Arabs may have died during his continuing draining of the southern marshes.

Yet it is disingenuous to pretend that the objective of sanctions is to lessen the misery of the Iraqi people. On the contrary, the Western sanctions police would have us believe the opposite: that the more Iraqi people suffer from the embargo, the better - because the more they suffer, the more they will blame Saddam; and, therefore, the more likely they will be to mount an insurrection. "Sanctions are the most important and effective weapon in our arsenal," says Madelaine Albright, US ambassador to th e UN. Ineed, they are a continuation of one largely unstated military objective of the war: the undermining of civilian morale. As one US air defence planner told the Washington Post during the war, the bombing attacks on the country's electricity supply system were designed to send a message to Iraqis: "We are not going to tolerate Saddam Hussein or his regime. Fix that and we will fix your electricity." The sanctions message appears to be the same.

The problem is that things look very different from the other end of the sanctions telescope. First, there are many reasons to believe that the embargo has simply handed Saddam a better means of central control over his people. The rations system, for example, can be manipulated to determine who suffers most and when.

Similarly, although most Iraqis know Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was a mistake, and are only prevented by fear from saying that the war was responsible for their current misery, that does not mean that they see the invasion as inherently wrong. Iraqis have been brought up to believe that Kuwait is theirs, and most still firmly believe that. It is not easy for a mother to view the death of her son as pointless, let alone to see the war he fought in as the cause of her subsequent problems. As one Baghdadshopkeeper said: "History has told us all our lives that Kuwait is Iraqi land. We cannot suddenly deny this fact. We lost our people in the war. I see my arm trembling if I am told we are going to recognise Kuwait."

Every Iraqi knows the truth about Saddam Hussein. They have seen what happens to friends and colleagues whose indiscretions have been overheard. They have seen army deserters who have lost ears, and they know that any disloyalty may mean death. But this does not mean that they cannot also feel solidarity with Saddam's regime for standing up to the West. The logic is confused, perhaps, but the reality is that although many Iraqis may hate Saddam, they hate the West far more. "America wants to smash Iraq because Iraq is strong. The world didn't want Iraq to advance because Iraq was different from other countries in the region. They saw us as a threat and they were frightened of us," said another shopkeeper. His words were echoed all over Baghdad.

Now the hated Western sanctions are providing a powerful new rallying cry for Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East. And in Iraq itself the people are increasingly looking to Islam, particularly the Shias. There are more mosques than ever before. There are more women taking the veil. Once, such developments might have posed a threat to Saddam and his secular Baath party. But now he has co-opted the forces of fundamentalism to his own advantage. Alcohol was banned in the summer. Religious teaching has been stepped up in schools. At Friday prayers, preachers in the mosques condemn sanctions. "Saddam has many tools with which to control his people," said one Eastern European ambassador. "He is now using Islam to keep a degree of social orde r."

The Shia clerics of Karbala appear to have been simply bought off by Saddam. In their salons, they sit beside giant portraits of their President kneeling at prayer, and attack the "false ayatollahs" of Iran as blasphemers. Immediately after the 1991 uprising, Saddam ordered the restoration of the Karbala shrines. The shelled domes have been magnificently restored, using 300kg of gold, while the shattered homes of the people have been left to rot. The main mosque houses a museum designed to remind everyone of the brutality of the rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have left Iraq since 1991. Many more would like to leave. But as Saddam attempts to halt the brain drain, it is becoming more difficult. A doctor, for example, has to leave a million dinars on deposit and sign over his or her house before being allowed to travel. Those who do leave are precisely those who have most sympathy with the West; and, as a result, the reservoir of articulate critics of the regime within the country has been severely depleted. There is no sign that the alienated middle class has any will to rise against Saddam. "Most people say that they would rather die of hunger than be gunned down in the street for disloyalty," said one Iraqi writer.

OCTOBER was a particularly cruel month for the people of Iraq, giving them even greater cause to believe that Western sanctions are unjust. In October, Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish chairman of Unscom, the UN weapons inspectorate, reported that Saddam had co-operated fully with the eradication of his weapons of mass destruction, the core demand of UN ceasefire resolution 687. There is no doubt about the findings of the inspectorate. For 12 months the monitors destroyed three or four tons of chemical weapons aday. They detonated Saddam's Scud missiles. They neutralised 82 nuclear facilities and loaded enriched uranium into transporters and flew it out of the country. Unscom said it was confident its monitoring plans would prevent Saddam from restarting theseprogrammes, even if sanctions were lifted. According to diplomats, Iraq had been given good reason by the UN to believe that compliance with this section of the resolution would lead to a six-month monitoring period, after wh ich, if the weapons inspectorate was still satisfied, a timetable would be established for lifting economic sanctions. Instead, the US and Britain said that Saddam had not done enough. He had not complied with other ceasefire demands, including recogniti on of Kuwait and co-operation in the hand-over of Kuwaitis missing since the war. On 6 October, Saddam moved his forces to the southern border, provoking a massive US military response. But nobody in Baghdad believed that Saddam's manoeuvres were anythin g but a show of strength to put pressure on the sanctions committee. Certainly that is what most Iraqis believed. Everyone in Baghdad seems to have heard of Rolf Ekeus and the findings of his report. "Ekeus says our President has done what he had to. Eke us says so. Why does theUS not believe him? They just want to punish us," screamed an elderly woman in Baghdad's Issa market.

When Saddam withdrew his forces a week after the crisis began, Iraqis sighed with relief, believing that he had made another concession which must lead to the lifting of sanctions. When he said that he would recognise Iraq's border with Kuwait, a statem ent confirmed by the Iraqi parliament on 10 November, there was almost a sense of elation. "When the sanctions are lifted I will get married and have children," said a tea-seller by Baghdad's main taxi station. But the US and Britain still said "not enough", and the haunted look appeared again on Iraqi faces. "It is not really a blockade, it is a form of slow murder," said a trader in a tawdry pavement bazaar where Iraqis sell belongings to raise cash. "They tried to topple the government of Iraq. But t hey are succeeding only in toppling the people."

AND WHAT of Saddam Hussein himelf? Has his internal position really been weakened by all of this? There are the usual rumours of coups, spread largely by the Iraqi opposition abroad. But the signals within the country are more confused.

There are, of course, many reasons why Saddam might feel insecure. He has lost a slice of territory to the Kurds in the north. After they too rebelled in 1991, an international outcry obliged the UN to protect the Kurds from further persecution. Desertion from the army is said to be rising, despite a recent edict decreed that deserters should have their ears cut off (and that those who refuse to perform the task should have their ears cut off too). The persecution of the Shia population in the south con tinues; as does the draining of the marshes.

For Saddam, however, none of this is out of the ordinary, and most of the evidence from inside Iraq is that he has shored up his position internally since the Gulf war. Within Iraq nowadays there is more talk of organised crime, and less of insurrection."The view here is that he has removed most points of possible insurrection, and that he is more secure than he was four years ago," said one ambassador. "He has stopped killing his critics inside the government," said another senior diplomat. "They usedto be shot, now they are just dismissed. That is a significant change." Observers also cite the relative freedom of movement in the country as a sign of Saddam's security. Thousand of pilgrims have recently been allowed to visit the shrines at Karbala and Najaf. More important, perhaps, Saddam is confidently building again for his own future. In Babylon, work is well underway on a new and glorious palace built over a replica of the hanging gardens of Babylon. And in Bag hdad, where he has he has cancelled all private building permits, he has announced work is to start on a huge new mosque.

If Saddam is feeling a new glow of confidence, it is perhaps not surprising. Not only is his position apparently secure at home, but he has started to divide the international community. Russia leads the way in pushing for its old ally to be brought backinto the fold. As President Bill Clinton's B52 bombers hovered over the Kuwaiti border in October, waiting for a fresh invasion that never came, Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, credited Saddam - the "Hitler" of the Middle East, as George Bush described him - with new moral supremacy. Clearly directing his comments at the US, Kozyrev said that, if a state met the conditions of UN sanctions, the UN had a "moral, legal and political obligation to respond . . . Under any international system or any other system of sanctions on an individual, if they meet the requirement the punishment is finished." After October's debacle it became clear that France and China are also in favour of a timetable for lifting sanctions. And,Western business people - including British arms dealers - are back, sniffing around for deals in Baghdad, preparing for the day when sanctions are lifted.

IF THE US and Britain have their way, that day will be a long time coming. Despite mounting international opposition, they have not flinched in their determination to ensure that sanctions remain in force. "Sanctions are a cruel tool," said one US official. "But the alternative would be more human misery. If Saddam were re- admitted to the international community there would be no going back."

Yet the more one examines this position, the less sense it seems to make. If the object of sanctions is to prevent Saddam from rebuilding his military strength, why is there no sanctions resolution curbing Iraq's stock of conventional weapons? And if they are intended to protect the Iraqi people from Saddam, why does resolution 687 make no mention of ending oppression at home as a condition of lifting sanctions?

Few international observers in Baghdad believe the US and Britain have any desire to see an end to Saddam's regime. Iraq without its dictator would erupt in anarchy. Eighty per cent of the population may oppose the regime, but as long as Saddam can keep them down that is not a problem. "Saddam is the only person who can hold the country together," said one diplomat. "It is a bulwark against Iran."

"If Saddam went it would be anarchy," said an East European diplomat. "The US knows that. I am not saying we have an overwhelming tide of Islamic fundamentalism now, because Saddam is still strong. The danger is the day after."

The real object of sanctions policy today, therefore, appears to be to keep the Iraqi regime in place, but in a weak state. For that reason, Saddam is allowed to keep his conventional weapons. And for that reason Bush didn't want the Shia uprising in thesouth, or the Kurdish uprising in the north, to overturn the regime in 1991. The US was happy to use the rebels to destabilise Saddam, but never wanted them to topple the regime. According to Peter Galbraith, formerly a senior aide on the Senate ForeignRelations Committee, and now US ambassador to Zagreb, this was made clear by a member of the US National Security Council in February 1991. The NSC member told Galbraith: "Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime." Galbraith says today: "That seemed to me like getting rid of Hitler but keeping the Nazis in place."

ONE DAY Saddam will go, and one day the West will have to re-shape its policies on Iraq and face "the day after". Karbala is as good a place as any to gauge what the country might then look like, for Karbala is a place where already religion provides theonly solace. Here worshippers talk little of sanctions, and they never glance at the portraits of Saddam on their way to pay homage at the tomb of their prophet Husayn, which they finger in silent devotion. Here, isolated as they are, people can enjoy contact with the larger Islamic world. They mingle with the pilgrims from Pakistan, Iran and India, bringing messages of spiritual support. They tell the people of Karbala to be patient, and to bear their suffering well. Islam will eventually produce the solution.

As prayer-time approaches, the draw is evident. Through the gates of the mosque the crowds can be seen pouring over the wasteland before spilling into the courtyard - men, children, and women in black flapping veils, carrying kettles, gas stoves, prayer mats. As the sun breaks through clouds, the golden dome rises in splendour over this hellish landscape. !