Starvation: the West's weapon of mass destruction against Iraq

Up to 6,000 Iraqis are dying of malnutrition and disease every month as a result of sanctions. Saddam and his cronies are unaffected, of course
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The Independent Online
IN PRIDE of place, as you enter the United Nations offices in Baghdad, is a display cabinet. It contains a bag of wheat, some congealed cooking oil, bars of soap and several other household items. It is not necessarily what the UN intends, but this pathetic collection of goods will long be remembered by Iraqis as an enduring symbol of the international community's involvement in their blighted country. It is the monthly ration.

But despite the ration, Iraqis have been dying by the thousands in the years since the 1991 confrontation. The number of civilians killed by high-tech bombs is dwarfed by the far greater total who have fallen victim to a much more ancient scourge - malnutrition and disease. Figures vary according to who you ask - Iraqi figures tend to be much higher than others - but even the most conservative observers agree that as many as 300,000 people may have died since 1991.

Some of them are asking whether there is any point in the international community supporting the food ration system, which it does through the UN, while, at the same time, undermining any benefits the ration might have by imposing a socially debilitating sanctions regime.

Western politicians suggest that if people are dying it is because President Saddam Hussein is manipulating the process. In December Tony Blair stated the British position: "Let us be clear," he told the House of Commons, "the Iraqi authorities can import as much food as they need. If there are nutritional problems in Iraq, they are not the result of sanctions. Let us not forget that Iraq is continuing to export food to her neighbours."

UN officials intimately concerned with both the distribution of food and the imposition of sanctions are unable to make sense of Mr Blair's assertion. "It's possible Iraq is exporting some food products, but it is simplistic to suggest that that is the reason children are dying," said one official at the UN humanitarian office in Baghdad.

Dennis Halladay, who was in charge of the organisation's humanitarian work until last year, has no doubt that sanctions kill. "After eight years in Iraq," he said, "we've got to classify sanctions as a form of warfare, given that they are producing 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi deaths per month."

A London-based Iraqi lawyer, here to organise some aid to local hospitals, put it like this: "America and Britain keep talking about weapons of mass destruction. Well, that is exactly what sanctions are. They fit the definition: they kill by the thousands and they do not discriminate between civilian and military."

Although Iraq is allowed to sell $5.2bn (pounds 3.25bn) worth of oil every six months under the international supervised oil-for-food programme, it has never been able to reach this target, because the industry is in such a shambolic state after nearly a decade of sanctions. In any case, the collapse in oil prices means that the number of barrels Iraq would have to pump out of the ground slips further out of reach.

From what money it does earn - about $2bn every six months - Iraq pays compensation to Kuwait and funds the UN operation itself. What's left amounts to about $200 per person for six months. Out of this Iraq has to buy food and medicine and fund infrastructural maintenance.

There is little evidence to support the contention that the Iraqi regime - which distributes the food imported by the UN - is subverting the process. The UN has some 400 food monitors across the country, whose task is to ensure that the food is dispensed with "efficiency, adequacy and equitably". They say the Iraqi government, corrupt though it may be in other respects, runs an exemplary distribution process. "We monitor the distribution of food, so if people are saying there's something amiss then they are pointing the finger at us, and I resent that," said one UN official.

The food ration is supposed to be 2,200 calories a day. "It's enough to keep you alive," said another official, "but that's all. And a lot of the time we don't even meet the calorific target." The food basket does not include meat, fish or eggs, which Iraqis have to buy on the open market. But under sanctions prices have soared and the dinar has crashed. Paid employment has disappeared, and Baghdad is full of second-hand markets where families sell their most cherished possessions to earn some money. Even a teacher with over 10 years' experience earns little more than pounds 10 a month.

Sanctions have made the spread of disease much more likely. Sanitation is the key: UN health workers say, for example, that the water that leaves the country's main treatment plants is clean, but by the time it reaches the outer suburbs and rural areas it has been contaminated. The maintenance backlog is as long as money is short. Iraq, which once boasted some of the best social infrastructure in the world, let alone the Middle East, is now closer to the Third World in much of its provision.

Ever since the UN started to import flour for the food ration local wheat prices have collapsed, undermining the local food economy. So farmers have switched their attention to neighbouring markets; Syria and Iran have both benefited. Presumably these are the food exports that Tony Blair referred to, but it is merely the market at work - another example of the way sanctions have an unintended impact.

Not everyone suffers. Loyal servants of the ruling Ba'ath party remain largely immune, and some Iraqis even prosper. Those who profit from sanctions- busting and corruption can be seen any Friday at one of the many fashionable restaurants in Baghdad, or attending a fashion show at the Al Rasheed hotel. This new elite, which is a cousin to the old politico-military one, has brought a different, yet equally corrosive, dimension to life in Iraq.

There is no room for Iraqis such as a colleague of mine, one of the sanest, most civilised people I know. Recently he wrote to the British Library, asking for extracts from James Joyce's Ulysses. He sent the necessary photocopying vouchers, carefully saved from his days as a student in Britain in the 1980s. The library replied: "I regret to inform you that we cannot process these requests because of trade sanctions that have been imposed on your country by our Government."

Whether this is what sanctions are intended to achieve - presumably to promote reform - is questionable. It may already be too late. Ten years is very nearly an educational cycle; the great universities of Al-Mustansiriya and Baghdad are shadows of what they once were, and a whole generation is close to losing the prospect of a decent education.

We should not be surprised in the future if this generation, the victims of the sanctions years, jobless and rootless, turn to a violent expression of their contempt for the West.

George Alagiah is a BBC World Affairs correspondent.