Ten years of sanctions have failed to oust Saddam. But they're killing Iraq

'Sanctions and bombings are creating new generations of young Iraqis who hate the West'
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The Independent Online

Ten years. Ten years is a long time. And it is ten, slow, bleeding years this week since the UN sanctions against Iraq were imposed following the Gulf War. The First World War lasted only four years; the Second, six. Yet these historical events feel massively more extended than they actually were because we are, quite understandably, never allowed to forget them. All I am comparing here is time. When it comes to Iraq, time has lost all meaning, vapourised into nothingness, because there is barely any public consciousness of what has been happening in that country.

Ten years. Ten years is a long time. And it is ten, slow, bleeding years this week since the UN sanctions against Iraq were imposed following the Gulf War. The First World War lasted only four years; the Second, six. Yet these historical events feel massively more extended than they actually were because we are, quite understandably, never allowed to forget them. All I am comparing here is time. When it comes to Iraq, time has lost all meaning, vapourised into nothingness, because there is barely any public consciousness of what has been happening in that country.

The consequences of the draconian UN sanctions policy are there for all to see if they choose to look. The mortality rate for children under five has risen from 48 per thousand in 1990 to 125 per thousand in 1999. One in four children is under-nourished, a rise of 73 per cent since 1991. The UN sanctions committee has the right to veto anything from getting to Iraq. Today you cannot get books, envelopes or paints for children. The infrastructure has been demolished. Iraqi doctors, physiotherapists, lawyers, writers, have had to sell almost everything they own to buy basic necessities.

One of the most powerful images of this is a picture taken by photographer Karen Robinson showing a line of loved dolls propped up against a pavement waiting to be sold by desperate families. In 1996, the American journalist Lesley Stahl asked Madeleine Albright if she was concerned that more children appeared to have died in Iraq than in Hiroshima. She replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think is worth it."

Once in a while an ethical journalist writes an impassioned article or a resourceful but powerless anti-sanctions campaign group organises a meeting for the converted. The Muslim News, The New Internationalist and some internet sources try their best to agitate and educate but they have little effect on the wider population, which remains either ignorant or wilfully indifferent to what is being done in our name to some of the most highly accomplished, educated and cultured people on earth.

I say "Iraqis" and not "Saddam Hussein". The UN sanctions are meant to tame Saddam not to punish the Iraqi people, or so we are told with nauseating regularity by the powerful. Oh Yes? Call me stupid for asking such a naive question, but how is it then that Saddam is still in control and not looking an inch thinner while according to UNICEF, 5000 children are dying each month as a direct result of the sanctions? Oh, simple, answers the Foreign Office website: "Sanctions are not responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Sanctions could have been lifted within months of their imposition if Iraq had chosen to comply with its obligations rather than obstructing weapons inspectors."

The first thing to note here is the use of the word "Iraq". Is it not grotesque that "Iraq" is used as a synonym for Saddam, a ruthless dictator who has systematically cowed and throttled Iraq so that nobody else in that country has a voice or even a whisper of their own?

The Foreign Office is right that the ruling regime in Iraq is to blame for provoking the responses and nobody I know would argue against military sanctions. But do our politicians really expect a power-crazy dictator who uses terror and torture, to don a white robe when the evening comes and go out handing over to his people the food and medicines which are allowed under the "Oil for Food" UN humanitarian programme? Or is their calculation based on the expectation that driven mad, the most malnourished, defeated and sick citizens of Iraq will one day storm the doors of the many palaces and bring us out Saddam's head on a stick?

I lived under such a dictator once. Idi Amin, like Saddam Hussein, was once thought a good, dependable chap with whom the West could do business. When he showed himself to be the villain he always was, it was his people who he turned on. If sanctions had been imposed on Uganda in the early Seventies, already-oppressed Ugandans would have suffered even more and Amin would have blamed the West for their woes.

I met the tyrant in 1971 when I was twenty-one at an event where student leaders could meet the country's leaders. He was already heating up under the pressures being put on him by Israel, the US and the UK, who were tired of giving him vast amounts of aid money. He said that if all aid stopped, he didn't care. People could starve, he said - eat mud or each other (it is believed that he, in fact, relished human flesh), before he would go begging again. To expect tyrants to go all humanitarian because the UN demands it is insane. In South Africa, those opposing the Apartheid regime were prepared to suffer the sanctions for freedom. I have never met a single Iraqi from the opposition who agrees with the UN sanctions policies.

There is evidence that misery is mounting in Iraq and that more Westerners are becoming vocal in challenging the UN policies. Besides the dedicated and tenacious work of individual journalists such as the New Internationalist's Nikki Van der Gaag, we now have the voices of two ex-UN Humanitarian Co-Ordinators. The first, Denis Halliday, left because he felt: "We are in the process of destroying an entire nation... It is illegal and immoral." His successor, Hans von Sponeck, left this February for the same reason. Politicians such as Alice Mahon and US congressman David Bonior from Michigan, are getting more and more critical, in part because they know that these sanctions and the unquestioned, continuing bombings of Iraq are creating new generations of young Iraqis who hate the West. Der Gaag met a young child in Iraq recently who had drawn a picture of a white soldier shooting flowers. American and English soldiers, she explained, hated flowers.

We must wake up and this is the week for it. Protests begin today and will continue all week with meetings and "Die-Ins" - mock corpses which will place themselves in key localities around London. Similar peaceful demonstrations are planned in Canada, the USA, France, Southern Ireland and Italy. Most of us may not feel comfortable with anything that dramatic. But what is there to stop us writing in to our MP and Downing Street?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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