Myths and Realities Regarding Iraq and Sanctions
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Voices in the Wilderness
A Campaign to End the Economic Sanctions Against the People of Iraq

Myths and Realities Regarding Iraq and Sanctions

    (Taken from Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War,
        ed. Anthony Arnove (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000), pp. 67-75.

        To order, call 1-800-533-8478, email, or visit

 Myth 1: The sanctions have produced temporary hardship for the Iraqi people but are an effective, nonviolent method of containing Iraq.

Sanctions target the weakest and most vulnerable members of the Iraqi society-the poor, elderly, newborn, sick, and young. Many equate sanctions with violence. The sanctions, coupled with pain inflicted by US and UK military attacks, have reduced Iraq뭩 infrastructure to virtual rubble. Oxygen factories, water sanitation plants, and hospitals remain in dilapidated states. Surveys by the United Nation뭩 Children뭩 Fund (Unicef) and the World Health Organization (WHO) note a marked decline in health and nutrition throughout Iraq. (1)

While estimates vary, many independent authorities assert that at least 500,000 Iraqi children under five have died since 1990, in part as a result of the sanctions and the effects of the Gulf War. An August 1999 Unicef report found that the under-five mortality rate in Iraq has more than doubled since the imposition of sanctions. (2) Former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday has remarked that the death toll is "probably closer now to 600,000 and that뭩 over the period of 1990-1998. If you include adults, it뭩 well over 1 million Iraqi people." (3)

The United Nations recently observed:

In addition to the scarcity of resources, malnutrition problems also seem to stem from the massive deterioration in basic infrastructure, in particular in the water-supply and waste disposal systems. The most vulnerable groups have been the hardest hit, especially children under five years of age who are being exposed to unhygienic conditions, particularly in urban centers. The [World Food Program] estimates that access to potable water is currently 50 percent of the 1990 level in urban areas and only 33 percent in rural areas. (4)

The UN sanctions committee, based in New York, continues to deny Iraq pencils, computer equipment, spare parts, and air-conditioned trucks, all necessary elements to sustaining human life and society. (5) Agricultural and environmental studies show great devastation, in many cases indicating permanent and irreversible damage. (6)

Others have argued that, from a North American perspective, sanctions are more economically sustainable than military attacks, since sanctions cost the United States less. In fact, hundreds of millions of US tax dollars are spent each year to sustain economic sanctions. Expenses include monitoring Iraqi import-export practices, patrolling the "no-fly" zones, and maintaining an active military presence in the Gulf region. (7)

Sanctions are an insidious form of warfare, and have claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Myth 2: Iraq possesses, and seeks to build, weapons of mass destruction. If unchecked, and without economic sanctions, Iraq could, and certainly would, threaten its neighbors.

According to former United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) chief inspector Scott Ritter, "[F]rom a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction." While it is certainly possible that Iraq has the seed stock to rebuild its purported arsenal, Ritter has said that Iraq does not currently possess the capability to produce or deploy chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. (8)

The United States only became concerned with Iraq뭩 military potential in 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait. The US supplied Iraq with most of its weapons. Just one day before Iraq invaded Kuwait, then-President George Bush approved and signed a shipment of advanced data transmission equipment to Iraq. The United States and Britain were the major suppliers of chemical and biological weapons to Iraq in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, in which the United States supported both sides with weapons sales. (9)

Finally, the United States possesses, and keeps on alert, more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined. Many Iraqis feel that it is disingenuous of the United States-sitting atop the world뭩 largest nuclear arsenal, refusing to comply with international treaties or allow its weapons programs to be inspected by international experts, and being the only nation in the world ever to drop an atomic bomb-to tell Iraq what it can and cannot produce. In 1998 and 1999, the United States bombed four countries-Serbia, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan-all in violation of international law.

Myth 3: Iraq has acted in violation of UN resolutions, while the United States has not.

UN Resolution 687, paragraph 14, calls for regional disarmament as the basis for reducing Iraq뭩 arsenal. By arming Iraq뭩 neighbors in the Middle East, the US is contravening the same UN resolution with which it maintains arguments for sustaining the sanctions. Israel possesses more than 200 thermonuclear weapons and has violated scores of UN mandates, yet the US remains silent on the UN floor with regard to this violation of international law. (10)

While the United States claims to be encouraging peace in the Middle East by destroying Iraq뭩 arsenal, it continues to arm Iraq뭩 neighbors. The list of consumers of American military technology-in the Middle East and elsewhere-reads like a "who뭩 who" of international terrorists, human rights violators, and dictators. The US supplies Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran with weapons and technology. All are Iraq뭩 neighbors and could potentially threaten its borders. UScontractors also supplied most of the weapons used by the Indonesian military in its invasion and occupation of East Timor. (11)

Myth 4: The Iraqi government has weakened and undermined the UN weapons inspection program, in part by kicking out inspectors in December 1998, thus forcing the US and UK to undertake "Operation Desert Fox."

The Iraqi government, knowing that the United States favors Saddam Hussein뭩 ouster and will impose sanctions until a "regime change," has no incentive to cooperate with the United States or intrusive inspections. Top Clinton administration officials-notably Secretary of State Madeleine Albright-have said publicly that sanctions will remain intact until Saddam Hussein is out of office. (12) This is not stipulated under the UN resolutions enforcing the sanctions.

Unscom director Richard Butler removed inspectors from Iraq prior to the December 1998 bombardment of the country, contrary to what is commonly reported. The US government claims Iraq "threw out" inspectors. In fact, the opposite occurred. According to Butler뭩 own records, his team of weapons inspectors made numerous unimpeded visits the week before the December
bombing. On only a few intentionally provocative visits was he prevented from inspecting a site. (13)

In February 1998, former weapons inspector Raymond Zilinskas stated that "95 percent of [Unscom뭩] work proceeds unhindered." He wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "Although it has been theoretically possible for the Iraqis to regain such weapons since 1991, the duplicity would have been risky and expensive, and the probability of discovery very high." (14)

Butler himself confirmed that he was in constant communication with the US military the week before the bombing. He often took his cues from Washington. Furthermore, the US government admitted (after an embarrassing Washington Post story) that it had been using Unscom to spy on Iraq. Iraq had previously charged Unscom with spying-a claim vehemently denied by the US government. (15) The ultimate irony is that Iraq pays for the entire UN operation in Iraq through oil revenues, thus financing workers to spy on behalf of the United States.

Efforts at negotiation and conciliation, such as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan뭩 February 1998 visit to Baghdad, have produced cooperation and an opening for dialogue. Establishment of a clear timetable for ending inspections and recognizing progress made by the Iraqi government would provide clear incentive for future dialogue and compliance.

Myth 5: The Iraqi government is deliberately withholding and stockpiling food and medicine to exacerbate the human suffering for political sympathy and to draw attention to the need to lift sanctions.

The US State Department alleges in its September 1999 report Saddam Hussein뭩 Iraq that Iraq appears to be warehousing and stockpiling medicines, with malicious intent. (16)

The warehousing of medicines is heavily monitored by the United Nations and is acknowledged by local UN administration and staff to be caused by logistical problems stemming from nine years of sanctions and lingering Gulf War damage. Periodic UN reports on the humanitarian programs in Iraq list many technical issues that complicate providing medicine to a country of 22 million people. Obstacles to efficient distribution include low wages of Iraqi warehouses workers, insufficient transport, and the poor condition of Iraqi warehouses in the provinces.

The United Nations conducts frequent inventories of the food and medicine stored in Iraq. Former humanitarian coordinator Hans von Sponeck and his deputy, Farid Zarif, have repeatedly called for the "depoliticization" of distribution, arguing that stockpiling is the result of Iraq뭩 damaged infrastructure, rather than malice on the part of the Iraqi government. (17)

There is a serious problem, which von Sponeck has referred to as "uncomplimentarity." In many cases, Iraq must purchase goods from foreign suppliers. Items come in pieces; for example, dental chairs arrive but compressors must be ordered from another company, or syringes arrive but needles take longer. Thus, some shipments must be held in Baghdad until they are complete. This happens, von Sponeck explained, with about one-half of the orders. (18) Moreover, the UN sanctions committee takes longer to approve some orders than others, thus forcing Iraq to keep medicine in storage until the complements are approved.

Temperatures in Iraq during summer often reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Air-conditioned trucks are therefore essential for shipping perishable goods, including cancer medication, surgical gloves, and foodstuffs. Yet air-conditioned trucks are practically nonexistent in Iraq, since the sanctions committee has barred them under "dual use" considerations. (19) While it is certainly true that air-conditioned trucks could be used for military purposes, they are also necessary to ship medication.

The infrastructure is so degraded throughout Iraq that medicine and even spare parts are "Band-Aids to a huge problem," according to von Sponeck. (20) There are electrical shortages in every city, including Baghdad. Water and sanitation facilities have collapsed. Oxygen plants have fallen apart. Denis Halliday stated that Iraq would need at least $50 billion to rebuild its agricultural, medical, and social infrastructure. (21)

After allocations are taken out of Iraq뭩 oil revenues to finance Gulf War reparations, and UN administrative costs, and other mandated expenses, the amount of money which trickles down to the average person in Iraq is completely insufficient. Iraq cannot afford to rebuild its infrastructure under the oil-for-food program. Water sanitation facilities, electrical grids, communication lines, and educational resources will remain permanently degraded until the sanctions are lifted.

Myth 6: The Iraqi leadership uses money intended for humanitarian purposes to build palaces and enrich itself.

The New York Times claims that "with oil sales blocked, [Saddam Hussein] chose to spend what money was available on lavish palaces and construction projects." (22) In the years before oil-for-food, it뭩 important to recall that the Iraqi government was distributing food to its civilian population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in 1995 of the rationing system that began in
September 1990: "The food basket supplied through the rationing system is a life-saving nutritional benefit which also represents a very substantial income subsidy to Iraqi households." (23)

Iraq is pumping as much oil today as it did before the Gulf War, but is making less money because of the change in oil prices and the dramatic rise of inflation since 1990. When one considers that three Iraqi dinars could buy $1 in 1990, and today it takes more than 2,000, the difference in oil sales between 1990 and today is significant. While Iraq is permitted to sell more than $5.26 billion of oil every six months, these funds are not at the discretion of Saddam Hussein, but are kept in a UN escrow account with the Bank of Paris in New York City.

The sanctions, though intended to weaken Iraq뭩 elite ruling class, only strengthen its political hegemony. With Iraq뭩 population decimated by hunger, disease, and fear of US and UK bombs, the development of civil society is hampered, as are hopes for pluralism. Iraq뭩 elite is empowered by a lucrative black market. With sanctions taking thousands of lives each month, the Iraqi
government can better rally popular support and bitterness against the US government.

Myth 7: The distribution in northern Iraq-where the UN is most heavily involved-is better than in the south, proving that the Iraqi government is failing to adequately distribute food and medicine to its people.

Sanctions are simply not the same in the north and south. Differences in Iraqi mortality rates result from several factors: the Kurdish north has been receiving humanitarian assistance longer than other regions of Iraq; agriculture in the north is better; evading sanctions is easier in the north because its borders are far more porous; the north receives 22 percent more per capita from the oil-for-food program than the south-central region; and the north receives UN-controlled assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities. (24)

Myth 8: The international community is united in its opposition to Iraq, and favors economic sanctions.

France, China, and Russia are three countries among many that have criticized the economic sanctions against Iraq. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, they have challenged the US and UK position on sanctions and have questioned military strikes. (25) The Pope, more than fifty US bishops, numerous religious leaders, and scores of organizations have condemned and protested both sanctions and military strikes. Two Nobel Peace laureates and five congressional staffers traveled to Iraq in 1999 to promote international concern and understanding for the conditions found in Iraq today. The Arab League has called for the immediate lifting of the economic sanctions. (26)

Myth 9: The US and UK fighter planes patrolling the "no-fly" zones are protecting Iraqi minority groups. Since the end of the December 1998 bombing campaign, there has been no "collateral damage" in these regions.

Since the December 1998 bombing campaign against Iraq, US and UK fighter planes have flown thousands of sorties over the northern and southern "no-fly" zones, allegedly to protect northern Kurds and southern Shiites.They patrol the Iraqi airspace, they say, so that Iraq cannot attack its own people, as it did during the 1980s. While UN resolutions do call for the protection of Iraqi minorities, there is no stipulation for military enforcement of the zones. (27)

According to the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, the US and UK planes have killed dozens of innocent civilians, and injured many more. (28) For example, on January 25, 1999, a guided missile killed more than ten people in Basra when it struck a civilian neighborhood. While the Pentagon denies any civilian casualties, eye-witness accounts describe encounters with scores of children and families wounded and killed when US and UK bombs missed their targets. (29)

While the US claims to be protecting northern Kurds from the Iraqi government, the US is silent when Turkey flies into Iraq, over the "no-fly" zone, to bomb Kurdish communities, because Turkey is a US ally. (30)

The bombing also complicates the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations. Aid workers have been forced to cancel trips into Kurdish and Shiite regions, and many civilians have been accidentally wounded, further burdening hospitals that are struggling to cope with daunting incidences of illness and preventable disease.


1.  See Unicef and Government of Iraq Ministry of Health, Child and Maternal Mortality Survey 1999: Preliminary Report (Baghdad: Unicef, 1999). Available online at See also WHO Resource Center, Health Conditions of the Population in Iraq Since the Gulf Crisis (Geneva: WHO, 1996). Available online at

2.  See Unicef press release, "Iraq Survey Shows 멖umanitarian Emergency," August 12, 1999 (Cf/doc/pr/1999/29).

3.  Matthew Rothschild, interview with Denis Halliday, The Progressive 63: 2 (February 1999): 26.

4.  United Nations, "Report of the Second Panel Pursuant to the Note by the President of the Security Council of 30 January 1999 (S/1999/100), Concerning the Current Humanitarian Situation in Iraq," Annex II, S/1999/356, March 30, 1999, p. 6, article 20.

5.  For a list of the holds, See UN Office of the Iraq Program wesbite, .

6.  See Dr. Peter L. Pellett, "Sanctions, Food, Nutrition, and Health in Iraq" (pp. 151-68) and Dr. Huda S. Ammash, "Toxic Pollution, the Gulf War, and Sanctions" (pp. 169-178), in Anthony Arnove ed., Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000) for references to several of these studies.

7.  The US spent more than $1 billion just to operate its bombing campaign against Iraq in 1999. See Steven Lee Myers, "In Intense But Little-Noticed Fight, Allies Have Bombed Iraq All Year," New York Times, August 13, 1999, p. A6.

8. Fellowship of Reconcilliation, interview with Scott Ritter, Fellowship 65: 9-10 (September-October 1999): 13.

9.  See Noam Chomsky, "멬hat We Say Goes: The Middle East in the New World Order," in Collateral Damage: The 멞ew World Order at Home and Abroad, ed. Cynthia Peters (Boston: South End Press, 1992), pp. 61-64 and references; Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (New York: Harper-Collins, 1999); Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, updated ed. (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1992), p. 152; Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq: How the U.S. and Britain Secretly Built Saddam뭩 War Machine (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1996).

10. UN Security Council Resolution 687, paragraph 14. All UN resolutions cited are available online at . See Seymour M. Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel, America, and the Bomb (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993), pp. 198-99, and Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia UP, 1998).

11. See Noam Chomsky, East Timor and the Western Democracies (Nottingham: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1979), p. 2, and Matthew Jardine and Constncio Pinto, East Timor뭩 Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1996).

12. See, for example, Tim Russert, interview with Madeleine Albright, NBC, Meet the Press, January 2, 2000.

13. See Richard Butler, "Iraqi Bombshell," Talk 1: 1 (September 1999): 240. See also Mark Huband, "Misery and Malnutrition Form Bedrock of Iraq뭩 New National Character," Financial Times, March 21, 1998, p. 4, on Iraqi compliance with Unscom inspections.

14. Jim Lehrer, interview with Raymond Zilinskas, PBS, Newshour, February 16, 1998; Raymond Zilinskas, "The Quickest Fix Would Be Too Costly," Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1998, "Perspectives," p. 1.

15. Barton Gellman, "US Spied on Iraqi Military Via UN," Washington Post, March 2, 1999, p. A1.

16. US Department of State, Saddam Hussein뭩 Iraq (September 1999). Available online at

17. See Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, interview with Hans von Sponeck, Baghdad, April 5, 1999 ( ), and Stephen Kinzer, "Smart Bombs, Dumb Sanctions," New York Times, January 3, 1999, p. 4: 4.

18. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, interview with Hans von Sponeck, Baghdad, April 5, 1999.

19. For a list of the holds, See UN Office of the Iraq Program wesbite,

20. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, interview with Hans von Sponeck, Baghdad, April 5, 1999.

21. Denis Halliday, lecture, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, February 15, 1999. Available from Citizens Concerned for the People of Iraq. See

22. Barbara Crossette, "Children뭩 Death Rate Rising in Iraqi Lands, Unicef Reports," New York Times, August 13, 1999, p. A6.

23. UN Food and Agriculture Organization Technical Cooperation Program, Evaluation of Food and Nutrition Situation in Iraq (Rome: FAO, 1995), p. 8.

24. See Unicef press release, "Iraq Survey Shows 멖umanitarian Emergency," August 12, 1999 (Cf/doc/pr/1999/29). See also Pellett, "Sanctions, Food, Nutrition, and Health in Iraq."

25. Of the five permanent members, only the US and UK, for example, approved UN Security Council Resolution 1284 in December 1999. See Roula Khalaf, "UN Adopts New Resolution on Iraq," Financial Times, December 18-19, 1999, p. 1.

26. See Fellowship of Reconcilliation, Nobel Laureate Delegation March 1999 Report (Nyack, New York: FOR, 1999); Los Angeles Times Wire Services, "US Congressional Staffers Pay Visit to Iraqi Hospital," Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1999, p. A9; Pax Christi USA, "Bishops Statement on the Iraqi Sanctions," letter to President Bill Clinton, January 20, 1998; and Jasper Mortimer, "Arab Leage Supports Lifting Iraq Sanctions," Associated Press, September 13, 1999.

27. See Steven Lee Myers, "US Jets Strike 2 Iraqi Missile Sites 30 Miles Outside Baghdad," New York Times, February 25, 1999, p. A7, for a rare admission that "In fact, no United Nations resolutions created the restricted zones."

28. UN Security Section/UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Air Strikes in Iraq: 28 December 1998-31 May 1999 (Baghdad, UNOHCI, 1999), pp. 1-12.

29. Vijay Joshi, "Iraq Says American Attack Kills 11," Associated Press, January 26, 1999.

30. See Matthew Rothschild, "A Misguided Policy Toward Iraq," San Diego Union Tribune, September 5, 1996, p. B11.

Anthony Arnove
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[Voices in the Wilderness]