Global Policy Forum

Iraq Defiant as US Lobbies Arabs


By John F. Burns

New York Times
February 25, 2001

As the Bush administration tries to build international consensus around a new, perhaps less punitive sanctions regime against Iraq, the reaction in the Iraqi capital runs from the contempt of Saddam Hussein to something resembling a weary, believe-it- when-we-see-it shrug among the 23 million ordinary Iraqis who have endured a decade of incremental misery.

President Bush's meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, which focused on the shift to so-called "smart" sanctions, was dismissed in Iraq's state-controlled newspapers today as a continuation of "Anglo-Saxon aggression." This began, in Iraq's view, when the United States and Britain led an allied military force that ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait and won endorsement for the harshest United Nations sanctions applied against a member state.

With the 10th anniversary of the Persian Gulf war defeat of Iraq being observed in Kuwait on Monday, there is nothing here to encourage expectation that the Baghdad leadership will prove more amenable to the modified sanctions that the United States and Britain have proposed.

On the contrary, judging by the fulminations from senior aides to Saddam Hussein and from Iraqi newspaper commentaries today, Iraq believes that it can outlast the United States and Britain, using propaganda and diplomacy in the Arab world to win complete abandonment of the sanctions.

The voice of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad was as shrill as ever as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in Egypt today at the start of a six-nation Middle East tour aimed at winning support from Iraq's closest neighbors for the fresh approach. The new policy has been urged by Washington and London as a means of maintaining pressure on Iraq to stop developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons — an effort Iraq says it has abandoned but the United States and Britain say it has not — while allaying concerns that Iraqis are being deprived of food and medicine.

"The small criminal Bush met with his British tail," the newspaper al Qadissiya, government-controlled like all others in Iraq, said on its front page today.

On the proposal for a new sanctions regime, which Iraqi newspapers have previously described as poisoned, the newspaper predicted that the Americans and British would fail in their bid to round up a new anti-Iraq consensus and thus deepen the hostility engendered by the two nations' bombing of what they said were Iraqi radar installations around Baghdad on Feb. 16.

In a similar tirade on Thursday, the official newspaper of the ruling Baath party, al Thawra, described the effort to shore up the sanctions by abandoning or scaling back those that had been blamed for malnutrition, disease and death as a last-ditch bid to rescue a failed policy. "These `smart' sanctions are nothing but a desperate and stupid attempt to exit the dead-end road reached by American and British policies against Iraq," it said.

"The `smart' sanctions focus primarily on controlling Iraq's financial resources, and restrict Iraq's diplomacy under the pretext of preventing it from arming itself," said the newspaper, which is considered a reliable indicator of the thinking of Saddam Hussein, who is leader of the Baath party as well as president and prime minister. "In other words, they aim at putting Iraq's economic, political and military potential in the hands of American and British enemies — a complete colonialist hegemony."

The Iraqi leader himself made no reported comment on the Washington meeting. But his trade minister appeared at an international technology fair in Baghdad — the first ever held here, and a fresh signal, according to Iraqi officials, of how far the old sanctions regime has eroded — and added his voice to the barrage of contempt.

"Our right is to export any commodity, whatever we can, and to buy any commodity that Iraqis require," the trade minister, Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, said at a news conference. "There cannot be walls between countries."

Judging the mood among ordinary Iraqis was more difficult, given the tight monitoring of foreign reporters and virtually all their conversations, effected through minders assigned to the reporters by the Information Ministry. But on the long overland journey from Jordan, 400 miles across the desert from Baghdad, and in the restaurants, bazaars and hospitals of the Iraqi capital, there seemed to be little enthusiasm at the news from Washington, and little hope that the everyday privations of the last decade will be eased.

How much of this dispiritedness is a result of exhaustion from the years of war and isolation — Iraq fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980's that severely depleted the country's resources before the Kuwait invasion — is impossible to say.

But along with the denunciations of the United States that are standard coda in any monitored conversation with an Iraqi, there were hints that many people here no longer care, if they ever did, whether their miseries are a result of the sanctions, as Mr. Hussein maintains, or the consequence of a cynical manipulation of the sanctions by the ruling elite in Baghdad, as Washington and some — but not all — United Nations sanctions reports have maintained.

Under the sanctions imposed after the gulf war, Iraq is allowed to sell a certain amount of oil, with the money going into United Nations-administered accounts that can be used for buying vital supplies like food and medicine.

Rising oil prices have increased revenue from this system sharply over the last year. Western officials also assert that Iraq is smuggling oil abroad and possibly using the revenue from those sales to rebuild its weapons program, allegations that Iraq denies.

At the al-Karam border post, at the frontier with Jordan, chaos runs through the night as traders, middle men and opportunists of every stripe elbow for the favor of Iraqi frontier officials, and the entry into Iraq that gives them access to an economy grotesquely distorted by the corruption and back-pocket dealings that have proliferated under sanctions.

One Iraqi official, momentarily out of earshot of his colleagues, sighed when asked about the possibility of sanctions being eased. "You know, mister," he said, "sanctions don't hurt governments, they hurt people. Presidents are not hurt by sanctions."

Much the same mood seemed to prevail at the Saddam Children's Hospital in Baghdad, where case- wearied doctors do rounds with reporters without, in some cases, bothering with the praise of Mr. Hussein or denunciations of the United States that have been routine for years. What matters most is that children suffering from bacterial meningitis or lymphocitic leukemia — often fatal conditions that have mushroomed in recent years, by Iraqi and United Nations counts — lack basic medicines and equipment to help keep them alive.

Whether this is because the government fails to buy medical supplies through the United Nations, as Washington contends, or because of the sanctions themselves, seemed secondary. Only after being asked several times did one mother, Suha Jassim, tending to a 6-year-old son with meningitis in the intensive care ward, say who she blamed for the situation. "America," she said, finally. And George W. Bush, the new president? "Him, too," she said. "He hates the Iraqi people, and that's why he sent his planes to bomb us."

More Information on a Turning Point for Iraq
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.