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July 1999


Iraq's silent agony

As the United Nations Security Council resumes its debate on Iraq, it remains divided. Three proposals are up for discussion, tabled by Britain (with the backing of the United States), China and Russia, plus a "working document" submitted by France. The British position sets new requirements for any eventual lifting of sanctions, which are even more draconian than those formulated in previous UN decisions. Baghdad has already made it clear that the British text is unacceptable. Its adoption would only prolong the political stalemate and the silent agony of Iraq and its people.

by our special correspondent ALAIN GRESH

He is fifty years old. Baghdad is his native city and he loves it. He is happy to show round the rare foreigners that he encounters. He shows you the old streets and monumental avenues, the markets and cafes, and the banks of the Tigris. Most of all he talks about how it used to be in the old days, "before". Before what? He does not answer but concentrates on driving his cab, threading his way through old cars dating back to the 1950s and the gleaming new Mercedes of the nouveaux riches. Suddenly he talks of this mythical "before": his years at university, the debates on Arab unity, the nationalisation of the oil industry, political illusions, studies abroad and a flowering of intellectual life. There was a world waiting to be remade, and he saw himself as part of building a "new society". At the time he was not aware of the web of oppression that was insidiously beginning to envelop the country.

When was this "before"? It is hard to date it precisely. Was it 1974-75 and the crushing of the Kurdish revolt in the name of the struggle against "imperialism"? Or 1979 and the unleashing of repression against the Shiites, this time in the name of combating the "threat of Islam"? For him, it was more probably 1980 and the war with Iran - eight years of madness, eight years in the trenches, Verdun and Stalingrad, gas and missiles, a nightmare beyond words. Life suddenly turned unspeakable, bringing a sour taste that will stay with him for ever and the impossibility of returning to civilian life afterwards. Like a sleepwalker he followed the invasion of Kuwait, the defeat of the Iraqi army, the insurrections in the south and north in spring 1991. There were too many things to absorb, to understand, to judge, for a young officer recently returned from the front. And then, one day, came the brutal awakening: he found himself a prisoner in a country paralysed by a never-ending regime of sanctions.

Sanctions. The word is abstract. It is a penalty, a punishment, which according to the Americans is meant to target a dictator and his regime. For the individual Iraqi it has a bitter taste, often dramatic, sometimes tragic, sometimes even laughable. He lost a brother, who died during a routine hospital operation. There was a power cut - Baghdad has only six hours of power a day - and the hospital generators were not working. She, on the other hand, has any number of names and faces. You can see her on television, the mother of one of the thousands of babies who have died for lack of adequate medical attention.

Or she may be this other woman - the university academic, educated in the old style, an avid reader. In the old days people used to say that Arab books were written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq. Apart from the uninspiring output of government publications, how can she satisfy her appetite for reading now? She has no money, but unlike some of her friends she has resisted the temptation to sell her library. Foreign friends tried to get her a subscription to a scientific journal. The UN Sanctions Committee blocked it -- presumably for fear that its articles would help her produce biological weapons and nuclear bombs.

This is how sanctions have transformed Iraq into a prison. One of the people I meet pleads "Write about sanctions of the spirit." Travel abroad is an impossibility: compared with the minimum monthly wage of 6,000 dinars (1), an exit visa costs 400,000 dinars for an adult and 200,000 for a child. Between three and four million Iraqis, some of the country’s most talented people, have already taken the road into exile. It is not easy to find work abroad. However, the April 1999 lifting of sanctions against Libya has raised new expectations in Baghdad: Libya is soon likely to be hiring Arab engineers and technicians.

The motorway unrolls its monotonous six lanes across a flat desert landscape of indescribable boredom. It is a ten hour journey from Amman to Baghdad for the privileged few who can afford to book a fast car, but double that for the ordinary traveller. This is the outsider’s first concrete contact with what "sanctions" mean: Baghdad has no passenger access by air, so getting there is a major expedition. The country is now on another planet, an outlaw among nations, assured of a future agony that will be programmed, silent and ruthless.

Gradd Sponeck, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, is upset. "None of us, myself included, has been able to make the international community see the seriousness of the humanitarian situation." The total sums received through the "Oil for Food" programme (2) during Phase 5 (which ended on 23 May 1999) amount to about $180 per person per year, "which puts Iraq among the poorest countries in the world". Particularly since this amount is also supposed to cover civil expenditure such as education, maintenance of infrastructures, communications, etc. Since the programme began, Sponeck says "the deterioration of the humanitarian situation has slowed, but it has not been halted".

Receipts for Phase 5 were more than $3.5 billion, and could reach $4.5 billion in Phase 6. But in a recent report the secretary-general of the United Nations himself stressed that "the gravity of the humanitarian situation is such that this funding level [the $5.2 billion ceiling permitted by Resolution 986], even if it could be reached, is insufficient to meet all the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people" (3).


But who reads these reports or listens to the countless warnings? Accounts of the situation in the hospitals, the deaths of children and the chronic malnutrition are met with public indifference. While the country falls apart, the leaders of the "international community" look the other way. Key infrastructures, already over 15 years old, are deteriorating inexorably. Power stations are incapable of meeting the country’s energy needs - power cuts result in the destruction of food stocks at refrigerated warehouses, since temperatures at the height of summer rise to 50 degrees centigrade. Telephoning is a major undertaking - in order to ring the French delegation in Baghdad, only a few kilometres from UN headquarters, Sponeck has to go via New York on a satellite phone. Schools are emptying, university standards are falling and, worst of all, illiteracy is on the increase. The whole social fabric of the country is collapsing. Even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow, it would take a generation to get the country back on its feet. Do we have the right to sacrifice a nation in this way, to compromise its future so utterly? Sponeck concludes bitterly: "If the international community doesn’t do something, that will mean that it is a battle on the backs of the Iraqi people."


End of inspections

There was also bitterness in a speech by Tariq Aziz, one of Iraq’s three deputy prime ministers (Saddam Hussein keeps the role of prime minister). "We have worked towards disarmament for the past eight years and the Security Council has taken no steps in our direction. We deserve sanctions to be lifted, in line with Resolution 687. That text was voted without consulting us, but we have applied it, and we are waiting for the UN to respect its undertakings. We were promised light at the end of the tunnel, and instead they have sent us Cruise missiles."

Is disarmament really the aim of the UN? Tariq Aziz doubts it. Resolution 687 was meant to free the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, but, he says, "the Security Council has made no serious proposals in that direction". And Operation Desert Fox, launched by Washington and London on 16 December 1998, destroyed all the means of long-term weapons control set up by Unscom during the preceding years. For about seven months there have been no inspectors in Iraq. A year ago the United States was explaining that Unscom’s work was crucial in preventing Baghdad from rebuilding its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and threatening peace in the region. Any extended pause in inspections would have had appalling repercussions. So why is it so relaxed about the situation today?

Wearing military uniform like his colleagues (only Saddam Hussein wears civilian clothes at cabinet meetings), Abdel Khalek Hammam, minister for information and culture, tells the world (with one eye on CNN) that with its raids of last December the US was hoping to provoke an uprising. "They failed," he notes with satisfaction. Baghdad is, however, buzzing with rumours of serious trouble both in the suburbs of Baghdad and in Shiite towns in the south. The minister formally denies this, admitting to only a few disturbances in the capital following the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr and his two sons on 19 February 1999.

Despite these denials, and despite the difficulties of gathering information in a country where journalists’ movements and interviews are closely monitored, there is no doubt that this spring the regime faced its most serious wave of protests since 1991. It all started last February, with the appearance of armed men in the Shiite town of Nassiriya. At the same time, the announcement of the killing of Ayatollah al-Sadr led to Shiite rioting in several towns in the south and in the suburbs of Baghdad, provoking the mobilisation of about 50 armoured vehicles and thousands of troops. Several government figures were killed. The troubles continued intermittently for several weeks, particularly in Basra, where some neighbourhoods were outside the control of the authorities.

Does this mean there is a "Shiite question" in Iraq? For Dr Majid Radi, a Sunni leftwing dissident living in exile, to answer this question means going back to the origins of the Iraqi state. King Feisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who had led the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire during the first world war, was placed on the Iraqi throne in 1921 by the British. Most of his advisors were Sunnis like him, whereas the majority of the population was Shiite (4) and had taken the Ottoman side during the war. Although Sunnis and Shiites did unite as occasion required to fight against the colonial powers, the Shiites were always kept away from the centres of political decision-making. "The 1958 revolution, with the coming to power of Abdelkarim Kassem, who had a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, slightly improved the situation. The strength of the Communist Party, which was very influential among the Shiites, also helped with their integration. But the Arab nationalists, in particular the Baathists, developed a more or less veiled anti-Shiite rhetoric. This became more marked during the 1970s, particularly after the repression of the demonstrations of February 1977."

Shiites were seen as "the Persian enemy" and hundreds of thousands of them whose passports stated that they were "of Iranian origin" were deported to Iran, even though many of their families had lived in Iraq for over a century. These deportations, carried out in the name of Arab "purity", were accompanied by open racism towards the poor Shiite masses crowded into the suburbs of Baghdad. It is true that some government figures today are Shiites - for instance, the president of the National Assembly, the minister for foreign affairs and the army chief of staff - but their role is marginal compared to that of the Sunni hard core.

However, despite the violence against them, the Shiites have always proved loyal. During the terrible war with Iran they fought determinedly as part of the Iraqi army. Their religious leaders have always insisted on the need for fraternity with Sunnis, and a few months before his execution in 1980 Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr was to say: "I have spent this existence for the sake of Shi’i and Sunni equally in that I defended the message that united them and the creed that embraced them in one body" (5). Later, in the 1990s, his nephew, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was to issue a fatwa giving Shiites permission to attend prayers led by a Sunni imam.

"Inhabitants of Iraq, men of revolt and treachery." That was how General al-Hajjaj, the envoy of the Umayyad caliph, Abdelmalik Ibn Marwan, addressed the reputedly turbulent populations of former Mesopotamia at the end of the seventh century. "By God, I see only heads raised towards me, their necks stretching out, heads that are ripe and ready for cutting off. If you keep to the straight road, all will be well. If you take the wrong road, you will find me there to ambush you. I shall pardon no mistake, I shall accept no excuse. I am a person who keeps his promises. If I raze, I flay. No more gatherings, no more pointless chatter."

Few parts of the world have been more marked by violence than the lands situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates. From the 1920 rising against Britain to the anti-communist massacres in 1963, from the suppression of the Kurdish revolt in 1974-75 to the mass deportation of border populations in the late 1980s (6), violence always seems to have been the only way of settling political, religious and national differences. The Kurdish and Shiite rising in the spring of 1991, with its excesses and the ruthless repression which followed it, was additional proof.

Will it ever be possible to break out of this culture of civil war? Wamid Omar al-Nazmi, professor of political science in Baghdad and educated in Britain, hopes so. This former member of the Baath party - he left in 1961 at the age of 20 - and supporter of Arab unity and democracy is one of the only opposition intellectuals tolerated by the regime. He denounces the embargo imposed by the US, but he also criticises the media "which do not reflect people’s difficulties" and create "a real schizophrenia" among the Iraqis. "Of course the Americans are ultimately responsible for the embargo" he says. "But when an ordinary person goes to hospital and finds there are shortages of medicines, it is an Iraqi that he comes up against, and that’s who he sees as responsible for his suffering."

For Dr al-Nazmi there is a pressing urgency to end the "philosophy of confrontation" which has been the bane of Iraqi politics. "Imam Sadr re-established Friday prayers - which had been suspended in protest against the ‘irreligious regime’ - and condemned the American raids. Both of these were steps in the right direction" - towards a dialogue between the government and the Shiites. Dr al-Nazmi says there also needs to be an agreement with the Kurds who live under their own administration in the north of the country. "The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are caught between two stools: an agreement with Baghdad which would involve an unwanted break with the US; and a war with the government, which they do not want either, because its outcome would be uncertain and could end up with a regime in Baghdad that was pro-American and anti-Kurdish, as has happened in Turkey." But these calls for a "historic compromise" between the government and the opposition have less chance of being heard at a time when the government allows absolutely no leeway for autonomy among civil society, and when the US seems bent on doing all in its power to overthrow Saddam Hussein.


American strategy

"At 10.40 this morning the criminal aggressors once again violated our air space, flying in from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They carried out 32 sorties, 10 from Kuwaiti airspace and 22 from Saudi airspace. A spokesman for the air force says that our missile and anti-aircraft forces forced them back and they returned to their bases at 1.10 pm." Night after night the flat tones of the TV newscaster report the American and British bombings, which have been ongoing since the start of the year, far from the eyes of the international media. But this "low intensity war" is only one aspect of US strategy against the Iraqi regime.

On 31 October 1998 President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which had been voted by Congress on 28 September 1998. The objective was now to "remove from power the regime led by Saddam Hussein and to promote the emergence of a democratic government." There have also been other signs that the White House is aiming for an end-game: the appointment of a US "special representative for transition in Iraq", Frank Ricciardone; the reconciliation - still very fragile - between the KDP and the PUK in Washington in September 1998; and the regeneration of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which is supposed to bring the various opposition forces together.

Even the opposition forces that are most reticent about US intervention - the Da’wa Party, the Communist Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) etc - recognise an unprecedented determination on the part of the US. But the left - notably the Communist Party, which is the only organisation bringing together both Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis - fear the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Baghdad in thrall to Washington. The Shiites, for their part, want a larger military commitment, in particular the establishment of a "land exclusion zone" in the south, where the US would ban not only overflying, but also movements of tanks and heavy goods.

But the White House and Pentagon are nervous about being dragged into a ground war. They say that it is "premature" to be arming the opposition. As General Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Middle East (Centcom), explained in London in May 1999, "Not one single leader or person I've met in the region supports arming external opposition group, not one. And without regional support, I don't know how you could make it happen" (7).

The enrolment of Iraq’s neighbours in this crusade - beginning with Iran, which currently shelters tens of thousands of armed Iraqi opposition forces - is obviously worrying for Baghdad. In an attempt to gain breathing space in the region, for the past year the Baath government has been making goodwill gestures towards Teheran.

Dr Muhammad Nuri Qays speaks French and was educated at the Sorbonne. He is general secretary of the Beit al-Hikma, the "house of wisdom", a centre for research in the social sciences. He describes himself as "half an oppositionist" and says that "if the situation was normal, I would be the first to call for democracy". His institute recently held a day of workshops on Arab-Iranian relations. "Iran is our neighbour and our common history has been one of peace. The war was an exception." He lists the Baghdad government’s goodwill gestures towards the Islamic Republic in recent months: the freeing of all Iranian prisoners of war; visits to Teheran by leading Iraqi government figures (particularly that of the vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, in November 1998); the permission given to Iranian pilgrims to visit Shiite holy sites in Iraq since August 1998, etc. In his view Iraq is ready to sign a peace treaty with Iran on the basis of the 1975 Treaty of Algiers (8). And what about the presence of the Mujahedin in Iraq? He gestures as if to sweep the question away: "Once an agreement has been reached, this problem would be settled in 24 hours, like in 1975."

He is astonished that Iran has not responded to these openings - on the contrary, there was renewed tension in relations between the two countries in June 1999 when missiles landed on a Mujahedin base in Iraq. Is Teheran hoping for the break-up of Iraq? That, in his opinion, is a dangerous illusion. But he does not seem to understand that Iran has no confidence in Saddam Hussein, the man who in 1980 tore up the treaty between the two countries and started a war which was to result in hundreds of thousands of victims. And more particularly, why would Iran want to jeopardise its rapprochement with the Arab Gulf states and the US by coming to the assistance of a regime that is so isolated?

The current discussions at the Security Council have shown the gap between the United States and Britain on one hand, and France, Russia and China on the other. They attest to the deadlock over Iraq, with nothing to suggest any swift resolution of the problem. Meanwhile, there is a growing dislocation of country and people, with social solidarity eroding, which bodes ill for the future. The US may in the end have its way, but at the cost of destruction and suffering that are likely to affect the region for decades to come.


(1) In May 1999 there were 2,000 dinars to the dollar.

(2) Resolution 986, the "Oil for Food" programme, passed in 1995, was finally accepted by Iraq on 20 May 1996, when it signed a memorandum of agreement with the UN. This allowed Iraq to export $2 billion of oil every six months - raised to $5.2 billion in February 1998. These sums are deposited in a special UN account. They are allocated as follows: 53% for Iraqi imports of food, medicines and certain civilian requirements; 13% for the three departments in the north (Kurdistan) which are outside central government control; and the rest for compensation of victims of the war with Kuwait and various expenses arising out of the embargo and the work of the UN (including Unscom).

(3) "Review and assessment of the implementation of the humanitarian program established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 986 (December 1996-November 1998)", Security Council, United Nations, New York, 28 April 1999.

(4) The last census giving statistics for religious affiliations was held in 1947. This gave the figures as 51.4% Shiites, 19.7% Sunni Arabs and 18.4% Sunni Kurds, the rest comprising Shiite Kurds, Turcomans, Christians, Jews, etc.

(5) Quoted by Joyce N Wiley, The Islamic Movement of Iraqi Shi’as, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London, 1992, p. 54.

(6) The documents on the Anfal campaign, which resulted in the deaths of between 50,000 and 100,000 people, were "recovered" by the Kurds during their insurrection in spring 1991, and were printed in a damning report by Human Rights Watch, published by Yale University Press in 1994.

(7) Quoted by Mideast Mirror, London, 26 May 1999.

(8) On 6 March 1975 Teheran and Baghdad signed an agreement in Algiers which ended their differences over the issue of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The shah undertook to end his support for the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion, and this collapsed a few weeks later.

Translated by Ed Emery

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique

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