Home > Essays > Scenes from Iraq
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Scenes from Iraq

The road from Amman to Baghdad takes around twelve hours to travel, across a hot and rather desolate stretch of land, if you include the border crossing. Today one can fly to Baghdad. Since August 2000, dozens of flights have flown to Iraq in defiance of the United States government’s interpretation of United Nations (UN) resolutions, an interpretation that effectively stopped air travel into Iraq for the previous decade. A flight carrying Americans landed in Baghdad in January 2001. In March 2000, though, when I went to Iraq with an interfaith delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Voices in the Wilderness, one could only enter Iraq by way of Jordan.

Entering Iraq was illegal from the standpoint of our government, which is not eager for people to see firsthand the consequences of the comprehensive embargo imposed on the country since August 6, 1990, four days after the invasion of Kuwait. Those who have traveled to Iraq, including journalists from conservative or mainstream publications such as The Economist, Financial Times, USA Today, and U.S. News and World Report, have come back to tell a very similar story, and a haun-ting one. Despite claims that it is enforcing an embargo to aid the Iraqi people, protect their human rights, and encourage their struggle for democracy, it is clear that the policy of the U.S. government is devastating the Iraqi people and undermining hope for a democratic future.

“U.S. officials repeatedly insist that the sanctions are not targeted at ordinary Iraqis, but they are its only true victims,” note Kevin Whitelaw and Warren P. Strobel, two reporters for U.S. News and World Report who visited the country in August 2000. Based on a countrywide survey using internationally accepted medical standards, Unicef estimates that mortality rates for children under five doubled in Iraq in the period 1990-98. Based on this reversal in Iraq’s previously improving rate of infant and under-five mortality, Unicef estimates that there were 500,000 “excess” deaths of children under five in that period. The leading killer of children in Iraq today is diarrhea and the dehydration it causes.

The Economist magazine recently observed:

Sanctions impinge on the lives of all Iraqis every moment of the day. In Basra, Iraq’s second city, power flickers on and off, unpredictably, in the hours it is available. . . . Smoke from jury-rigged generators and vehicles hangs over the town in a thick cloud. The tap water causes diarrhea, but few can afford the bottled sort. Because the sewers have broken down, pools of stinking muck have leached through the surface all over town. That effluent, combined with pollution upstream, has killed most of the fish in the Shatt-al-Arab river and has left the remainder unsafe to eat. The government can no longer spray for sand flies or mosquitoes, so insects have proliferated, along with the diseases they carry. Most of the once-elaborate array of government services have vanished. The archeological service has taken to burying painstakingly excavated ruins for want of the proper preservative chemicals. The government-maintained irrigation and drainage network has crumbled, leaving much of Iraq’s prime agricultural land either too dry or too salty to cultivate. Sheep and cattle, no longer shielded by government vaccination programs, have succumbed to pests and diseases by the hundreds of thousands. Many teachers in the state-run schools do not bother to show up for work any more. Those who do must teach listless, malnourished children, often without the benefit of books, desks, or even blackboards.

The sanctions have affected the poor, the elderly, the sick, the young, and even the once relatively well-off middle class. But they have not hurt the rich, those with foreign business connections or profiting off the black market created by the embargo, or those in power. In fact, they have strengthened the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party by weakening the population, further militarizing the state, and creating a nationalist rally effect among people angry at the U.S. government and its allies for the impact of the 1991 Gulf War, the ongoing bombing of Iraq, and the sanctions.

Take electricity, for example. If you are among the elite in Iraq, you have access to dollars and can buy private generators. But most Iraqis go without power for long stretches every day. So do hospitals, schools, and refrigeration facilities. Or consider chlorine. The rich in Baghdad can smuggle in chlorine for their private swimming pools—in fact, there has been a boom in private pool construction in Baghdad during the last decade of suffering—but many Iraqis are drinking water that has not been properly chlorinated or treated, and therefore are contracting water-borne diseases that have contributed to the escalating mortality rate, especially among young children.

One aspect of the sanctions that is poorly understood, thanks in part to the distorting lens with which the sanctions have been reported by the press in the United States, is the mechanism by which Iraq is able to purchase goods on the world market. After years of preventing Iraq from exporting oil, the UN established the oil-for-food program in 1995-96, which allowed the country to export limited amounts of oil. (That limit was later raised and has since been lifted altogether, though Iraq’s infrastructure is so badly damaged that it can’t pump oil to its full capacity.) However, the revenue from those sales is controlled by the UN, not the Iraqi government. Thirty percent (recently reduced to twenty-five) comes immediately off the top to pay reparations to Kuwait and other claimants from the Gulf War. Then the UN pays for its operations related to Iraq. Iraq must apply to the UN sanctions committee for permission to spend the rest. Yet the sanctions committee, based at the UN’s New York offices, routinely rejects applications for items considered to have a potential military “dual use.” Among the items that have been kept out, largely through the veto power of the American representative on the committee, are chlorine, vaccines, and parts for the oil and water infrastructure. Billions in contracts are “on hold” in the committee.

At a water sewage plant outside Basra, Dr. Suad Al-Azawi leads us on a tour of the crumbling facility he proudly manages. Only one of three intake pumps is working. His chemical lab has been shut down for lack of the necessary materials. One chlorinator is broken, and the other is probably rigged, though he doesn’t say this, with black-market parts.

As we stand looking over a water aqueduct, he leans over to me and says, “Noam Chomsky.” It takes me a moment to register what he has said. “Can you get me a book by Noam Chomsky? Linguistics. Anything on linguistics.” Dr. Al-Azawi has a personal interest in the field, but he couldn’t possibly get any books in his present circumstances. It’s not that books are unavailable in Iraq. In fact, in the souqs of Baghdad, one can buy vast libraries of books sold by Iraqis desperately trying to find a few more dinars to take care of their families. Every night, Iraqis can be found in auction houses, selling off their remaining goods.

Before the war and embargo, three Iraqi dinars would trade for a U.S. dollar. When I visited Iraq, one dollar traded for 2,200 Iraqi dinars. The result is that the savings and earnings power of most Iraqis has been largely wiped out. Those on fixed incomes, like doctors and schoolteachers, now make only a small fraction of their previous salaries when adjusted for buying power. Many more Iraqi professionals find themselves having to drive taxis or peddle petty wares, after having sold off their art, libraries, refrigerators, furniture, and even homes.

Yet even if Dr. Al-Azawi could afford to buy a linguistics book, he would be hard pressed to buy something written since the Gulf War. As part of the comprehensive sanctions, an intellectual embargo has been imposed on Iraq. Medical textbooks, scientific journals, and other books have been kept out of the country. In the pediatrics ward of a hospital in Basra, several young doctors wrote in my notebook the names of medical textbooks that they desperately wanted us to smuggle into the country if we returned, books available at any decent medical bookstore in the United States.

In the Al Fanar Hotel in Baghdad, a few hotel workers and drivers looking for work sit around an old black-and-white television. The evening news comes on and soon is showing highlights of NBA basketball. The late-night movie is an American cops-and-robbers flick from the 1980s. The next day, as we’re riding in a taxi to Saddam City, the poorest area of Baghdad, the radio plays Madonna’s new recording of “American Pie.”

The image of Iraq presented by U.S. politicians, and faithfully echoed in the media, is that the Arab world is deeply anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-modern. Democratic traditions, we are told, have not taken hold there. The people are backward, irrational, prone to violence and terrorism. They are engaged in a Holy War against the values of the West, and in the “coming clash of civilizations,” the Islamic world may be the greatest threat to our freedom.

Without demonizing Arab and Muslim people—and particularly Iraqis—it would be much harder to justify bombing Iraq into a “pre-industrial” state, which is how a delegation of UN observers described the country soon after the Gulf War ended. It would be harder to claim that we have to impose a comprehensive embargo on a people for the crimes of their leader. That’s the favored slip of logic applied to Iraq. When the defenders of sanctions discuss Iraq policy, we are told sanctions were imposed on “Saddam Hussein,” as if Iraq, a modern and complex society of twenty-two million people, was populated by only one man. Consider the phrasing of an editorial from the Boston Globe: Writing about the death of Syrian dictator Hafez el-Assad, the editors noted in an aside that “[t]he impulsive, impatient Saddam was driven out of Kuwait and suffered sanctions for a decade.”

The media and those who defend the sanctions at the State House and White House continually blur the line between the people and the government in Iraq. It’s an odd calculus, given how repressive and undemocratic the regime in Baghdad is and has always been, including during the many years in which it was provided with arms, intelligence, money, and political backing from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western powers. One often hears about the brutal Halabja massacre of March 1988, when Hussein “gassed his own people.” True enough. Thousands of Kurds were killed in that vicious attack, and thousands more were killed in the government’s Anfal campaign. Yet we rarely hear that the U.S. backed Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, starting in 1980, or that it increased agricultural credits to the government after the Halabja massacre.

But ordinary Iraqis don’t make that mistake about Americans, or about themselves. In spontaneous encounters we had during our visit, we were welcomed as if we were long-lost family. People struggling day to day would insist on serving us sweetened Iraqi tea. A school principle in Baghdad brought out Cokes, or at least an Iraqi drink in Coca-Cola bottles, and gave our delegation an elaborate painting he had done when he was serving in the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war.

Though it would have been perfectly understandable if they expressed anger and resentment at our delegation—comprised of eleven people from the United States, a country that has bombed and embargoed theirs for ten years—Iraqis we met universally made a distinction between us and our government.

“I hate Bush. I hate Clinton. But we love Americans. We know you are not your government. We know that your government does not represent the people.” This observation, which we heard repeatedly, was also a not-too-subtly coded expression of Iraqis’ view of their own government and of other Arab regimes that make billions off oil and mineral resources while overseeing countries whose populations live in refugee-camp conditions.

Many Iraqis have friends and family in the West, have visited the United States or studied here, follow American sports, and can discuss our history in some detail. I witnessed no hatred of America, only the sanctions and the bombing. “Please tell the government to stop killing our children,” a middle-school teacher tells me when I ask if she has any message for me to bring back.

In fact, despite the great pain they feel in recounting them, people we met throughout our trip wanted to share their stories because they were convinced that if Americans knew what was happening in Iraq, they would want to help bring an end to the war.

Consider the story of Iqbal Fartouss, a schoolteacher in the al-Joumeriyah section of Basra, Iraq’s most important southern city and the area perhaps hardest hit by the Gulf War and sanctions. Iqbal Fartouss now goes by the name Umm Hydir, “mother of Hydir,” a name she took after her son of that name was killed by a missile fired from an American jet on January 25, 1999. Although al-Joumeriyah is a poor residential neighborhood of tightly packed homes, it was hit with an AGM-130 guided cruise missile, which uses global positioning satellites and preprogrammed ground coordinates that mean it is supposed to reach within feet of its planned target. The bomb killed six people and injured sixty-four when it hit. Thirty-four houses were damaged or destroyed.

One could read the papers and listen to National Public Radio and be excused for not realizing that Britain and the United States have been routinely bombing Iraq, flying in areas called “no-fly” zones that the two countries established without any UN mandate.

“Civilian deaths and injuries are a regular part of the little-discussed U.S. and British air operation over Iraq,” the Washington Post acknowledged in a rare article discussing the attacks.

Umm Hydir can certainly testify to that. Sitting on her floor, in a room with no light, since we were visiting her during a power blackout, she tells us of how her two sons, Mustafa and Hydir, were playing in the street as she cleaned dishes in their small shared kitchen. Suddenly she heard a loud explosion, and dishes crashed around her. After a moment of shock, she screamed, “Where is Hydir? Where is Mustafa?” and rushed into the street. She found Hydir’s limp body in the rubble and knew instantly that he had been killed. Mustafa, Hydir’s younger brother, was injured and fortunately survived—though how long he may live is unclear. Umm Hydir pulled down Mustafa’s shorts and pulled up his shirt to reveal the extensive shrapnel from the explosion that is still visible beneath his skin. Given the state of Iraq’s hospitals, he can’t possibly receive the kind of medical attention he needs, and there’s a significant chance the shrapnel will penetrate his spinal column as he grows.


“This is the chemistry classroom,” the teacher tells us as he looks out on the forty or so students sitting two to a desk. There are no textbooks, and the room has no chemistry equipment. Next door we visit the seventh-grade English class, where the room is similarly empty. There is not even chalk for the dilapidated blackboard. The roof features gaping holes. The windows are shattered and expose the room to the elements.

The school lacks a single sanitary bathroom for the hundreds of students and dozens of teachers in the building. They have no playground and no air conditioning for Iraq’s frequent brutally hot days.

Around Baghdad we have seen numerous street children offering to shine our shoes, and we have heard reports of widespread child labor, including child prostitution, and high dropout rates because of children joining their families’ efforts to scrape together an existence. At a busy intersection in Baghdad with no functioning stoplights I saw a girl of five or six standing with her younger brother, begging for dinars from passing drivers. When we ask the English teacher if she will ask her class in Arabic how many of them work when they leave school, she nods and turns to her students. When she puts the question to them, every hand in the room goes up.

Then there are the hospitals. No longer places where people go to be cured, they are where Iraqis go to die. Because the hospitals are over-burdened, patients are not properly quarantined and often suffer cross-infections from other patients. Resources are in desperately short supply. The restrictions on imports have badly hurt Iraq’s once quite advanced medical system, which depends on equipment, replacement parts, and medicines that are no longer available, or which are available only sporadically. In several hospitals I visited, once could see large pieces of medical equipment lying stacked against the walls. Doctors gave us long lists of material they badly needed, including shots for basic childhood diseases like rubella, blood bags, infusion kits, and painkillers.

The U.S. government claims that this suffering is deliberately caused by the Iraqi government, which is hoarding medicines and food. Yet this argument has been refuted by numerous UN officials working in Iraq to oversee the oil-for-food program. At every step of the way, the UN monitors the distribution of humanitarian goods throughout the country. The last two directors of the UN’s humanitarian program in Iraq, Denis J. Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, both of whom have long records of service for the body, resigned their positions in protest against the sanctions. Halliday and von Sponeck have spoken frequently since, insisting that the sanctions must be lifted. The current director of the program, Tun Myat, a former World Food Program official from Burma, recently reported to the Security Council that Iraq’s food distribution is “second to none,” but that the oil-for-food ration is completely inadequate, given the level of poverty and the infrastructural problems in Iraq.

Much has been made of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Ignoring the fact that the U.S. government and Western allies were complicit in Iraq’s military build-up in the 1970s and 1980s, including its biological, chemical, and nuclear arsenal, most serious observers now acknowledge that Iraq’s weapon program has been qualitatively destroyed. In a more honest moment, Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN early in 2001, “I don’t believe [Saddam Hussein] is a significant military threat today.”

“I would say that we felt that in all areas we have eliminated Iraq’s capabilities fundamentally,” said Rolf Ekeus, the former UN executive director of weapons inspection from 1991 to 1997, in an address at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Asked at a 1999 press conference if there was any evidence Iraq had rebuilt banned weapons, then-Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Martin Indyk replied, “We do not at this point have evidence of any kind of action to reconstitute those weapons of mass destruction.” Despite this remark-able admission, U.S. policy makers have suggested that the threat posed by Iraq and other “rogue states” justifies the construction of a new nuclear missile defense shield, threatening to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

This is not to say that the Iraqi government has the right priorities, that it is not corrupt and dictatorial. Quite the opposite. But the sanctions only magnify those features of the regime. The theory that the Iraqi people will rebel if they suffer enough—one of the justifications that has been offered for the sanctions—tacitly acknowledges that the sanctions are designed to cause suffering. The other argument, which equally lacks credibility, is that the sanctions are “targeted” at the regime, not the people. “We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people,” both President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair have said.

Iraq is the birthplace of the three major Abrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It has rich Biblical, intellectual, cultural, and archaeological traditions. At the point where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, considered the “cradle of Western civilization” and believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, kids play soccer with a deflated ball in their bare feet among rubbish and pools of fetid water. At Ur, the site of one of the world’s most stunning ziggurats, conservationists lack the resources needed to do preservation work. In addition to destroying Iraqis’ hope for the future, sanctions and bombing are also destroying its past.

Iraq’s priorities have never been those of popular democracy. It’s always been, like other regimes in the Middle East (and elsewhere) openly backed by the U.S. government, a rigid class society with stark divisions of power and wealth. Yet it is simplistic to suggest that spending by the government on its distorted priorities, including the import of luxury goods and the construction of palaces, rather than the embargo, is the main cause of ordinary Iraqis’ suffering. Under the UN sanctions’ guidelines, the government does not control revenues from official oil sales. The money it does spend comes largely from the black market (a small portion of the former Iraqi economy), and is spent in Iraqi dinars, which are worthless outside the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to support the Gulf monarchies, which show the same pattern of skewed priorities, and at home spends billions more on an already bloated military budget while people in the U.S. are homeless and hungry.

But many are speaking up about the human rights tragedy in Iraq, joining a growing international chorus against the sanctions. “The [Clinton] Administration’s policy toward Iraq faces intensifying diplomatic criticism and international concern that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are punishing the Iraqi people, not Mr. Hussein’s government,” the New York Times reported in July 2000. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is “faced with growing criticism of embargoes that fail to deter dictators but often hurt civilians” and “is having a hard time responding to critics of sanctions against Iraq, where, according to a new estimate from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, eighty percent of the civilian population has been negatively affected.”

In late March 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted, “We are in danger of losing the argument or propaganda war—if we haven’t lost it already—about who is responsible for this situation, President Saddam Hussein or the United Nations.” Annan added, “We are accused of causing suffering to an entire population.” The accusation has merit and poses a challenge not only to the UN, but also to those whose government supports the war on the people of Iraq.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Anthony Arnove is a literary editor and political activist. He is active in the National Writers Union and the International Socialist Organization, and has written for publications including The Nation, In These Times, AGNI, Le Nouvel Observateur, and elsewhere. He is the author of several books related to Iraq and the editor of The Essential Noam Chomsky (New Press, 2008). (updated 6/2010)

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