There is an entire ward of lethargic, malnourished babies in the Saddam Children’s Hospital in Baghdad, most of whom are expected to die soon, according to doctors.
A few blocks away, an auction house is selling off the furniture of those who no longer can afford it. On the streets, Iraqi doctors and lawyers peddle cigarettes to supplement their incomes, and women hock their wedding rings. Prostitution, mental illness and crime are said to be on the rise.
“How are we supposed to survive?” asked one woman in a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad during an interview several months ago. “Why are they doing this to us?”
The collapse of the once-wealthy nation is the result largely of one thing: the toughest economic sanctions ever imposed. Enacted by the United Nations after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the sanctions are designed to keep pressure on the Iraqi government to comply with ongoing U.N. demands. They bar Iraq from importing or exporting most goods, and from selling all but a token amount of oil - and they are not to be lifted until the U.N. Security Council is satisfied, among other things, that Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons have been found and destroyed.
As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan continued his efforts in Baghdad to carve a solution to the current confrontation, the subject of sanctions is once again being broached. Are the Iraqi people suffering too much, while the country’s leadership remains insulated? Can Saddam Hussein realistically be expected to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors if he sees no hope that the sanctions will be lifted?
The French, Russians, Chinese and the entire Arab world have made clear their belief that the Iraqi regime should at least see the possibility of leniency in the future, but America’s position suggests that sanctions may not be removed until the regime in Baghdad has been toppled.
“We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a speech at Georgetown University last year. “Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions. … Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein? … The evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.”
Despite such strong words, the sanctions policy never has been fully satisfying to anyone.
For Iraq, it has been an unqualified disaster. Sanctions have devastated the national infrastructure. They’ve cost the country more than $100 billion in oil sales. There’s been a staggering increase in such misery indicators as infant mortality and child malnutrition. The average salary of a government employee has dropped to $3 a month.
But from the U.S. perspective, sanctions have not been a particular success, either. They’ve failed, so far, to topple - or even destabilize - the regime. They haven’t persuaded Hussein to comply fully with the U.N. weapons inspectors. They’ve impoverished his country and weakened him militarily, but they haven’t noticeably cut into his own lavish lifestyle. What’s more, they’ve led the Arab world and much of Europe to blame the United States for starving 22 million Iraqi people.