The Consortium

Punishing Saddam -- or the Iraqis

By Bill Blum -- An Analysis

"We have heard that a half million children have died," said "60 Minutes" reporter Lesley Stahl, speaking of US sanctions against Iraq. "I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the price worth it?"

Her guest, in May 1996, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

More recently, Secretary of State Albright has been traveling around the world to gather support for yet more bombing of Iraq. The price, apparently, is still worth it. The price is, of course, being paid solely by the Iraqi people -- a million or so men, women and children, dead from the previous bombings and seven years of sanctions. The plight of the living in Iraq, plagued by malnutrition and a severe shortage of medicines, is as well terrible to behold.

Their crime? They have a leader who refuses to let United Nations inspectors search every structure in Iraq for "weapons of mass destruction," including presidential palaces. After more than six years, those inspections have located and destroyed significant stocks of forbidden chemical, biological and nuclear weapon material. But the U.N. team, dominated by the United States and Great Britain, still refuses to certify that Iraq is clean enough.

Inasmuch as Iraq is bigger than California, the inspectors might understandably find 100 percent certainty impossible to achieve. But Iraqis see another U.S. agenda -- the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The seemingly endless dispute over the inspections and the maintenance of tough sanctions, many believe, are simply the means to that end.

Indeed, President Clinton and his advisers have given weight to that suspicion in the past, by declaring that the sanctions will remain as long as Saddam Hussein holds power. In recent weeks, however, the administration has put a different gloss on the policy.

During the State of the Union address, Clinton tried to lift the Iraqi standoff from a personal confrontation to a more principled pedestal. Clinton called for a stronger Biological Weapons Convention and spoke about how the United States must "confront the new hazards of chemical and biological weapons, and the outlaw states, terrorists and organized criminals seeking to acquire them." Saddam was just the most prominent miscreant to cross the line, a dangerous example to others, Clinton suggested.

Yet, Clinton's words concealed a more complex reality. For who among the president's listeners knew, and who among the media reported, that the United States had supplied Iraq many of the source biological materials which Saddam's scientist needed for a biological warfare program?

According to 1994 Senate Banking Committee reports, the U.S. Commerce Department permitted private American suppliers to deliver a veritable witch's brew of biological materials to Iraq. The committee traced the shipments at least back to 1985 and followed the pattern through Nov. 28, 1989. The exports were cleared despite reports that Iraq had used chemical warfare and possibly biological warfare against Iranians, Kurds and Shiites since the early 1980s.

"These biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction," said one Senate report dated May 25, 1994.

"It was later learned," the panel wrote on Oct. 7, 1994, "that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi biological warfare program."

Among the U.S.-origin biological agents that often produce slow, agonizing deaths were: Bacillus Anthracis, cause of anthrax; Clostridium Botulinum, a source of botulinum toxin; Histoplasma Capsulatam, cause of a disease attacking lungs, brain, spinal cord and heart; Brucella Melitensis, a bacteria that can damage major organs; Clotsridium Perfringens, a highly toxic bacteria causing systemic illness; Clostridium tetani, highly toxigenic; and Escherichia Coli (E.Coli); genetic materials; and human and bacterial DNA.

The timing of the shipments corresponded to a secret Reagan administration policy of aiding both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. That ruthless strategy contributed to a drawn-out conventional war that claimed the lives of about one million soldiers on the two sides. It also fit with an observation made by Noam Chomsky in a PBS appearance on Sept. 11, 1990:

In line with that analysis, even after the Persian Gulf War, Washington looked to the emergence of a pro-U.S. military leader to replace Saddam, not to less manageable popular challenges. As an ABC documentary reported on Feb. 7, first President Bush and then Clinton stood by while Saddam's army crushed democratic uprisings in 1991 and 1996, respectively. In an interview with Peter Jennings, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft pithily summed up the U.S. preference. "A general with a brigade," Scowcroft explained.

Iraqis may wonder about other double-standards from Washington. As the American public and media are being prepared to accept and cheer-lead the bombing of Iraq again, the stated rationale is that Iraq is an "outlaw" state which is ignoring a U.N. Security Council resolution.

But the United States did not regard itself as an "outlaw" state when it continued a covert war against Nicaragua in the mid-1980s in defiance of the World Court, the U.N. organization established to enforce international law.

Washington brushed aside international objections, too, when it invaded Panama in 1989 and continues to do so by maintaining a harsh trade embargo against Cuba that recently drew the condemnation of Pope John Paul II.

Washington also will not tolerate overly nosy inspectors in its own backyard. Less than a year ago, the U.S. Senate established restrictive ground rules for international inspectors in the United States when they are examining chemical weapons facilities. At that time, the Senate showed concerns about U.S. sovereignty that parallel Iraq's current objections to the composition of inspection teams and their demands to search presidential palaces.

The Senate act implementing the so-called Chemical Weapons Convention stipulates that "the president may deny a request to inspect any facility in the United States in cases where the president determines that the inspection may pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States." Another section of the act grants the president veto power over individual inspectors, with that judgment not "reviewable in any court."

Clinton may be on shaky legal ground himself in enforcing U.S. terms on Iraq. The U.N. has not specifically authorized any of its members to use force in this case. One reporter picked up on that point at a Feb. 6 joint news conference by Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. "What gives Britain and the United States the right to go it alone on this?" the reporter asked. There was no response.

At press time, a new round of bombing against Iraq remained a possibility, despite progress in U.N. negotiations. U.S. warships and planes remained on alert in the Persian Gulf -- and the long-term chances for a U.S. strike against Iraq were still strong.

But there might be one hope for the Iraqi people. The Washington Post reported that Defense Secretary William Cohen has indicated that "U.S. officials remain wary of doing so much military damage to Iraq as to weaken its regional role as a counterweight to Iran." [Feb. 1, 1998]

So perhaps, in the not too distant future, when Iran begins to flex its muscles, Washington might see the Iraqis less as a cause of "instability" than a bulwark against "instability." Amid the constantly shifting sands of Middle East politics -- and American geo-political interests in the region's oil reserves -- it might not do to have Iraq completely pulverized. Next time, Iraq might be needed to help dish out some good ol' American "diplomacy" to Iran. ~

(c) Copyright 1998

Return to Editorial Index Page Return to Main Archive Index

Return to Consortium Main Menu.