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PR blitz won’t hide real issue in Iraq

Just two days before the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council met in London Sept. 15 to consider the future course of action in Iraq, the Clinton administration unleashed a public relations blitz designed to neutralize criticism of the severe economic sanctions imposed on Iraq.

State Department Spokesman James P. Rubin lashed out at critics of the U.S.-inspired embargo, challenging the charges that the nine-year embargo had caused the deaths of a half million Iraqi children. Armed with aerial photographs and a newly released State Department report on Iraq, Rubin charged that Saddam Hussein was building an elaborate resort complex near Baghdad, including an amusement park, sports stadiums and special hospitals for members of his political party.

He said the photos also showed villages that had recently been bulldozed by Saddam’s operatives because they had been hotbeds of anti-government activity. “Despite its claims that the people of Iraq are dying due to a lack of food and medicine, Saddam Hussein doesn’t hesitate to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the entertainment of Baath party officials and cadres,” Rubin said.

It was a crafty tactic, one designed to force critics of the sanctions into the position of having to defend Saddam Hussein. We do not and never have defended Saddam Hussein. His character and leadership are not the issues. The central issue remains a moral one that deals with the dire effect the sanctions are having on the most vulnerable people in Iraqi society, especially its women and children.

No one we know who opposes the sanctions is an apologist for Saddam Hussein, his brutal tactics or his excesses. Pope John Paul II is not an apologist for Saddam Hussein.

As for the State Department’s charges, it should be no surprise to anyone that Saddam Hussein and his cronies would have access to money. No matter how severe the sanctions, the borders can’t be sealed completely, and Iraq has an abundance of what everyone else wants -- oil.

Rubin tries to make the case now that the sanctions, in effect, are not working, that Saddam is flush with cash and that the country is able to procure whatever it needs. The fault lies solely with the regime: It either has failed to distribute goods or to order food, medicine and other necessary items. But that assessment flies in the face of years of consistent testimony of high-level U.N. personnel who have observed the oil-for-food program at ground level. It contradicts the most recent U.N. study of the condition of women and children in Iraq, which listed the sanctions as a leading cause of the suffering of ordinary people.

It contradicts the substantial experience of the Iraqi people, who enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the region prior to the Gulf War, with universal education and health care. Iraq was widely recognized, despite the brutality of Saddam Hussein against some segments of the population, as one of the most progressive Arab countries.

And it further contradicts the assessment of the U.S. government, which has consistently sought a consensus of other nations to continue the sanctions, believing they would soon lead to a popular uprising and overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

No one needs to defend the regime to express compassion for the children and women who are being lost or to mourn the loss of civilization and the humanizing elements of Iraqi society in pursuit of a policy that has not worked from the start. We never won the war, we have not secured the peace, nor have we overthrown the regime. We have succeeded only in making life unimaginably miserable for common Iraqis. Washington and much of the rest of the world are finally waking up to this reality.

The recent U.N. report; the impending visit to Iraq of Pope John Paul II; the grudging interest of six members of Congress who recently sent a delegation of aides to Iraq against the strong objections of the State Department and the CIA; and the disintegrating support for the embargo among other Gulf States, members of the Security Council and other Western allies -- all these elements show that the cover is coming off what has been a largely hidden war whose victims are average Iraqis.

At press time, it appeared that Security Council members had conducted fruitful discussions on taking a new direction in Iraq. The particulars are not yet revealed, but the parties apparently intended to continue the talks in coming weeks in New York.

The United States would best serve itself and the innocents in Iraq by abandoning the bluster and window-dressing and by working for a compromise. Ending the sanctions would allow Iraq to import the food necessary to stem starvation, the spare parts and machinery to repair water delivery and sewage treatment systems, and the medicines to treat curable illnesses now killing thousands of Iraqi children each month.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999