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A Response to the National Catholic Reporter article by Charles Davis on June 18, 1999

by G. Simon Harak, S.J.
We should be grateful that Charles Davis has summarized and repeated the US government’s position on the Iraqi sanctions in the June 18, 1999 NCR ("Lifting sanctions won’t end pain, and it could fuel new aggression," p. 22). He has exactly epitomized the kind of reasoning that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. I believe that if we examine a few of his statements, we can see the flawed nature of the official narrative which upholds the sanctions.

Mr. Davis tells us that "the United States is prepared to lift the ceiling on how much oil Iraq is able to export ...". He neglects to mention that during the bombing which began in December 1998 (and continues twice or three times a week even now), the United States bombed the major oil production facility near Basra, in the south, where US and British "no-fly zones" purportedly protect the people. According to UN reports, the same bombing destroyed a UN warehouse with 2300 tons of rice intended for famine relief, and the clean water delivery system for 350,000 people in metropolitan Baghdad.  Perhaps the reader can see the contradiction in publicly announcing that we are prepared to raise the ceiling on sales of oil for food, while at the same time disabling or destroying oil production facilities, not to mention the food itself.

Mr. Davis also overlooked the fact that, until about six months ago, the United States had exercised its veto in "Committee 667" (which accepts or rejects contracts in the so-called "oil-for-food" deal) to prevent Iraq from acquiring any spare parts to repair its oil-drilling machinery. One of the results of that lack of equipment was reported in the April 19, 1999 Financial Times: that about 20% of Iraqi oil field are now irreparably damaged.

About 6 months ago, US Administration announced that it would allow spare parts to repair the oil drilling machinery. Not all parts, however. Some crucial parts, I learned in my last visit to Iraq in May 1999, are still embargoed, and so the parts we do allow in remain useless without them. (We employ a similar strategy with insulin, for example. We allow insulin, but veto syringes.)

So the statement, " ... the US is prepared to lift the ceiling on oil exports ..." looks good in US publicity, and in Mr. Davis’ article. But our government makes sure that the reality on the ground is quite different. And so the killing continues, its immorality deepened, if possible, by a cloak of sophistry and self-congratulation.

Davis relies on National Security Adviser Sandy Berger’s assertion that the "oil-for-food program ... relieves the suffering of ordinary Iraqis." Here we might question Davis’sources, and their objectivity. Why not check with Denis Halliday, the Irish assistant secretary general of the UN who actually administered the oil-for-food program in Baghdad? He states, "The revision of basic food stuffs .... under [UNSCR] 986, the oil-for-food program, has not been sufficiently balanced and nutritious to make a significant difference." He tells us that the food structure of the oil-for food program, combined with the breakdown of services through bombing, sanctions, and vetoes, "has shattered the life expectancy of Iraqi infants and children."  As a result, Halliday has resigned -- not only his post as head of the oil-for-food program, but even his 34-year commission in the UN, saying "We are destroying an entire society. It is as simple and as terrifying as that."

His successor, and present head of the oil-for-food program, Hans Von Sponeck, also disagrees with Berger’s assessment. So do all human rights workers who are on the scene in Iraq. The quality of Davis’ research here is unfortunately typical of the reasoning we use to maintain the sanctions.

Davis tells us that the resources of the oil-for-food program are "used to rebuild its military forces and construct numerous elaborate palaces." This may salve our conscience, but it has no basis in fact. All moneys from the oil-for-food program are placed into a bank in New York; the Iraqis never see it. They must try to arrange for contracts for what they need (subject to the above-mentioned veto), and then ask the bank to send the contracting nation a letter of credit.

Sometimes the food and medicine does arrive (when I was in Iraq the first time, the US had vetoed a large shipment of powdered milk formula for infants, because it contained phosphates, and phosphates can be used to make bombs). And then all UN monitors, together with the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the Coordinator of UN Humanitarian Affairs, pharmacists, doctors, and heads of hospitals state that Iraq’s distribution of food and medicine is the best it can possibly be, given the above multiple, induced disasters. And the monitors check from the ship to the warehouse to the hospital to the patient.

Further, the palaces are built with Iraqi cement (which they used to export), and Iraqi labor (which is important in a country where sanctions have driven unemployment to 88% in some areas), and paid for with the Iraqi dinar (which was worth over $3.00 in 1990, and after nearly nine years of sanctions is worth around 0.15 cents).

It is a salve to the conscience to reason as Davis (and our government and media) does, but the inevitable conclusion from hard research is that the massive starvation, disease and death of Iraqis is not due to hoarding or diversion, but to the sanctions themselves.

The entire editorial contains reasoning of this nature. (Does Davis actually wish to justify our acting immorally by saying that Iraqi leadership has acted immorally? Does he wish to convince us that Iraq’s threat of acquiring weapons of mass destruction justifies our actual inflicting of mass destruction through the sanctions?) I hope, however, that these few points of analysis might enable the reader to develop a "hermeneutic of suspicion" for all such strategies which seek to justify a policy which every month demands the sacrifice of 5,000 Iraqi children.

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