Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

May 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 2)


Iraq Under Siege:Human Costs of Economic Warfare
By Vinod Anand *


Iraq has been continuously under pressure of now on and then off air-strikes of the Americans and enforcement of no-fly zones in its northern and southern parts. In June 1993, President Clinton had ordered air-strikes against Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George Bush in Kuwait. In 1996, a similar crisis had developed when the US Army sent about 3,000 troops to the Gulf. The Anglo-American strikes launched against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 failed to achieve the stated objectives. These strikes were launched without any mandate from either the UN or the US Congress. These strikes also revealed a lack of concern of the US for sufferings and casualties caused to the civilian population. The loss of civilian lives was euphemistically referred to as 'collateral damage', and a myth was propagated that a large percentage of precision weapons had been used thereby causing negligible amount of civilian casualties. Since January 1999, search and strike missions in northern and southern Iraq have been carried out almost every month with many civilian casualties. In fact, between January and September 1999, US and UK aircrafts have carried out over 120 air-strikes against Iraq. 1

The US has continued with its single-minded pursuit of punishing Iraq. It has not made any distinction between the state and people of Iraq. The people of Iraq are confronted with another kind of war being waged against them. It is the war of economic sanctions. These economic sanctions are not only hurting the social structure, the health standards, the education standards and human development but are also causing a massive number of deaths and increased sufferings of the Iraqi people.


Sanctions Syndrome

America has a pronounced proclivity to impose sanctions on other nations, whether justified or not, to pursue its strategic, political and economic objectives. The policy of imposing sanctions on other countries was bestowed by President Woodrow Wilson who first mooted the idea that sanctions were a "peaceful, silent and deadly remedy". Thereafter, the United States has imposed sanctions on 115 counts against a number of countries. 2 A very large proportion of the sanctions have been imposed under the Clinton regime. The present American democracy has considered imposing sanctions against as many as 26 countries of different hues and persuasions such as China, Russia, Vietnam, Croatia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan, Azerbaijan, Syria, India and Pakistan. 3 The American behaviour, perhaps, is a result of its notion of being superior due to its uncontested role of being the only superpower. America has used the sanctions as an instrument of coercion to compel other sovereign nations to acquiesce to the American will. Thus, whatever is not according to the American thought process is not rational and whatever is good for the Americans is good for the world. And if they want to bomb Iraq or Kosovo or impose economic sanctions resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties, it is justifiable because the Americans say so even when international opinion is against such an action and is without any mandate from the UN.


Effects of Economic Sanctions

In August 1999, a US Congressional group visited Iraq to see at first hand the living conditions of Iraqi people, especially the children. They visited Ammara, Nasirya and Basra–the three cities in the southern part of Iraq which have been at the receiving end since the Gulf War of 1991 and the ten-year-old UN trade sanctions since then. The Iraqi doctors informed them that two in ten babies born in southern Iraq were deformed. According to official statistics the number of babies with defects had increased threefold in the south, the main battlefield of Iraq's wars. The number of Iraqi children with cancer rose to 130,000 in 1997 from 32 in 1990. 4 This phenomenon was largely due to the use of depleted Uranium used in US and British anti-tank armour piercing shells during the war. It is believed that over 700 tons of such ammunition was used. According to a research document prepared by former US Attorney General Ramsay Clerk, the effect of the depleted Uranium will last for eight million years. 5 Other than cancer, many cases of genetic disorders, water and weather pollution have been found in southern Iraq.

The use of DU (depleted Uranium) ordnance came to light only after 1997 when strange birth defects and deformities were noticed among the Iraqi children. Earlier, the munitions outer covering was manufactured from titanium. The DU ordnance, on contact with the target, produces radioactive dust, which remains in the area for almost all time to come. A US Army Environment Policy Institute study of 1995 states that "If DU enters the body, it has potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological".

Thus, the use of DU against Iraq amounts to carrying out a radiological and chemical attack. It is the cause of slow and agonising death and deaths would continue to occur because of the residual effects of this deadly DU. For the US there could have been no other way to dispose off its lethal nuclear waste material.

In the last week of August 1999, Mr. Benon Sevan, a UN Under-Secretary-General, in charge of the UN "Oil-for-Food" programme, stated that the Security Council members are putting too many humanitarian contracts for Iraq on hold. He mentioned that 484 applications worth nearly 500 million dollars had been held up due to obstructions and delays from the US and Britain. 6 While these two countries stated that they want to ensure that Iraq does not import materials used for banned weapons, France argued that it made no sense to prohibit water treatment, telecommunications or electrical material. Mr. Sevan also appealed to the concerned parties to cease using the situation of children in Iraq for any kind of propaganda to achieve political ends.


State of Health in Iraq

In pre-Gulf War Iraq, free and state-of-the-art health facilities were being provided. Because of the economic embargo, its health care standards have declined drastically. Besides the increase in incidence of infant deaths, the mortality rate–which had been brought down to double digits–has increased to 117 per 100,000 births. 7 As against 7,110 children in the below five age group who died across the country in 1989, 29,782 children in the same group cross-section have died in the first half of 1999. 8 The people do not report deaths for fear of their names being struck off the ration cards. Since food and even medicines are rationed, every name on the ration card means that much more food and medicine. 9 Medicines are in short supply and they are being rationed. This has created a black market for the scarce medicines. Thus the poor people, who need the medicines most, are unable to obtain them.

Iraq, which used to import medicines and medical equipment worth $500 million, was allotted only $210 million for the health sector under the provisions of Oil-for-Food programme. Even when the medicines reach their destination, they are very often past their expiry dates due to the complicated checks and procedures evolved by the UN. 10

The incidence of malnutrition amongst children has also increased because of shortage of food and supplies due to economic sanctions. While the daily intake of calories has dropped from around 3500 in 1989 to around 1000 per child in 1997, the ratio of low birth weight has gone up from 4.5 to 23 per cent during the same period. The incidence of leukemia amongst children is also increasing at a fast pace. Since some of the hospitals do not have anaesthetics, emergency operations have to be conducted without administering anaesthesia to the patients. There are even shortages of basic items like plastic syringes, sutures and hand gloves. The existing medical equipment is mostly out of order for want of spares and maintenance. The destruction of electrical grid in the bombings has also contributed to the lack of air conditioning in the hospitals thus compounding the problems of patients and people of Iraq.


Destruction of Education System

Iraq had been the most advanced nation in the Arab world as far as education was concerned. It even had the recognition of UNESCO for its literacy campaign. It used to provide free education. But now the economic sanctions in place are taking their toll on the education system also. There are shortages of textbooks and education materials. There are restrictions on bringing in computers, laboratory chemicals, books and any item, which might remotely be used to make weapons. This is, obviously, carrying things too far. The Iraqi students are neither able to conduct research at their universities nor are they allowed to learn from others. There are even restrictions on sending parcels to Iraq. The drop-out rates have also increased. And since teachers salaries are not adequate they have taken to driving taxis. The problem of inadequate salaries is compounded by the fact that the Iraqi currency has been massacred by the US dollar. In the pre-Gulf War era one Iraqi dinar was equal to three-and-a-half US dollars, now one US dollar is equivalent to 2000 dinars. 11

Thus the education system has almost been destroyed. This has led to collapse of the Iraqi family system and given rise to evils like prostitution in the streets by children.


American Reaction

What has been the American reaction to such a massive loss of human lives? Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright dismissed the issue by stating in May 1998, "the fact that Iraqi children are dying is not the fault of the United States but of Saddam Hussain...It is ridiculous for the United States to be blamed for the dictatorial and cruel, barbaric ways that Saddam Hussain treats his people". It is evident that this loss of human life has not created adequate concern in the United States. There are some human right groups in the US who are voicing their concern for this massive loss of lives but they have not been able to make a deep impression on the public. It could be because of the remoteness of Americans from scenes of death and suffering and especially when they are not involved themselves. When two American soldiers were made prisoners of war by Serbians, CNN showed the two soldiers (with one soldier's face slightly injured) over and over again for many days on the TV. Such images are distinctly absent when images from Iraq are filtered onto US TV screens.


UN Resolutions and US Objectives

The economic and military sanctions have been in force since 1990. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, UNSCOM (United Nations Commission for Disarmament of Iraq) was formed. The twin objectives of the US policy were to remove Saddam Hussein from power and prevent Iraq from developing WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction). The UNSCOM was given the mandate under UN Resolution number 687 'for identification and elimination of proscribed weapons and delivery means'. In another UN Resolution 715, it was given the mission of designing and implementing a system for ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq to prevent it from acquiring prohibited items again. This meant that even if the prohibited weapons of mass destruction were detected and destroyed, the intrusive presence of UNSCOM would continue. There was no end to UN resolutions, mainly sponsored at the behest of the US and UK to subjugate Iraq and its people. In UN resolution number 1051, a mechanism for monitoring relevant Iraqi exports and imports was approved. This gave a lot of leeway to the UN inspectors for imposing restrictions and thus harassing Iraqi people.

The US has been accused of manipulating UNSCOM since its inception. Mr. Scott Ritter, an ex-UN arms inspector has revealed that there were nine CIA agents who were part of the UNSCOM in 1996. The CIA spies have been members of inspection teams since the end of the Gulf War. They have used electronic eavesdropping equipment to keep tabs on Iraqi military communications and on the security communications of Saddam Hussein. They have passed sensitive information to the US, UK and Israel. 12 Richard Butler, who was head of UNSCOM, had served the interests of the US and UK rather than that of the UN. It is widely believed that he was instrumental in giving biased reports to the UN in 1998. However, without waiting for discussions and approval of the UN Security Council, Anglo-American air strikes were launched against Iraq for four days in December 1998.

These strikes further enhanced the effects of economic sanctions by destroying its civil infrastructure that had already been decimated extensively during the Gulf War of 1991.


Oil-for-Food Programme

In May 1996, the United Nations had approved 'oil-for-food' programme to alleviate the sufferings of Iraqi people. Under terms of the deal agreed vide UN resolution number 986, Iraq could export two billion dollars worth of oil every six months under strict international control to buy humanitarian supplies. From the proceeds of the oil, 30 per cent of revenue or 100 million dollars per month were to be paid as compensation for victims of the Gulf War. This included a number of states as well as individuals. Ten percent of the revenues were to be earmarked for the operating expenses of UN programmes in Iraq. The United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) was formed in the aftermath of the Gulf War and since then it has been spending 25 million dollars on its offices in Geneva. 13 (And Iraq has been allowed to sell oil only after May 1996).

The total compensation claims against Iraq lodged with UNCC are to the tune of 222 billion dollars, out of which the largest claim is of $120 billion dollars by Kuwait. (India also has a claim of 3.8 billion dollars pending). The USA and UK want to continue with economic sanctions for their own political and strategic reasons. It is estimated that it will take three to four decades for Iraq to pay the compensation even if it is allowed to produce oil at pre-1990 levels. This state of affairs, where 30 to 40 per cent of Iraq's oil revenues are being siphoned off gives a lever of control to the US and UK on oil revenues of Iraq. Both these countries have also put pressure on their Arab allies in the Gulf to make 'voluntary recoverable contributions' (especially before 1996 when Iraq was not allowed to sell oil) to keep UNCC afloat and put Iraq down. Any meaningful compensation can only occur if the sanctions are removed and Iraq is allowed to pump oil as required or at least at the pre-war levels.

The 'oil-for-food' programme meets only a portion of the funds required for humanitarian needs. In December 1997, countries such as France, Russia and China wanted to double the amount of 2 billion dollars because of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. This was not accepted by the other two permanent members of the Security Council, the US and UK. This was recommended by UN Secretary General also in his report of February 1998, and it was finally agreed to in the latter half of 1999. 14

The terms and conditions of 'oil-for-food' programme have further compounded the problems being faced by Iraq. The drop in world oil prices had further complicated the problems of Iraq. However, since the latter half of 1999 the oil prices have shown an upward trend. In October 1999, a one-time increase in Iraqi oil sales to about 8 billion dollars from 5.2 billion dollars had been allowed. 15 Yet even if the programme is properly implemented it will not improve the lot of the ordinary Iraqi in a meaningful manner. A brief resume of the UN resolution is given below.

UN Security Council Resolutions (relating to the oil for food programme)

(Source: United Nations Office of the Iraq Programme)


US Approach

As for its objective of toppling Saddam, Americans have made several attempts to remove him. Since 1991, the US has spent, on the average, 20 million dollars a year to replace Saddam. In January 1999, the US enacted 'Iraqi Liberation Act' to justify military aid of 97 million dollars to seven opposition groups to overthrow Saddam. These opposition groups also include representatives of a Shiite organisation, the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–a group the US had previously avoided because of its close connections with Iran. 16 However, most of these groups are not supportive of the abhorrent economic sanctions that affect the Iraqi people.

General Anthony Zinni, Commander-in-Chief of US Central Command (which covers Iraq) commented in January 1999 "that he does not see any opposition group in Iraq that has viability to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It will be very difficult and if not done properly, could be very dangerous." He was of the view that the last thing America needs is a denigrated, fragmented Iraq, because the effects on the region would be far greater than a contained Saddam. He stated "even if we had Saddam gone, by any means, we could end up with fifteen, twenty, ninety groups competing for power". 17

Therefore, after a decade of involvement with Iraq, has America been able to achieve its objectives of containing Saddam and prevent him from developing WMD? From the American point of view, the human costs of economic sanctions could perhaps be justified if they could be expected to achieve the above stated twin objectives of the US policy.

The recall of UNSCOM inspectors before Anglo-American air strikes of December 1998 has also removed the mechanism for monitoring the WMD programme of Iraq. In November 1997, President Clinton had stated that in the previous six years the UN inspectors had destroyed more weapons of mass destruction potential than were destroyed in the entire Gulf war. Therefore, it "was important for the safety of the world that they (UNSCOM) continue". 18 But it was precisely the actions of the US and UK which has enabled Iraq to prevent the return of inspectors of UNSCOM since December 1998.

When there was evidence of Iraq using chemical weapons against Iran, in the Iraq-Iran war of the eighties, it was ignored. Now after a gap of almost a decade Iraqis are being asked to account for their inventory of weapons. If one totals up the casualties due to use of biological and chemical weapons it would be revealed that these casualties are much less than what is happening in Iraq as a result of economic sanctions.


International Opinion

Americans came to the Middle East initially to contain erstwhile USSR and after the collapse of USSR it remained there to protect traditional regimes from regional bullies. However, as of now, except for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia the other Arab allies have started questioning the motives of America. The methods being used to sustain the order and regime imposed on the region through unjustifiable bombings and sanctions have built up anti-US opinion not only in the Arab world but also among the majority of the international community. France, Russia and China have long been in favour of loosening the noose of economic sanctions. Only UK has been supportive of the US policy. However, in end July 1999, the UK tabled a draft resolution at the Security Council that sets out a timetable for withdrawing of sanctions subject to Iraq answering some questions about its weapons programme. The resolution included putting strict controls in place to prevent Iraq acquiring WMD and recommended that sanctions be suspended for three months. 19 But the US is impervious to such recommendations and has taken a hard line on removal of sanctions. No wonder the US has acquired the sobriquet of being a 'bully of the free world' 20 rather than being the leader of the free world, a position to which it aspires.


Options for US

Does America have a conflict termination strategy or more aptly put, an 'exit-strategy'? Apparently, from an appraisal of the current situation, the US does not appear to be moving towards a solution of this problem. The first option for the US is to continue with the status quo in Iraq. Saddam is useful to America for creating fear psychosis among the member countries of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). It enables the US to perpetuate its presence in the region, that has the largest reserves of oil–thus the continued strategic importance of this area to the US. It enables the US to control the levers of power in the region. Frequent air-strikes enable it to display its military triumphalism and exercise the ghost of Vietnam. The 'no-fly zones' also provide a live practice range for American and British pilots with little or no opposition from Iraq's weakened air defence system. If required, new weapon systems and munitions can be tested in the practice range without the fear of questions from environmentalists. Saddam is also a justification to the taxpayer for increased defence expenditure. He provides the reason for the US Armed Forces to be prepared to wage war in one of the two MRCs (major regional contingencies), the second MRC being the North Korean theatre. According to National Security strategy paper of the United States, in addition to these two MRCS there may be other small scale regional contingencies. The current military activity of enforcement of 'no-fly-zones' falls under this category.

The other alternative, that is lifting of economic sanctions perhaps goes against the grain of nature of the present American State. But, if examined critically, this option offers a number of benefits for the US policy. Firstly, the lifting of sanctions in exchange for return of UNSCOM in some modified version would enable the UN inspectors to monitor and prevent Iraq from developing WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction). Secondly, it would help deflect public criticism of the Arab governments from their own people in supporting the American campaign to starve the Iraqi people. Such a step would also help Arab countries in extending support to America on the other regional issues. Thirdly, it will provide economic opportunities to France, Russia and China who are looking for commercial deals with Iraq and thus elicit their cooperation in the UN Security Council. The Arab and international opinion would definitely favour such a step from America. And finally, the biggest beneficiary would be the Iraqi people. The lifting of economic sanctions would build up the international image of the US being a global champion of human rights rather than the 'bully of the free world'.

Therefore, there is a strong possibility that the US may achieve its policy objectives by lifting economic sanctions in exchange for strict controls of Iraq's WMD programme rather than continuing with the present status quo. Therefore, the UK proposal, as mentioned earlier, makes eminent sense.


Indian Support

India has extended a line of credit of 25 million dollars for capital goods, consumer durables, pharmaceuticals and has agreed to the deferred payment on dues amounting to 760 million dollars until sanctions on Iraq are lifted. Because of hardships Iraq is facing due to sanctions, India has expressed interest in rehabilitation and expansion projects in petrochemical, communication and fertiliser sectors. It has also agreed to extend technical know-how in the fields of agriculture, transport and telecommunications. 21

India has consistently supported Iraq and expressed its opinion against the sanctions. There was some controversy in August 1999 that the stated line of credit violates the UN sanctions. However, later on it was clarified that credit extended by India falls within the framework of the UN Resolution 661 and subsequent resolutions and does not violate the sanctions regime. Indian companies, which were working in Iraq before the Gulf War, have commenced looking for new business within the Oil-for-Food framework. 22



Since the end of the Gulf War Iraqi people have been at the receiving end of the economic sanctions and air-strikes. The sanctions regime has resulted in ongoing massive loss of lives of Iraqi children and adults. The estimates of loss of lives by UN agencies and the effects of economic sanctions on the health, education and civilian infrastructure are eye openers. As time passes, the toll of human casualties due to sanctions keeps on rising. Iraqi people are gradually being asphyxiated by the economic sanctions.

Such massive loss of lives, which is much more in magnitude than the atomic bombings of the two Japanese cities, does not appear to have generated adequate concern among the American public. The Americans and the international community need to be sensitised to the human tragedy taking place in Iraq. Americans and citizens of the affluent countries of the West, who are so sensitive to seeing bodybags of their own people on the TV screens have largely remained oblivious to this human disaster of epic proportions.

The present US policy on Iraq has failed to achieve its stated objectives. The US foreign policy recipe for Iraq, far from reducing Saddam's power has made him more powerful. Instead of turning Iraqi and Arab civilians against Saddam, it has helped him bolster his reputation in the Arab and outside world. The international opinion including the other four members of UN Security Council are in favour of lifting of the economic sanctions.

Therefore, a review of US policy is in order. The alternative to the present status quo is to lift the economic sanctions in its entirety. As a quid pro quo Iraq should allow return of UN inspectors and allow inspections by either UNSCOM or some modified incarnation of UNSCOM to monitor and implement strict controls on both import and development of materials contributing to WMD programmes. Even the UK proposal of suspending economic sanctions for three months in exchange for Iraq's cooperation makes eminent sense. Depending upon Iraq's response, the proposal could be extended indefinitely.

It is time that a quick solution to alleviate the sufferings of Iraqi people as well as eliminating the human costs of economic sanctions is found.



Note *: Senior Fellow, IDSA.  Back.

Note 1: Scott Ritter, "Policies at War", The New York Times, August 16, 1999.  Back.

Note 2: Ash Narain Roy, "Arrogance of Power" The Hindustan Times, September 26, 1998.  Back.

Note 3: Ibid.  Back.

Note 4: "Iraqi Kids Plight Moves US Team", The Times of India, September 5, 1999.  Back.

Note 5: Felicity Arbuthnot, "Iraq's Children Paying Washington's Price with Their Lives," February 1998. Available on Internet, <>  Back.

Note 6: Evelyn Leopold, "Playing Politics with Iraqi Children: UN" The Hindustan Times, August 28, 1999.  Back.

Note 7: See UNICEF Home Page on the Internet and UN Document, Annex II of A/1999/356 of March 30, 1999, UN Report concerning the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, pp. 3-13. UN Report available on Internet, address <http:///> Also refer WHO–Emergency Humanitarian Action–document of April 1, 1999 titled "Health Conditions of the Population in Iraq. Since Gulf Crisis" Internet address, <>  Back.

Note 8: Ibid.  Back.

Note 9: Ibid.  Back.

Note 10: Ibid.  Back.

Note 11: For detailed report, see UN Secretary General's two year review and assessment report to Security Council with UN document S/1999/4 of April 28, 1999 paras 104 to 108, Internet, address, <> Also see Anita Joshua, "Education in Iraq hit by Sanctions," The Hindu, July 26, 1999.  Back.

Note 12: Ex-US Inspector Scott Ritter cited in Boston Globe of January 3, 1999. Also see Internet, < html>, 'US used UNSCOM for attack: Ritter'. See Philip Shenon, "C.I.A. was with UN in Iraq for Years," The New York Times, February 23, 1999.  Back.

Note 13: See Indian Express, February 14, 1997. Also see United Nations Office of Internet, <>  Back.

Note 14: Ibid.  Back.

Note 15: The Hindustan Times, October 14, 1999.  Back.

Note 16: The Pioneer, February 13, 1999. Also see Sridhar Krishnaswami, "Stalemate on Oil-for-Food Continues," The Hindu, October 30, 1999.  Back.

Note 17: The Indian Express, January 9, 1999. Also see General Anthony C. Zinni in "United States Policy in the Gulf", RUSI, August 1999, pp. 44 to 49, available on Internet also, address <>  Back.

Note 18: Michael Binyan & Ian Brodie, "Exploiting Waning Clout", The Statesman, November 15, 1997.  Back.

Note 19: Sidharth Bhatia, "Sanctions Regime", The Pioneer, August 6, 1999.  Back.

Note 20: This is the title of article by Garry Wills on US hegemony, appearing in Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999, p. 50.  Back.

Note 21: Bhatia, see n. 19.  Back.

Note 22: Ibid.  Back.