Time to end the suffering and rebuild postwar Iraq


In the pre-dawn hours of the morning of Aug. 2, 1990, the first of 300 Iraqi tanks rolled through the desert across the Kuwaiti border, marking the beginning of Saddam Hussein's invasion of the oil-rich emirate.

The swift attack also set in motion Iraq's brutal sacking of Kuwait and the subsequent massive U.S.-led military campaign (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm) that expelled Hussein's forces, freeing Kuwait from a bloody seven-month occupation.

On the 10th anniversary of the start of the crisis, much of the pre-Persian Gulf war status quo is unchanged.

For Kuwait, the war is over. Millions of barrels of sweet crude petroleum are pumped each day from oil wells in Kuwait. The reinstated Al-Sabah monarchy remains intact, sharing limited powers with a reinstated parliament. A multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort has left few of the physical scars of the Iraqi invasion.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Hussein, the ruthless dictator, remains firmly in power while constantly confronted by U.S. military might. U.S. fighter-bombers patrol Iraqi skies, enforcing two no-fly zones. Aircraft carrier groups patrol the Persian Gulf and thousands of U.S. troops play war games in the region.

But for the average Iraqi, it is the United Nations-imposed economic sanctions that serve as a grim reminder that they are pawns in an unrelenting war of attrition. It is bitter medicine for a country of 22 million that once stood as a model of modern economic development.

Sitting on the world's second-largest oil reserves, Iraq had created the largest middle class in the Middle East. The national health care system had wiped out many diseases, such as smallpox. Iraq also boasted a top-notch education system, which had virtually ended illiteracy. The country had an estimated $42 billion in reserves.

Since mid-1996, Iraq has been able to sell about $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months under a 4-year-old U.N.-administered oil-for-food program. Iraq uses the money to purchase badly needed food and medicines. About 20 million tons of food have been distributed, but it is far from enough. Two years ago, conditions in Iraq became so bad that Dennis Halliday, the U.N. official who oversaw the sanctions and the oil-for-food program, quit in protest.

Halliday said "near-famine" conditions existed in Iraq and that the mortality rate for children under 5 years old stood at about 5,000 per month. The mortality rate for adults, teen-agers and children over 5 years old stood at 2,000 to 3,000 per month.

"These people are dying because of bad water, inadequate diets, broken-down hospital care and collapsed systems," Halliday said.

An estimated 1.5 to 3 million Iraqis have died as a result of the sanctions.

Originally, sanctions were imposed to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Then, after the war, they were intended to create a groundswell of opposition to Hussein and to force Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction.

But unlike the apparent battlefield successes, post-war policy toward Iraq has been plagued by miscalculation.

Ironically, the sanctions have turned into a financial bonanza for the Iraqi leader and his cronies, who have profited from smuggling. Consequently, the sanctions have hurt the average Iraqi, not Hussein and his closest followers.

"The solution is to rebuild the economy," said Halliday. "There is no other way to address the problems of the Iraqi people but to give 100 percent of the oil revenues back to Iraq and allow Iraq to invest that money into agriculture, health care and education, to rebuild the infrastructure, water systems, sewage systems, electric power and rebuild its capacity to produce oil and so on."

Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the author of "Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem - Once and For All," argues that the grave situation inside Iraq demands a different approach - even if it means dealing with the current regime.

"While doing business with Saddam is certainly not an attractive idea, when contrasted with the unspeakable horrors of war, or the mindless and morally corrupt policy of indefinite economic sanctions, it does represent a lesser evil.

"Simply put, the U.S. strategy toward Iraq hasn't achieved its stated goals - Saddam's ouster or complete disarmament - nor is it likely to."

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a columnist with the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, said the plight of the Iraqis is fueling anti-American sentiment in Egypt and other Arab nations.

"The suffering of the Iraqi is noticed by the man on the street, and he is angry," he said, adding: "There are millions throughout the region who lived and worked in Iraq before the war. There are still links between Iraqis and Egyptian people. In this regard, the suffering of the Iraqis is also interpreted as suffering to the Egyptians, in particular, and the Arabs as a whole."

Even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow, many analysts predict it would take a generation or longer to repair the damage done to the Iraqi economy. The enormous task of rebuilding Iraq - as well as its repayment of a $100 billion foreign debt - constitutes an effective check on Saddam Hussein's military and regional ambitions.

"There is a possibility, no matter how remote, that Saddam might decide to invade Kuwait again," conceded Thabit Abdullah, a history professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. "But the price is simply too high."

While sanctions may provide some psychological reassurance to Washington and some of its allies, Abdullah says they send an entirely different message to a beleaguered Iraqi people.

"What Americans don't realize is that the Iraqi people feel completely unprotected. Their own government is against them. The international community is against them. The political opposition is totally fragmented and ineffective, giving them little hope. There is a complete sense of vulnerability."

Sunni M. Khalid is a freelance writer who lived in Cairo and reported on the Middle East.

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