The Consequences of War: Iraq and Beyond

Understanding the US-Iraq Crisis Primer
01 November 2002
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Understanding the US-Iraq Crisis
The World's Response, the UN & International Law
Phyllis Bennis
A pamphlet of the Institute for Policy Studies, January 2003


III. The Consequences of War: Iraq and Beyond

This Section


24. Who will suffer from a war in Iraq?

The first to suffer will be the people of Iraq. However smart the Pentagon's so-called "smart bombs," there is no doubt that a US war against Iraq will lead to massive human suffering. Even the newest weapons, such as the carbon fibers designed to cripple Iraq's electrical grid without hurting the buildings, will lead to wide-spread civilian deaths when vital institutions such as hospitals and water treatment plants are suddenly without electricity. The Pentagon's use of depleted uranium weapons will continue to threaten civilian life and health. After twenty years of war, and twelve years of deadly economic sanctions, Iraq's already-devastated social fabric will be further shredded by another war.

In the already volatile region, the war will fuel tension and anti-American anger. Countries across the Middle East will likely pay a high price in economic disruption. Absolute monarchies and repressive pseudo-democracies will tighten their repressive control over populations outraged by their governments' support for Washington's war. Israel's support for the war will exacerbate its isolation in the region; Palestinians will pay a high price in lives and land as Israel cracks down even more dramatically in the occupied territory as war engulfs the neighborhood. The environmental devastation such a war will leave behind will respect no borders.

The war will heighten the US position as an unaccountable superpower with little regard for the rest of the world. It will serve as a new recruitment campaign for those who would use violence against American target and increase the possibility of terrorist attacks on the US. American military personnel face the possibility of a new round of exposure to depleted uranium, even beyond the normal risks of battle. At a moment when the overall US economy is in serious trouble, and only weapons manufacturers and oil companies are riding high, cuts in schools, health care, social security, urban infrastructure all are part of the price Americans will pay for war in Iraq.

25. What is life like in Iraq today? What are the causes of civilian suffering?

Iraqis suffer for multiple reasons. Since coming to power, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party has imposed rigorous control and a repressive political atmosphere in which dissent is forbidden and punishment swift and harsh. As in the absolute monarchies and other president-for-life "democracies" across the Arab world, Iraqis' political and civil rights are routinely violated. There is no freedom of speech or assembly, no opposition parties and no free press. Suspicion of dissent is commonly met with arrest, and reports of arbitrary arrests of family members, torture, and extra-judicial executions are common. Much of Iraq's opposition, including communist, Arab nationalist, and Islamist organizations, has been ruthlessly wiped out or driven into exile. Iraqi Kurds were the target of the brutal Anfal campaign of the 1980s, designed to drive Kurds out of key oil-rich regions in an "Arabization" version of ethnic cleansing.

For the majority of people in pre-sanctions Iraq, the "other" human rights - economic and social rights - were well respected. Unlike other Gulf oil producers, Iraq invested virtually all of its oil wealth inside the country, building the most advanced medical and educational systems in the region. Even during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War, the overwhelmingly middle-class Iraqis lived in a modern, near First World level society with one of the smallest wealth-poverty gaps of any country in the region. Food access, education, health care and general quality of life approached that of developed countries. The most common problem faced by Iraqi pediatricians was childhood obesity.

The Gulf War and sanctions changed everything. Iraq's modern technology-driven society was reduced after six weeks of intensive bombing to a pre-industrial state. Sanctions prohibited Iraqi travel, forbid access to medical or scientific journals or participation in international conferences, and have created a generation of Iraqis inadequately educated for the twenty-first century and angry at being denied what their parents once took for granted.

Unemployment has soared, and the Iraqi dinar plummeted from its pre-sanctions level of $3 per dinar to a 2002 rate of about 23,000 dinars per dollar. Assistant Secretary General Hans Von Sponeck, the second UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq to resign in protest of the impact of sanctions, described the impact of "the less visible, less dramatic non-material side of the economic sanctions." "Everything is tired," he said. "Iraq's social fabric is under serious attack." Like any sanctions-based economy, Iraq now has an expanding wealthy and regime-linked black marketeer class, resulting in a widening of the gap between the impoverished majority and the tiny - but vastly wealthy - rich.

The economic sanctions remain the main impediment to rebuilding Iraq. Before sanctions were imposed, ninety percent of Iraq's income came from oil exports. Once sanctions prohibited all oil sales, lack of access to even basic food and medicine soon reached catastrophic levels for the once largely middle-class population. Repair of the country's water, electrical, and oil systems, and other infrastructure, devastated in the 1991 bombing campaign, stalled. A 1999 delegation of Congressional staff to Iraq reported that: "the image of emaciated babies and malnourished young children ill or even dying in Iraq is by now well-known in the US The staff delegation, visiting hospitals in Baghdad, Amara and Basra, found that reality unchanged, with most of these children dying from treatable diseases, usually the result of unclean water and exacerbated by malnutrition, for which basic medications and treatments are unavailable."

26. What are sanctions against Iraq, why were they imposed, and why do they remain in place?

The Security Council imposed comprehensive sanctions against Iraq on August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The official rationale was to pressure the regime to withdraw from Kuwait, but on the same day then-President George H. W. Bush, along with British and NATO leaders, announced plans for Operation Desert Shield, and ordered US government agencies to prepare plans for "destabilizing and eventually toppling" Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The ensuing Gulf War ended Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, but left Saddam Hussein in power. Sanctions remained in place, contingent, according to the UN, on the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. US officials have made it plain, however, that sanctions will not end while Saddam Hussein remains in power.

Military sanctions were crafted to prevent other countries from selling weapons to Iraq. Throughout the 1970s and 80s the US and its allies, especially Germany, France and Russia, sold Iraq massive armaments, as well as the materials needed for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. The military sanctions stopped most, though not all, of those weapons sales.

The economic sanctions that were put in place, the most comprehensive and the most tightly enforced of any sanctions regime ever imposed on any country, initially prohibited the export of all Iraqi oil, which provided all but a tiny fraction of Iraq's access to hard currency. (See Oil for Food, next question) They also prohibited the sale of almost everything to Iraq, with the exception of some food and medicines - but even those were impossible to obtain because without oil revenue there was no money to buy anything. From the beginning, the US insisted that these sanctions would directly pressure Hussein's regime, first to get out of Kuwait, later to insure Iraq's disarmament.

The problem is that governments themselves are largely protected from the impact of sanctions, and instead it is the people who suffer. This has certainly been the case in Iraq, where deaths from sanctions-based causes far surpass the number killed in the Gulf War itself. In the early years the deaths were primarily linked to malnutrition; by the mid- to late-1990s, the government's strict food rationing program had incrementally improved the nutrition situation, and a higher percentage of deaths were caused by water-borne diseases untreated because of lack of medicines and insufficient medical equipment in the hospitals. The UN mission to Iraq said in March 1991 that "Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency; on an intensive use of energy and technology."

Economic sanctions have not, as one might imagine, fomented revolt within Iraq. Instead, it has increased dependence on the regime, since the limited amount of food and medicine people have access to is provided by the government's rationing system. In addition, people struggling to find clean water and some kind of education for their children are not in a position to mobilize opposition to their government. Lifting economic sanctions and allowing the rehabilitation of Iraq's middle class would likely have the effect of renewing internal calls for democratization and a change of government.

27. What is the Oil for Food Program? How does it work?

In 1996, the Security Council created the Oil for Food Program, which allowed Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil; by 1999 the limits were removed. But Iraq does not control the oil income. Instead, the oil revenue is held in a UN-run escrow account, and Iraq has to have every purchasing contract, for food, medicine, building material, whatever, approved by the UN's "661 Committee" (named for the resolution establishing the sanctions.) Thirty percent of the Oil for Food income (later reduced to 25%) was diverted to the Iraq Compensation Fund to pay reparations for losses caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. By the late 1990s, virtually all of the impoverished individual victims of the invasion (mostly South Asians working in Kuwait, Palestinians expelled from Kuwait, etc.) had been compensated, and the remaining compensation funds were largely going to repay the Kuwaiti royal family, Israel, and US and other international oil companies, despite analysts' suggestions that paying these reparations should be postponed until UNICEF could certify that Iraqi children were no longer dying from the consequences of sanctions.

Oil for Food was never designed to rebuild Iraq's economy or even to provide a modicum of food or health security for Iraq's 22 million people. Officially, it was designed to prevent further deterioration among Iraq's civilian population. In fact, it was a PR-driven response to the growing international outrage over massive civilian casualties. With the Sanctions Committee reflecting Security Council power relations, the US and four other permanent members of the Council maintain a veto over every individual contract-and have used it often. By late 2001, five billion dollars worth of contracts were on hold, almost all of them by US directive.

Even as late as December 2002, there has been no measurable change in the sanctions-driven death rate of Iraq's most vulnerable citizens. According to UNICEF reports, 5,000 children under the age of five die every month from the results of the US-imposed UN sanctions.

28. How are the Kurds treated in Iraq?

Iraq, along with the other nations whose land includes Kurdish territory (Syria, Turkey, and Iran), has a history of discrimination and mistreatment of the Kurds. In recent years Iraqi Kurds have done much better, both economically and politically. A US war on Iraq is not certain to better the Kurds' situation; US-allied Turkey's price for participation in the war may include US promises not to interfere in their repression of Turkish Kurds, which has already involved military campaigns into Iraqi Kurdistan where Turkish Kurds sometimes seek refuge. The US is also likely to acquiesce to Turkish demands for guarantees that Iraqi Kurds do not win even a robust level of autonomy (which could provide a destabilizing model for Turkey's independence-minded Kurds) - because for Washington, the US-Turkish alliance is strategically more important than the desires of the Turkish or Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq has treated the Kurds brutally, even in the relatively recent past. The 1988 Anfal campaign killed tens of thousands, some by poison gas. "Arabization," - forcing Kurds out of areas of economic or strategic importance and into the northern region of Iraq - remains the policy around the oil-rich Kurdish town of Kirkuk.

The two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, once espoused independence, but they have long since abandoned that goal in favor of cultural and administrative autonomy within Iraq. Since the end of the Gulf War the Kurds in northern Iraq have established a largely autonomous zone in the US-British "no-fly" zone. The Iraqi military did enter the area in 1996 at the request of one of the Kurdish parties, pulling out some time after the CIA's overthrow-the-Iraqi-government operation was crushed. After their withdrawal, Iraqi Kurdistan developed a separate governing and social structure. Development was aided by Kurdish access to local supplies of fresh water, substantial trade across porous borders, indigenous agriculture left largely unscathed from the Gulf War, oil smuggling revenues, and significantly, by a 22% higher per capita share of Oil for Food funds than that available in the rest of Iraq. Cultural and economic life has flourished, and by 2002 the Iraqi Kurds were participating in, though leery of the war-supporting positions of, the Iraqi National Congress and other opposition activities. Since 2000, Kurdish leaders have sent regular emissaries to negotiate with the government in Baghdad, and have asserted that they would not participate in a US war to overthrow the regime.

In neighboring and US-allied Turkey, the southeast Kurdish region has long been a center of terrible repression and conflict. Until August 2002, Kurds were prohibited by law from teaching their own language or running their own schools. Kurds were largely excluded from national cultural or economic life. Though conflict with the separatist PKK ended in 1999, Ankara refused an amnesty and 12,000 PKK fighters and family members fled to northern Iraq. The Turkish military, with US support, continues to attack alleged PKK bases in northern Iraq by air and by land.

Outside powers - most notably the United States - have used and forsaken the Kurds as well, embracing them one moment, abandoning them to their fate at the hands of a cruel regional power the next. The Turkish government fears that its own Kurdish population may see the autonomy of their Iraqi counterparts as a model. Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz visited Ankara in December 2002 and pledged that the US would maintain Iraq's "territorial integrity," remarks which must be viewed in light of previous instances of the US sacrificing Kurdish self-determination in pursuit of regional strategic goals. In one egregious example, rebellious Iraqi Kurds were armed by the US in the early 1970s at the request of the Shah of Iran. A subsequent deal between the shah and then-Vice President Saddam Hussein led the US to abandon the Kurds, who were massacred by Iraqi troops.

29. How will Iraqis be affected by war?

War in Iraq will generate an enormous humanitarian crisis. UN planning documents anticipate that 500,000 Iraqis would be injured in the early stages of a US war. The UN describes war in Iraq resulting in a crippled nation with shattered infrastructure, electricity grid badly damaged, and major damage to the oil industry. UN reports anticipate civilian damage far beyond that of the 1991 Gulf war, and a resulting refugee crisis.

In a November 2002 confidential internal planning memo, the UN's Inter-Agency Humanitarian Preparedness and Response Framework for Iraq and Neighboring Countries estimated that "up to 9.5 million people could become immediately food insecure, less than 50% of the population would retain access to clean water, and critical shortages would be experienced in essential drugs." UN planning anticipated providing emergency food aid to only half those in need - up to 4.5 million people. In a later version of the report, the UN estimated that about 3 million of those in need of food would face "dire malnutrition."

The Inter-Agency Framework states that "as a result of hostilities, over 1.2 million asylum seekers could attempt to cross international borders to seek refuge and protection in neighboring countries. New mass displacement would occur in the hardest hit and most insecure areas. Urban areas would be particularly affected." Later planning documents indicate that the UN foresees a need for border area transit camps for as many as half a million Iraqis.

30. What will happen in the rest of the Middle East region if there is war in Iraq?

The Middle East is already deeply unstable. Regimes across the region face profound crises of legitimacy, with populations massively opposing their governments' dependency on the US and acquiescence to its policies in the region. Especially problematic is the uncritical nature of US support for Israel and Israel's occupation of Palestine.

There is little doubt that, despite often-blustering statements of opposition designed to appease public anger, governments throughout the region will, when the time comes, do what Washington asks of them. They have little choice: unsupported by their own people, they remain in power on the basis of support from the US, whether, like Jordan, that support is economic, or like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petro-states, military, or, like Egypt, both military and economic. Some of them may, however, face serious instability, even the possibility of overthrow, if their support for a US war is too public or too disdainful of public sensibilities. The US appears to take little interest in these political challenges, thinking, perhaps, that these problems too have military solutions, or that the current regimes are easily replaceable by others more compliant to US wishes. All of the regional governments are already using the war build-up to engage in "preemptive strikes" against their own domestic dissent. This increased government repression, which will increase with an actual shooting war, will push more and more opposition underground or into extremism.

This will only increase threats to US citizens throughout the region. As anger towards the US government soars, fury among disempowered, disenfranchised and often marginalized populations may well turn to violence. Although it has not been a pattern so far, "soft" targets, such as individual US tourists, students, businesspeople and others could become the targets of such rage. More dramatic terrorism may also result.

31. What does Israel have to do with war in Iraq?

Israel is the only country in the region that openly supports a US war in Iraq. Israel is likely to benefit from a US war in the form of increased financial support, but will also likely pay in other ways for their closeness with the United States. Israel would like to see a broader war drastically reshape the political map of the Middle East. There are also clear indications that Israel would use a war on Iraqi as cover for a more aggressive campaign against Palestinians. (See next question.)

While Israeli leaders have for years viewed Iran as more threatening to Israeli security than Iraq (acknowledging the degraded state of Iraq's military since the Gulf War), the Bush administration's fixation with Iraq has led Tel Aviv to support that war in hopes of a follow-up war against Iran. Many Bush administration hawks, such as Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others, have crafted strategies outlining a vision of a remapped US-dominated Middle East with Israel as Washington's strategic junior partner. (See, for example, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," published by the Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000, of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.)

In fact, a war with Iraq is likely to create even greater problem for Israel. Its support for the war and close ties to the US will lead some to hold it accountable for Washington's wartime actions. Greater antagonism and regional isolation towards Israel, and potential attacks against individual Israelis are likely to result, particularly if Iraq suffers a high rate of civilian casualties.

Since September 11th, Israeli officials have repeated incessantly the claim that "now you know what it's like," equating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with the suicide bombings of desperate young Palestinians. In the US, defenders of uncritical US support for Israel, particularly within the Jewish and the right-wing Christian fundamentalist communities are among the staunchest backers of war with Iraq. The US provides $4 billion or so each year in military and economic aid to Israel, as well as the consistent use of Washington's veto in the UN Security Council to prevent international criticism of the Israeli occupation. Most recently, in December 2002, the US vetoed an otherwise unanimous condemnation of Israel's killing of UN officials in the occupied territory and its destruction of a UN food warehouse in Gaza. By early 2003, Israel was using the likelihood of a US war in Iraq to demand additional US aid from the cash-strapped US budget - including $4 billion in new military grants and $8 billion more in loan guarantees - and there was every indication that Congress would agree.

32. What will be the impact on the Palestinians?

Palestinians are already suffering in the worst conditions of military occupation since 1967. The collapse of the Oslo peace process, the high hopes ended by a nightmare of disillusionment, and the current Palestinian realities are those of tightened military control, increased repression, economic devastation and social catastrophe. Unemployment has hit 70% in some areas. According to the US Agency for International Development, childhood malnutrition in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has skyrocketed, and had surpassed levels in Somalia and Bangladesh by the summer of 2002. Israel's "targeted killings," or assassinations of Palestinians, continues, unchecked by international criticism. (By late 2002, the US had abandoned even the pretense of criticism of such assassinations, as Washington moved towards what many in the region describe as the "Israelization" of the US war against terrorism, using an Israeli-style helicopter missile attack to assassinate an alleged al-Qaeda leader and five others driving in an isolated car deep in the Yemeni desert.) Not surprisingly, the desperate conditions and complete stall in peace negotiations have led increasing numbers of Palestinians to take desperate acts in response - both legitimate acts of resistance and illegal attacks on Israeli civilians that themselves violate international law.

As war fever began to heat up in Washington in the spring of 2002, the threat of "transfer" became a much more serious concern for Palestinians. Long deemed an unacceptable topic for polite discussion in Israel, over the last two years "transfer," Israel's euphemism for ethnic cleansing, has moved into the forefront of political discussion. Featuring prominently in the Israeli media and the subject of at least one high-profile academic conference at one of Israel's most prestigious universities, "transfer" is now part of mainstream political discussion and its supporters hold seats in the Israeli Knesset and in the government.

The threat is that in the regional chaos of a US war in Iraq, Israel would forcibly expel some numbers of Palestinians. Perhaps it would be in the form of a punishment against a whole village from which a suicide bomber came, or perhaps 1,000 or so targeted Palestinian individuals - political leaders, intellectuals, militants, or those Israel claims are militants - would be bused over the river into Jordan or flown into Lebanon. The possibility is not so far-fetched; besides the massive expulsions that forced more than one million Palestinians into exile during the 1947-48 and 1967 wars, as recently as 1994 Israeli troops arrested 415 Islamists from the occupied territories, forced them into military helicopters and flew them into the hills of south Lebanon. There, without documents, without permission and despite rejection by the Lebanese government, they were abandoned on the snow-covered hillsides.

And General Sharon himself, elected prime minister of Israel in January 2001, created the "Jordan is Palestine" campaign in 1981-82 that called for expelling all Palestinians out of the occupied territories as well as the one million or so Palestinians who are now citizens of Israel, and pushing them all into Jordan. In 1989, former Israeli Prime Minister and later foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu told students at Bar-Ilan University: "Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention was focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories." War in Iraq would provide another such opportunity for "transfer" while world attention is largely focused elsewhere.

Recent mobilizations of Israeli academics have issued public calls against "transfer," but the danger remains very real - polls show more than 40% of Israelis in favor of such ethnic cleansing.