The Catastrophe Of Sanctions Against Iraq

FOR eight years, the U.N., under pressure from the U.S., has subjected the people of Iraq to the most draconian sanctions regime in modern history. And what does Washington have to show for it? Intensified political extremism in the Ba'athist regime. Further violations of international law, including the principles of sovereignty and human rights as enshrined in the U.N. Charter. And the impoverishment of a once-prosperous and cultured society.

Economic sanctions are a catastrophe - humanitarian and political. There are alternatives. The U.S. has the power to promote stability in the Middle East. But first we must undo the damage done by sanctions.

And for that we must look back to the 1991 Gulf War. In violation of the Geneva Convention, coalition forces destroyed Iraq's civilian infrastructure. They bombed water and sewage systems, electrical plants, bridges, hospitals, schools. In 1991, then Secretary of State James Baker warned Iraq, a newly emergent industrial society, that it would be bombed back to a "pre-industrial age." In many respects, this occurred.

After the war, economic sanctions were imposed, ostensibly to compel Iraq's disarmament. In theory, sanctions hurt a country's rulers while sparing its people. The exact reverse has happened in Iraq. While sparing the Ba'athist regime, the economic sanctions target the most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor and the very young.

The toll on children is especially deadly. Over 5,000 under-5-year-old children die each month due to sanctions, according to the World Health Organization. Children die from such easily treatable conditions as diarrhea and dehydration. What is more, UNICEF estimates that over 30 percent of Iraq's children under five are chronically or acutely malnourished. They will be physically and mentally stunted for the rest of their lives.

In the name of the international community, U.N. economic sanctions are destroying an entire generation, an entire society.

It may sound too dramatic to call this systematic destruction genocide. But what better word is there? The U.N. Security Council knows full well the dimensions of the tragedy unfolding in Iraq - even if the American people do not.

The U.N. oil-for-food program, which I oversaw, was designed to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis. The program is strictly monitored. There is simply no evidence that funds or supplies are being diverted by the ruling circles.

The program cannot significantly reduce the catastrophic levels of disease, malnutrition and premature death in Iraq. The chain of fatality originates with the shattered civilian infrastructure, which will take Iraq many years and many billions of dollars to rebuild. For this reason, the administration's proposal to lift the ceiling on the oil-for-food program amounts to an empty public-relations exercise.

Yes, Saddam Hussein is responsible for unspeakable human-rights abuses. Let us not forget, though, that the Ba'athist regime maintained a quality educational and public health-care system.

Many Iraqi adults have been educated in the West or traveled abroad. Many of the Iraqis I met enjoy a love affair with America. This affection could be useful down the road, when relations resume with Iraq, as realpolitik dictates they someday must.

But we may meet a new hostility. Over 40 percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 15. This generation knows of America only through the Gulf War and its support for the sanctions regime. They have grown up cut off from the outside world. With no hope for a normal life, they are growing more alienated and resentful.

Indeed, the conditions of their upbringing strike me as frighteningly similar to those that have given rise to the ferociously reactionary Taliban movement or to European fascism after the first World War in Europe.

The consequences of Iraq's isolation are already manifest in the younger members of the Ba'ath party. They want to break with all aspects of U.N. presence in their country, and have Iraq go it alone. The continued humiliation of the Iraqi people may produce a political entity whose extreme nationalism will make the current leadership appear moderate.

So what are we to do?

Drop all non-military sanctions. This will not be "rewarding" Saddam Hussein. By allowing people to focus on something other than sheer survival, it will enable the professional middle classes to contemplate political change. Stop delaying or denying Iraq access to books, medical journals, pencils and papers, as the U.N. Sanctions Committee, dominated by the U.S. and the U.K., has repeatedly done. Flood Iraq with all the opportunities to enjoy Western culture.Then, perhaps, participatory democracy will have a chance to emerge.

Retain all controls over arms sales and transfers to Iraq. Expand arms control and disarmament to the entire Middle East. This will not be an easy task. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are responsible for 85 percent of the world's arms sales. But it is a necessary one if these countries are to trade and cooperate.

Acknowledge UNSCOM's successes. It destroyed vast amounts of biological and chemical weapons materials. But after 8 years and thousands of inspections, we must accept that we are not going to find everything. And disarmament is too important a process for it to become politicized and open-ended. We know how easy it is to make these appalling devices. When Saddam Hussein used them before, it was with the blessing of the U.S.

Now, Iraq is surrounded by much more powerful neighbors, all armed to the teeth. Regional states may bristle at Saddam Hussein's verbal attacks, but what evidence exists to show they actually feel threatened? Even Iran, which waged a long, deadly war with Iraq in the 1980s, has called for an end to the bombing and sanctions.

Engage in intelligent diplomacy. Drop support for self-appointed opposition leaders in exile whose chief constituents are a handful of Western politicians. The Iraqi people have to determine their own fate. They are smart, tough, and resilient. Why deny them rights we would never deny ourselves?

Denis J. Halliday is a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. After 34 years of service, he resigned from the U.N. in protest over the humanitarian cost of economic sanctions. ------------------------------- Prayer service and procession

A protest of economic sanctions against the people of Iraq will begin with a prayer service Sunday starting at 2:30 p.m. at St. James Cathedral, Ninth and Marion streets. A procession will leave about 3:30 p.m. from St. James and march to St. Mark's Cathedral on 10th Avenue East.