US sanctions: a weapon of mass destruction


By Norm Dixon

On February 21, another 63 children were buried in Iraq, more victims of a vicious weapon that has taken the lives of more than 1 million children and sick and elderly people. Estimates of the toll vary from 1 million to 1.7 million deaths over the past seven years — figures that bear a sickening resemblance to the almost 2 million slaughtered in Pol Pot's four-year genocide in Cambodia, the 1 million murdered in Indonesia in 1965 and the nearly 1 million killed in Rwanda in 1994.

Sultan al-Shawi, chairperson of the Iraqi Child Care Society, delivered a message from the grieving parents as the young victims were buried: "The death of your children is a mass annihilation crime committed by the US administration against the people of Iraq". This is an apt description of the sanctions that have devastated Iraq's population.

While the US government and international media whip up fear about the "threat" posed by Iraq's "potential capacity" to produce "weapons of mass destruction", every day for the past seven years, the sanctions have relentlessly killed and maimed by depriving the most vulnerable of medicine and nutrition.

As western audiences are inundated with shocking tales about the terrible consequences of exposure to anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin and clostridium perfringens — agents that the US claims Iraq may possess — the devastating biological attack on Iraq has gone virtually unreported.

One exception was a February 19 article by Manchester Guardian reporter Maggie O'Kane. "There is a new weapon in the Western powers' line-up against ... Saddam Hussein. It is not as hi-tech as the stealth bomber, it lacks the punch of the cruise missile and it can only be seen under a microscope. Travelling on the back of the female sand-fly, it strikes hardest in the spring."

Sand-flies once again carry the leishmaniasis parasite — the "black plague". It attacks babies' bone marrow, where it eats the cells that make blood, then invades the liver and spleen. Dr Alia Sultan of the al-Quadisiya hospital told O'Kane that infected babies have "a 10% chance of living. Before the sanctions and with medicine, it would have been 90%."

The black plague has returned, explains O'Kane, because of a "shortage of insecticides (banned under UN sanctions) and the collapse of the sanitation system with the absence of spare parts (because of the sanctions)".

Paediatrician Dr Ali Rasim says: "I have watched children dying here from renal failure because we didn't have sodium bicarbonate — that's baking soda ... I am a soldier without a weapon. The rockets and missiles that are coming for our children are viruses and epidemics, and I have nothing to fight them with."

UNICEF reports that the sanctions have led to a six-fold increase in infant mortality (an average of 4500 deaths a month, 7000 in October). Thirty per cent of children under five (960,000) suffer from malnutrition. Malnutrition-related deaths each month have increased 10-fold to 5750.

The 1991 US-led Gulf War — in which more than 200,000 Iraqi civilians and conscripts were slaughtered in 43 days — targeted Iraq's entire military, economic and public infrastructure, including water treatment plants, the sewerage system, hospitals, food processing and pharmaceutical factories, most power stations and bridges.

Officially, sanctions were to be lifted when Iraq had complied with 1991 UN Security Council resolutions by ridding itself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as the missiles capable of delivering them. However, the real function of the sanctions is to keep Iraq economically and militarily weak, and perhaps provoke a military coup against Hussein. US spokespeople have made it clear that sanctions will remain until Hussein is removed.

Medicines, chlorine for water purification, fertilisers and pesticides for agriculture, and spare parts for water and sewerage plants are singled out because it is claimed such materials could also produce chemical and biological weapons.

The US-dominated UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) — the body that certifies compliance — has deliberately prolonged sanctions by taking a stance that would require Iraq to dismantle its whole economy.

It is possible to make biological agents in a 10-litre home brew kit. With a high-school laboratory, many fertilisers, pesticides and household chemicals can be converted to deadly substances. US officials have even suggested that Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction will continue as long as there are technicians and scientists with the knowledge to make them.

Iraq has largely met UNSCOM's demands, yet there is no end to the sanctions. In 1995, Rolf Ekeus, then head of UNSCOM, said UNSCOM had destroyed all of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities. For seven years, nearly 3000 experts have delved into every nook and cranny, installed 24-hour video cameras and lights in every industrial plant that could make a weapon, and made more than 2180 inspections, many unannounced.

UNSCOM has destroyed 40,000 chemical weapons, nearly 500 tonnes of chemical warfare agents and Iraq's main biological weapons factory at Hakam, 60 kilometres west of Baghdad. All but 11 tonnes of benign growth culture (used to grow vaccines) was destroyed in 1996.

While UNSCOM has backtracked on its assessment of Iraq's chemical and biological capability, it concedes the nuclear program has been dismantled and that all but two of Iraq's 819 Scud missiles have been found.

Hussein has not always been "the enemy". During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the US urged its allies to supply Iraq with money and weapons and provided military protection for tankers transporting Iraqi oil. The US also turned a blind eye to Hussein's human rights violations, including chemical attacks on the Kurds in 1988.

It was only when Hussein invaded Kuwait, gaining control of 20% of the world's oil supply and possibly threatening the Saudi Arabian dictatorship, that the US turned on Iraq.

Suddenly, Washington "discovered" Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction". In fact, these weapons were developed with equipment and materials — including the anthrax and botulinum bacteria — supplied by US companies under licences issued by the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The US stand against "weapons of mass destruction" reeks of hypocrisy. The US has more than 1000 tonnes of chemical weapons and the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons; it turns a blind eye to Israel's 400-plus nuclear weapons; the tonnes of depleted uranium shells used during the Gulf War have been condemned as weapons of mass destruction by a UN subcommission; the US refuses to support a global ban on anti-personnel landmines and is pressuring its NATO allies to allow it to store and transport landmines in their countries.

Not only does the US continue to build nuclear weapons in defiance of the 1996 World Court ruling declaring them illegal; it is ready to use them. The February 1 New York Newsday revealed that Clinton signed a top-secret directive in November authorising the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq "under certain conditions".

According to Scientists for Global Responsibility, Washington has deployed the B61-11 bomb in the region, a nuclear bomb designed to destroy the deepest and most hardened underground bunkers. It was developed and deployed without congressional approval.