A MISSION OF PEACE TO IRAQ
By David Edwards
In a recent article in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting asked: "Let's be honest, who cares much about politics beyond a small elite of professional politicians? When did you last have a raging row - or even brief conversation - with anyone about politics?"
The short answer to Bunting's first question - "Who cares?" - is simple: people like Jo Baker, Bristol mother-of-three, who, on August 11, will join four other women ranging between 30 and 76 years of age, in flying out to Iraq to mark the tenth anniversary of sanctions. For them politics is not merely of interest, it is a matter of life and death.
According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, 4,000 more children under five are dying every month in Iraq than would have died had Western sanctions not been imposed. Over the ten years that these US and British-led sanctions have been in place, 500,000 extra children under five have died.
The team have decided to go as an all-women delegation, as an act of solidarity with Iraqi women, and to bear witness to the devastating ways in which British foreign policy is impacting on their lives through sanctions and the bombing which goes on almost daily. It will focus on women's issues like childbirth and the death of children.
The women will be visiting Iraq's second city, Basra, in the south of the country, scene of the worst poverty: "There are terrible problems with birth defects and leukaemia, which have been linked to the use of around 350 tons of depleted uranium munitions during the war," Baker says. "They don't have enough drugs for chemotherapy; they don't have enough blood, enough oxygen, and anaesthetics. Women are having caesarean operations without anaesthetics; it's just horrendous. There are no proper pain killers."
The women are also hoping to examine levels of environmental damage and to interview Dr. Huda Ammash an environmental biologist and professor at Baghdad University. Dr. Ammash has described "an unprecedented catastrophe" in Iraq, with much of the country "turned into a polluted and radioactive environment".
Alongside Jo will be the equally remarkable Peggy Preston, 76, an ex-WAAF servicewoman. Peggy served on a bomber station at Coningsby during the Second World War. The experience of seeing her friends in the RAF being killed and learning of the firestorms inflicted on Hamburg and other cities in Germany taught her an invaluable lesson: "I learned that it is not enough to just toe the line. I began my service believing that I really was fighting a war to end all wars. Since then I have tried as hard as I can to spread peace around the world. From 1968 to 1973, at the height of the war, I lived in Vietnam. I've always wanted to understand what people in other countries are experiencing and suffering. We Westerners can always get out of these terrible situations, the least we can do is share in their experience and show solidarity."
Preston will be returning to Iraq for the first time since visiting the country as part of the Gulf Peace Team in January 1991: "We know that the situation has deteriorated dramatically since 1991," she told me. "Then, the loss of electricity, lack of clean water, spread of disease and bomb damage were laying the foundations for disaster. Today, malnutrition, cancer, typhoid and diarrhoea have reached truly epidemic proportions as the country is routinely denied food and medical supplies by sanctions."
In response to this horror, Denis Halliday, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator resigned from the UN in 1998, describing Western policy as "genocidal". His successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned on February 13 of this year, asking, "How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?" Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, saying privately that what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.
Steadfastly ignoring these authoritative and credible dissident voices, the British and US governments continue to claim that Iraq's holocaust is the sole responsibility of Saddam Hussein. Peter Hain, Minister of State, for example, has written: "The 'oil for food' programme has been in place for three years and could have been operating since 1991 if Saddam had not blocked it. The Iraqi people have never seen the benefits they should have."
Denis Halliday rejects this claim out of hand: "There is no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients - there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever ever in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.
Halliday argues that shortage of food and medical supplies is the direct responsibility of Washington and London: "They have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years - it's a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, is just nonsense. That's why I've been using the word 'genocide ', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage."
Halliday and many other peace campaigners are concerned at the possibility of massive bombing ahead of the upcoming U.S. presidential election:
"One great fear I think many of us have is that Richard Butler (former Unscom director) is talking publicly on his concern that something is going on within Iraq; that they are possibly rebuilding their weapons of mass destruction. These are extremely dangerous comments, for which there is no basis in fact that I'm aware of. This scaremongering, in my view, is preparing the possibility for Clinton and the Pentagon and others to bomb Iraq again in another December '98-style attack."
Justification for such an attack might be provided by plans for Hans Blix to return to Iraq with his Unmovic (UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission) inspectors at the end of August. Baghdad has not changed its position on UN Resolution 1284 and has not indicated that it will allow Blix 's team to enter the country. Halliday warns that this rejection could provide the pretext for another military aggression: "The fear is that this will be a clear excuse for Clinton to say, 'Well, there you are; Butler must be right. We'd better go in and bomb the country.'"
Iraq's refusal to accept 1284 is understandable enough, given that it refers only of a temporary suspension of sanctions if inspectors are allowed back into the country: an offer, which after the death of half a million children, is to say the least, too little too late. Resolution 1284 should also be viewed within the context of the American position, which insists that economic sanctions will +never+ be lifted while Saddam Hussein is in power: "That needs to be retracted," Halliday says. "If that happened we might see a breakthrough. Right now, as far as I know, the U.S. is encouraging and financing opposition based on that premise, and I think Al Gore has been saying just that recently: that removing Saddam Hussein will be one of his goals. In fact I believe that both presidential candidates are signed up to that idea".
Halliday fears that a major bombing campaign would have political appeal for Clinton in support of Al Gore: "He can say 'Al asked me to do it; Al's a tough guy. Al will take care of this Saddam,' as they call him. 'You can trust Al, he knows how to handle these 'rogue states'. This is not another Bush, the guy who failed in '91, this is someone new'. This would be a beautiful opportunity to bolster his image."
There are a few small signs of hope for the people of Iraq. Several large private corporations are now opposed to econom ic sanctions. The chief executives of Mobil Oil and Caterpillar tractors have both called for an end to the economic embargo. It has now become respectable to oppose economic sanctions whereas a few years ago it was deemed unthinkable. More and more people are becoming deeply concerned about the fate of the Iraqi people. "It 's a dramatic change," Halliday says. "It's like people are seeing the writing on the wall and they're preparing themselves to change sides, which is very encouraging. I think many governments are like that, but not, unfortunately, that I can see, the decision makers in Washington and London.
Jo Baker asks people in the South West to support her and Peggy Preston's action in any way they can: "We're asking people to fax or email Tony Blair and ask him to lift economic sanctions, and tell him that more bombing is totally unacceptable."
see also: The Unreporting of Iraq, A hidden Holocaust, by David Cromwell
Emanzipation Humanum, version 8. 2000, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired