The Betrayal of Basra

Saddam Hussein's Iraqi opponents learn that the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.

| March/April 2002

On September 11, Americans were taken by surprise with the fury that had been brewing in the hearts of some Middle Easterners. This article shows how U.S. policymakers’ sheer indifference to the suffering of ordinary people in the region fuels anti-American rage. Veteran reporter Chuck Sudetic traveled to the Iraqi city of Basra to view firsthand the effects of American-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein. What he discovered—besides terrible human misery—are ominous signs that might mean further consequences for us.

The morgue at the Basra Pediatric Hospital has one electrical fixture. It is an overworked cooler, and its motor groans as it fights back the desert heat that oppresses the city even in late autumn. This is the beginning of the off-season for death in Basra, a dust-choked metropolis of a million souls at the southern tip of Iraq. The cooler held only seven tiny bodies on the October afternoon I stared into it. They were wrapped in bedsheets and packed individually into sagging cardboard boxes, and they waited on shelves for family members to take them away for burial.

Had I been there during the high season for death, in midsummer, I might have seen a dozen small bodies stacked on the shelves. August temperatures in Basra push into the 120s. Dust and exhaust fumes foul the air. Stunted children splash in stagnant canals and pools of standing water rimmed with garbage, animal carcasses, and excrement. The bacteria count in the city’s water supply soars. Infants drink formula diluted with filthy tap water. And the morgue fills with the stench of the unforgotten dead.

These grim seasons were supposed to have ended in Basra by now. The CIA was supposed to have found someone to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq during the Gulf War a decade ago were supposed to have been lifted. And Iraq’s children were supposed to have stopped dying in droves from simple infections and diarrhea. But they haven’t. And throughout much of the world, blame for the suffering and death has been placed not on Saddam, where it most belongs, but on the United States.

For 10 years, the United States has been the staunchest advocate of maintaining a tight blockade on Iraq’s access to foreign goods and its oil revenues. These restrictions have failed to loosen Saddam’s grip on power. They have failed to force him to give up what is left of Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. What the sanctions have done, however, is kill. And they have killed more civilians than all the chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons used in human history. According to an estimate by Amatzia Baram, an Iraq analyst at the University of Haifa in Israel, between 1991 and 1997 half a million Iraqis died of malnutrition, preventable disease, lack of medicine, and other factors attributable to the sanctions; most were elderly people or children. The United Nations Children’s Fund puts the death toll during the same period at more than 1 million of Iraq’s 23 million people.

Even before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration had been adamant about maintaining and "re-energizing" the sanctions. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been campaigning for a package of "smart sanctions" that would have tightened Saddam’s access to oil revenues while allowing him to import a wider variety of civilian goods. This approach was seen as a way to gain support from the growing number of nations that were openly flouting the restrictions. But few analysts believe that these new sanctions—or any other revisions the U.N. Security Council might make when it next reviews the trade rules—would significantly ease the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

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