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.
Nowhere, perhaps, is that suffering more evident than in Basra. And nowhere is it more tragic and more ominous for the United States. For on the gritty streets of this city, among some of Iraq’s poorest and most isolated and disenfranchised people, Saddam Hussein faces perhaps a higher concentration of enemies than anywhere on earth. But these people, and millions of Iraqis like them, have come to see Saddam’s worst enemy, the United States, as their enemy as well. Washington abandoned their revolt against Saddam in 1991, and they’ve suffered a decade of U.S.–backed sanctions and U.S. bombs. Now their bitterness is tangible. And it will be ripe for exploitation by anti-American demagogues and terrorists for years after Saddam Hussein is gone.
"Iraqis think Saddam is America’s man," says a computer programmer from Basra named Saad, who now lives in Florida and asked that his last name not be revealed in order to protect family back home. "These people are not going to forget what has happened to them. In their eyes, it is genocide. And people do not forget genocide."
Roaming through the wasteland that is Basra for five days, I had a sense of foreboding as I met the eyes of Iraqis lingering in front of their homes or staring from the windows of smoke-spewing buses. Men in white shoulder-to-ankle gowns and skullcaps were selling their furniture, appliances, and clothing to feed their families. Engineers and teachers were driving banged-up taxis. Children who looked like fourth-graders turned out to be malnourished 14-year-olds. Veiled women reached out with bony hands to plead for money. It was obscene, all of it, and the more so because just beneath their feet lay the second-largest known reserve of oil in the world.
Among the beggars on Basra’s streets is Samira Abdul-Wahid. She has a stern face and chicken-claw hands. We sit together on the cement floor of her apartment. A gaggle of kids, hers and the neighbors’, jam the room and the yard. Panic seems to lurk behind Abdul-Wahid’s words. She describes how she struggles to raise five children alone, and she utters not a syllable criticizing Saddam Hussein. Members of Saddam’s regime listen to every conversation foreign journalists have with Iraqis; and Iraqis know that Saddam and his Ba’ath Party loyalists have used torture and killings to enforce loyalty ever since they took power in 1968.
Abdul-Wahid grew up in a village outside of Fao, a refinery town on the Iranian border about 70 miles south of Basra. Her world was one of peasants and fishermen. They lived as their ancestors had for generations. The houses were mud brick. The landscape was lush: towering date palms, lime orchards, vineyards, and gardens of dill and parsley that grew along the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab. The Shatt is a briny, ink-colored waterway a few hundred yards wide. At the bottom end of Mesopotamia, the cradle of Western civilization, the Shatt takes in the water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and flows southward from Basra to the Persian Gulf. Near Fao, the waterway marks out the southernmost stretch of the border between Iraq and its traditional enemy, Iran.
Abdul-Wahid was about 20 years old in 1978, when Saddam Hussein took full control of Iraq’s government. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and Iraq was barely a blip on America’s radar. The Iraqi government was pouring oil revenues into public welfare and public-works projects and still had $35 billion in reserve. Basra, the magical setting for "Sinbad the Sailor" and other fables from A Thousand and One Nights, was a bustling seaport. Rich Kuwaitis drove across the border from their alcohol-free cities to crowd into the bars, casinos, and strip clubs that lined Basra’s Al-Watani Street. People from Basra, the Basrawi, sent their children to local schools and universities that were among the finest in the developing world. Hospitals had state-of-the-art equipment and air-conditioning.
The Abdul-Wahid family, and much of the rest of Iraq, began its descent into misery in the autumn of 1980. Saddam, a Sunni Muslim from a small northern clan, was facing a rebellion by members of Islam’s other great sect, the Shi’ites, who make up a largely disenfranchised majority of Iraq’s population and reside mostly in the country’s southern half. And the rebels had found help just a few miles from Basra—in Iran, where another Shi’ite, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had taken charge in an Islamic revolution that ousted the Shah. Saddam wanted the Iraqi rebels’ lifeline cut off, and he also wanted complete control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. He gambled that Khomeini’s revolution had weakened Iran’s army, so he attacked.
Iraq’s invasion of Iran was a huge miscalculation. The attack enraged and united the Iranians, and Khomeini’s army inflicted deep casualties on the Iraqis. The United States, which feared that Khomeini would spread his fundamentalist and anti-American movement beyond Iran’s borders, rushed to Saddam’s rescue. The Reagan administration, even though it knew that Baghdad was home to some of the world’s most notorious terrorists, removed Iraq from the blacklist of states that backed terrorism and offered help. The CIA briefed Iraqi military officers and provided them with reconnaissance photographs of Iranian positions. Instead of ending with a quick defeat for Iraq, the war dragged on. It would ultimately kill at least 100,000 Iraqis, primarily the Shi’ites Saddam used as cannon fodder.
In the sixth year of the war, a turnabout in U.S. policy toward favoring Iran helped lead to the destruction of Samira Abdul-Wahid’s village. A military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Colin Powell, signed a secret order providing for the transfer of about 4,000 anti-tank missiles from the U.S. Army to the CIA for delivery to Iran. This violated an arms embargo against Iran. The subsequent transfer of profits from the missile deal to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels violated U.S. law. The scandal would later become known as the Iran-Contra affair.
The U.S. missiles boosted Iran’s firepower just as it was mounting a massive offensive on southern Iraq. On February 9, 1986, the Iranians seized Fao. Tens of thousands of civilians, including Samira Abdul-Wahid and her family, fled for their lives. Most of them found their way into schools and abandoned houses in Basra. They waited there while the Iranians mauled one Iraqi counterattack after another. Saddam retaliated by launching air attacks on Iranian oil tankers. The Iranians struck back by attacking Iraq’s ally, Kuwait. And with Gulf oil fields at risk, the Reagan administration once again threw its support behind Iraq.
On April 17, 1988, the Iraqis fired aerial bombs, artillery barrages, and a cocktail of poison gas at Fao and drove the Iranians out. The war ended that August with a cease-fire.
After the war, Samira Abdul-Wahid, then 32, settled into one of 700 unfinished apartments in a housing project on the north side of Basra. Saddam’s army had barred the Fao refugees from returning home. The riverbank had been designated a military defense zone. The magnificent palms were rotting stumps. The cattle had been slaughtered and the mud houses had crumbled into dust laced with nerve gas residue.
Abdul-Wahid’s new home sits on a treeless plain scraped by the desert wind. Trash has piled up in every public area, and no one seems to notice. A few jealously guarded goats and donkeys consume any plant that sprouts. On the day I visit, the smell of rot hangs in the air.
Abdul-Wahid shows me into the ground-floor accommodations she and her children share—a cave, really, with a toilet. The walls are rough cement. Threadbare carpets, doubling as beds, cover part of the floor. Abdul-Wahid’s children do not attend school. They are barefoot. Salty gray dust has climbed halfway up their calves.
In the presence of a government-appointed monitor (a woman from Iraq’s official women’s organization who is assigned to listen to all of my conversations), Abdul-Wahid explains that her father died of gangrene four years ago, when the sanctions were in full force and antibiotics were scarce. She says her husband also died, and that this left her without identification documents needed to obtain full rations for all her children. "Our rations are only enough for one person," she says. "So I go out and beg." If there is more to the story—and I sense that there is—she is not going to talk about it.
"The glorious Iraqi woman," Saddam Hussein declared during a speech in 1990, "goes to the Kuwaiti for a nickel." He was singling out the nightclubs and prostitutes of Basra and playing to patriotic honor in order to justify his attack on Iraq’s oil-rich neighbor. In reality, the invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, had nothing to do with honor. It was Saddam’s attempt to rescue himself from the economic consequences of the futile war with Iran. Saddam’s creditors were demanding repayment of the multi-billion-dollar debt he had rung up to finance the conflict.
Four days after the attack on Kuwait, the U.N. Security Council, led by the United States, hit Iraq with the most comprehensive economic sanctions it had ever imposed. All trade with Iraq was banned. Government assets abroad were frozen and financial transactions with Iraq were prohibited. The country’s economy collapsed immediately and Saddam blamed the United States. He made himself a hero across the Arab world by defying Washington and refusing to quit Kuwait, even as U.S.–led forces began attacking Iraq by air on January 17, 1991.
Until that day, Basra had a functioning water and sewage system. Its pumps were driven by electricity from the Al-Hartha power station on Basra’s north end. This plant, which also supplied local military bases, was one of the first casualties of the bombing campaign.
So the pipes gurgled and the lights went out in the house that Ali Brendhi Abed rented with his wife and six children in the Garmat Ali, a neighborhood adjacent to air and naval bases at the city’s northern edge. Abed, a jowly, proud-looking man, was born in Garmat Ali in 1955 and has lived there ever since. "Iraq before the sanctions was glorious," he muses as my government monitor nods contentedly. "I owned everything I wanted." His possessions included a car, a bicycle, and some furniture.
When the air attack began, Abed was serving in a small Iraqi army unit stationed in Kuwait. In the second week of the war, he says, a bomb blew up in the unit’s kitchen. Shards of metal ripped into his back, chest, and abdomen. He was recuperating in Basra’s military hospital on February 2, when aerial bombs tore through Garmat Ali and killed his pregnant wife and two of his daughters, ages 5 and 11.
Six weeks after the aerial attacks began and four days after the U.S.–led coalition launched a ground war, Kuwait was rid of the Iraqi army that had terrorized the place for seven months. A cease-fire took effect at 5 a.m. on February 28. Saddam Hussein had survived, and so had Ali Brendhi Abed. He has remarried and now lives with his new family in another concrete cave with a toilet in a building near Abdul-Wahid’s. A ceiling fan creaks overhead as we speak. A stained white rug hides part of the cement floor "The Iraqi people will not forget the suffering the Americans have inflicted upon us," Abed declares. "And the orphans and the people who suffered because of the Americans will get their vengeance."
Abed says he sold his car, his bicycle, and his furniture long ago and supports 10 people on a pension of about $6 a month. He has undergone five surgeries and shows me an open wound on his side. "I cannot afford the operation to repair it," he says. The cost is the equivalent of $50. "Since I’m not retired from the military, they won’t pay for it." The government monitor doesn’t blink and Abed risks another disclosure. The authorities, he says, have just announced that they plan to evict him and his neighbors from the apartments they are squatting in. "Why would they kick us out?" Abed asks. The government minder’s eyes are on him. He says no more.
Basra was the first city in Iraq to rebel against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War. Some Basrawi say the uprising, or intifada, started in Abed’s old neighborhood, Garmat Ali. Published accounts say it began in Sa’ad Square, an immense highway intersection adjacent to the local headquarters of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. A tank from an Iraq army unit fleeing from Kuwait pulled up in the square before a mural of Saddam. A crowd gathered. And the tank’s commander reportedly climbed out and uttered these words to Saddam’s portrait: "What has befallen us, defeat, shame, and humiliation, Saddam, is the result of your follies, your miscalculations, and your irresponsible actions." The tank fired a cannon round into Saddam’s mug. Soldiers and demonstrators stormed the Ba’ath headquarters. They looted and burned police stations. They liberated hundreds of prisoners from a secret jail and executed Ba’ath leaders and police officials. "Saddam is finished," the crowds shouted.
Today, I’m told, the people of Basra still talk about the intifada, but only among family members at home or in tearooms with their most intimate friends. Even Basrawi abroad won’t give their full names when they are talking about it.
"It was a revolution," says one Basrawi named Mohamad, who deserted his army unit after the intifada began and eventually made it to the United States. "It was glorious. There were demonstrations and shooting. There were bodies all over the place. The persons who got killed on the Ba’athi side deserved to be killed."
The rebels had reason to be confident. On February 15, 1991, President George Bush had unambiguously called for "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." Radio stations across the Middle East broadcast his words, and their message spread throughout Iraq by word of mouth.
When the time came, however, the Bush administration turned its back on the rebels. Bush, Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had brought the Gulf War to an end, and they had done it without destroying the Republican Guard and other elite military units Saddam relies on to maintain power. Despite all the talk about promoting democracy, the White House and the Pentagon were hoping that Saddam would be unseated in a palace coup, not a popular uprising. They wanted Iraq’s Sunni minority government to survive so the United States would not have to reconstruct a country in chaos. They shunned the Shi’ite rebels, taking them for Iranian pawns and fearing that a Shi’ite takeover would antagonize the Sunni ruling elites in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states friendly to the United States.
Smoke from oil well fires that the Iraqi army had ignited in Kuwait cast a noxious pall over Basra as the city descended into anarchy. Food supplies ran low. The electrical supply was dead. Water was scarce. The rebels were running out of ammunition. And Saddam had sent his cousin, Ali Hassan Al-Majid, the state security minister who spewed poisonous gas on thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1987, to deal with Basra personally. As American forces watched, armored Iraqi units moved into the city from the west. Advancing street by street, they handcuffed women and children to their tanks to shield themselves from rebel fire. The insurgents retreated into a shrinking circle.
The uprising had collapsed. Mohamad, who had deserted the army, found himself on a block where Saddam’s Republican Guard troops were going house to house, arresting men and taking them away in trucks. People who had danced in celebration a week earlier were now shrinking back into their homes.
Mohamad got one of his friends to drive him to his old barracks. He doctored the roll-call records to make it seem as if he hadn’t deserted. And the next day, while he was delivering messages to the division headquarters, he watched as soldiers marched prisoners into a field, dozens at a time.
The soldiers lined the prisoners up in front of a stand of palm trees. "They shot them there," Mohamad says. "When I saw it, my stomach tightened. I felt like I had a fever."
Basra cringed at the spate of executions. About 30 people were weighed down with concrete and pushed into the Shatt-al-Arab while others were forced to drink gasoline and then shot and set afire. Bodies of some of the dead were bulldozed into the salty soil; others were dumped on a main road to Baghdad and set upon by dogs.
Analysts like the University of Haifa’s Baram estimate the number of civilian dead in the Shi’ite intifada at between 30,000 and 60,000. Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman at the time, said the administration felt no guilt for refusing to aid the rebels. The United States had held back support, the White House indicated, to avoid becoming involved in an internal Iraqi conflict. But in Basra, it seemed that George Bush had rescued Saddam Hussein.
Five weeks after the uprising was crushed, the U.N. Security Council voted to keep Iraq in an economic chokehold even though the sanctions’ original goal, forcing Saddam’s army from Kuwait, had been achieved. The United States—with the Security Council in tow—had new demands. Washington wanted Saddam to surrender his chemical and biological weapons, as well as the research and production facilities used to make them. And on May 20, three months after the end of the war, Bush announced that the sanctions would remain in place until Saddam was gone. The second decree erased any motivation the Iraqi dictator might have had to comply with the first. And it devastated the people of Basra and practically every other Iraqi who was not in Saddam’s ruling clique.
Saddam Hussein waited more than five years, until late 1996, before accepting a U.N. plan, known as "oil for food," that allowed Iraq to export a limited amount of oil and use the revenues to buy food and medicine. Those rules were later relaxed, and by late 2000 Iraq was able to sell as much oil as it could pump and to spend 72 percent of the revenues to import any products that could not be used for military purposes. During the last half of 2000 alone, Iraq earned almost $8 billion under the program and spent just over $4.2 billion. Barely one-third of that amount was spent on food, and only slightly over 2 percent went for medical products—"despite all the concerns expressed regarding the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people," as the head of the "oil for food" program, Benon Sevan, wrote in a report to the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Saddam has had little trouble importing just about everything else he wants except for tanks, artillery, and other military equipment. Iraq has earned at least another $2 billion by trading oil outside the U.N. system, mainly through a pipeline across Syria and on tankers plying Iranian waters. U.N. border monitors in Jordan, one of Baghdad’s biggest trading partners, inspect only a handful of the thousands of trucks that pass into Iraq each week.
The devastating aspect of the sanctions is not that they restrict what Iraq can import; it is that they deny the whole country access to cash. This lack of cash flow also makes it easier for the regime to monopolize access to all essential goods and services. There are shops in Baghdad whose shelves brim with merchandise. There are restaurants jammed with diners, and it is not hard to spot new Mercedes, Volvos, and Chevy SUVs burning 15-cents-a-gallon gas. But for the majority of Iraqis, who are not part of Saddam’s clique, this affluence might as well exist on another planet. Unemployment is so rampant, and wages so low, that according to one U.N. official, about 70 percent of Iraqis derive a key part of their income from selling a portion of their meager monthly food rations.
The hardship is not spread uniformly. The U.N. Children’s Fund has found that Basra and other rebellious Shi’ite-populated regions are the worst off. Saad, the Iraqi computer programmer in Florida, says brothers and sisters of rebels have been expelled from schools and universities, and more distant relatives have been evicted from government-owned housing. He grimaced knowingly when I described Ali Brendhi Abed’s housing problem, Samira Abdul-Wahid’s trouble getting papers to obtain rations, and the fact that her children do not attend school.
"If you go to register your kid for school and they see that your husband or someone from his family participated in the intifada, they’re going to say, ‘Fuck you,’ " Saad explains. "If you try to register for housing and they see you’re from Garmat Ali and that your relative participated in the intifada, they’re going to say, ‘Fuck you,’ too."
Instead of repairing the war-damaged infrastructure in the Shi’ite south, the regime has devoted its resources to draining a huge marshland north of Basra, in a clear effort to eliminate the wetlands as a safe haven for small bands of armed insurgents. The result has been an ecological and humanitarian disaster. The culture of the Marsh Arabs, which predates much of the Old Testament, is being wiped out. And hundreds of thousands of people have been herded into desolate slums like the ones in northern Basra.
In December 2000, even before President Bush took office, Secretary of State–designate Colin Powell signaled the administration’s intent to launch a major push to shore up the buckling sanctions. Over the past two years, U.S. policymakers have watched with disdain as a growing number of countries and corporations—including Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer, oil services giant Halliburton—lined up to do business with Iraq. A recent trade fair in Baghdad featured sales reps offering John Deere tractors, Isuzu trucks, and DaimlerChrysler equipment. International flights to Baghdad resumed in 2000 despite Washington’s objections. Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, signed a free-trade agreement with Iraq in January 2001.
Irritated by these forays, the United States has sought not only to revive enforcement of sanctions, but also to severely limit Saddam Hussein’s access to cash. The administration knows that the sanctions have cost Saddam $160 billion in potential oil revenues over the past decade, and that this has restricted his ability to rebuild Iraq’s war machine. Washington also knows that the policy carries an enormous human cost, for which it blames Saddam alone.
"He gets $2 billion a year from smuggling and he doesn’t use it on repairing the sewage system in Basra or on schools and hospitals," notes Meghan O’Sullivan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and co-author of a book on sanctions with Richard Haass, the State Department official in charge of developing U.S. sanctions policy. "He uses it building palaces and developing weapons of mass destruction."
In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, speculation about future U.S. policy toward Iraq ranged from the possibility of tougher sanctions to outright military strikes. But whatever action the administration takes in the near term, the policies of the past two decades have helped ensure that the United States will face enormous challenges in the region for years to come. Saddam, after all, will not be around forever. But 23 million Iraqis will be. And so will millions of other Arabs who have seen the pictures of Iraq’s misery and have blamed the United States for it.
"We have created a country that is going to need a lot of help," says U.S. Marine General Anthony Zinni, who commanded the American forces in the Middle East until his retirement in the summer of 2000. Zinni, a supporter of maintaining sanctions, has called for recruiting the Arab world to oversee the administration of humanitarian aid to Iraq.
"We should be talking about the post-Saddam period," Zinni says. "We should be talking to the people of the region. And we should learn to speak positively. If you look at the tone of what we say, everything is negative. Everything is destructive. It encourages the belief and the perception that all we want to do is keep the Arabs down, make a mess, and go home."
"The Arabs," Zinni says, "are a people obsessed with injustice."
And, as the United States learned on September 11, that sense of injustice can fuel a desperate desire for revenge.
Chuck Sudetic is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone and the author of Blood and Vengeance, a book on the Bosnian War. A Croatian-American with family ties to the Bosnian Muslims massacred by Serbs during that conflict, Sudetic lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. From Mother Jones (Nov./Dec. 2001). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 334, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.