Atelier N°15, article N°31

Julien Ramina :
étudiant, Université Stendhal, Grenoble
© février-mars 2003


When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the United Nations voted sanctions against Iraq. The point was to force Saddam to withdraw his troops from Kuwait, and to reestablish the former government of that state. (1) The sanctions were also meant to force Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials believed that if the Iraqi leader did control his budget -instead of having it managed by the U.N.- he would manufacture weapons instead of investing in reconstruction and relief efforts for his country. (2) The United States denounced the biological weapons research effort of certain regimes, including Iraq. But these states are not very advanced technologically. (3) In the George Bush, Sr. administration, it was believed that if the population of Iraq suffered, some military officers might overthrow Saddam and take control of Iraq. Thus, Washington could control the situation more comfortably in the Middle-East region. (4) They also trusted that the very people of Iraq might revolt and oust Saddam Hussein themselves. (5)

The embargo consisted in a series of U. N. resolutions severely restricting the activities of Iraq. The restoration of the integrity of the state of Kuwait was required by paragraph 2 of U.N. resolution 660. Resolution 661 imposed an embargo on goods coming from Iraq and annexed Kuwait, but also on all goods going there. Iraqi funds were blocked, too. On 25 September 1990, Resolution 670 imposed a blockade on all means of transportation. And on 29 November 1990, Resolution 678 enabled states to resort to all necessary means –including force- to achieve what couldn’t be achieved through economic sanctions, this taking effect on 15 January 1991. (6) These measures had the effect of shutting Iraq upon itself, preventing most contacts with the rest of the world. Saddam Hussein certainly felt much hampered by them. However, facts reveal that the population of Iraq suffered the most.

One of the most fundamental aspects of the embargo is that it deprives people of food. Malnutrition is rampant. The U.N. admits that perhaps 20% of Iraqi children are missing ‘protein, vitamins and minerals.’ (7) Around 3.6 million people suffer from a lack of calorie of more than 50%, according to UNICEF. They are exposed to serious health problems. (8)

Medication is also hard to get. Many types of drugs are prohibited under the embargo, because they contain substances which might be used for manufacturing weapons. For instance, nitrate is strictly forbidden, for military reasons. Therefore, all drugs containing any nitrate are banned, regardless of their medical value. This chemical substance being one of the components of anaesthetics, many surgical operations are simply performed without anaesthesia. In the same manner, medical equipment containing strategically-valuable metals are prohibited. (9) Doctors have to sacrifice some patients for the survival of others, for want of sufficient medication for every one of them. (10)

Before the Gulf War, Iraq was a modern industrialized nation. Industry is now ruined, and the economy collapsed. But the embargo alone cannot account for that situation of distress. Indeed, it is due to the combined effects of the embargo and of severe bombardment by the United States and its allies.

Many of the cruel problems Iraqis have to face are caused by the lack of energy. Electrical plants have been bombed, depriving the country of a fundamental source of energy. They only produce energy at half their capacity. Military destruction combined with sanctions have reduced the production of electricity to 3 or 4% of the level before the war. (11) Almost all the electrical power plants have been destroyed or damaged, that is, 92% of installations. (12) Power shortages are frequent. Every Baghdad neighbourhood has a daily turn without electricity. (13) Lack of energy affects the lighting and air conditioning systems. A minor discomfort, if temperatures did not reach 50°C, at times. (14) Electricity powered water-treatment centers, irrigation and sewage system pumps, hospital equipment… (15)

Water does no longer reach individual houses, (16) because it cannot be pumped or treated for drinking safety, due to the lack of electricity. (17) The water supply dropped to 5% of the pre-war level. (18)

The shortage also paralyses a whole sector of activity in Iraq : agriculture. For want of a proper source of energy to pump water, formerly-irrigated land becomes barren. Agriculture used to produce fruit and vegetables which are hard to find now. On markets, prices are too high for most customers. The embargo dramatically reduced the amount of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds in the country. Spare parts for machines are not available. (19) It is consequently very difficult to start again the exploitation of fields and orchards which were already seriously damaged by the Iran-Iraq war. (20)

The sewage system was also operated by electrical pumps. Since the war, sewers overflow. (21)

This situation makes Iraq even more subject to infectious diseases. Epidemics have developed because immunization was unavailable –malaria and other eradicated diseases reappeared. (22) Naturally, hospitals are equipped with auxiliary sources of electricity. But these generators are, at best, small ones. Doctors and nurses do not have the means to cope with the serious health problems of the population. (23) Even simple surgery can have fatal consequences : somebody reports the loss of a brother because of a power outage during a minor operation, because the hospital emergency generator did not work. (24)

Lack of basic necessities, mainly proper food and decent health conditions, have lethal effects on the population of Iraq. In the ‘Saddam Children’s Hospital,’ 2 or 3 people die every day, while only one death was reported in a week, before the embargo. According to the Ministry of Health, more than a million children under 5 have died before the embargo. Richard Garfield, a public health specialist at Columbia University, New York, has calculated that in 1990, 38 children in a thousand died. In 1998, the figure rose to 87, more than double. (25) As a matter of comparison, a UNICEF study estimated that ‘by 1993 infant mortality had tripled to 92 per thousand [as opposed to the 1991 figure].’ (26) An international study -including U.S. specialists- counted that ‘more than 46,900 children died between January and August 1991.’ (27) According to UNICEF, in 1993 ‘nearly one quarter of babies were severely underweight at birth, up from 5% in 1990.’ (28) In the spring of 1994, more than 2 million people in extreme poverty needed rescue. An October 1994 UNICEF report predicted an increase in the mortality rate due to the lack of food, and long-term consequences for children, who cannot achieve a natural intellectual development in such circumstances. (29) In 1999, in the Baghdad area only, it was estimated that between 5 and 6 million people did not have access to minimal vital conditions. (30) An Iraqi official explained that sanctions kill 8 thousand people a month. (31) In the year 2000, the number of victims of the embargo was believed to be more than a million and a half, mostly children. (32)

The conjugated effects of the bombing and the embargo also hamper most economic activities. Classical means of communication are often in total disarray. Postal services do not function. (33) Telecommunication centers, including 135 telephone networks, T.V. and radio stations were destroyed during the war. (34) As a result, a U.N. representative in Iraq has to use his cell phone to place calls within Baghdad, to an official building located only a few kilometers away. (35)

Economic sanctions forbid the importation of notebooks, pencils, ink, books, blackboard, chalk… (36) By and large, education is regressing in the country. In 1999, 30% of children were believed to have dropped school. (37) Illiteracy increases ; university standards are lowered. One of the reasons invoked for justifying the embargo on simple implements such as pencils is that the graphite in pencil leads could be used for manufacturing weapons. (38) The U.N. sanctions committee also forbids certain scientific publications. (39) Thus, they probably aim at preventing Iraqis from getting sufficient knowledge for building weapons –if only scientific magazines ever contained such type of information. Highly-trained Iraqis do not have the means to practise their discipline, and therefore, their knowledge and skills tends to wear out in the long run. The intellectuals of the country are smothered silently. A whole population is being deprived of basic and university education, even though the Iraqi national education system, which covered the whole territory, used to be very efficient in the 1980s. (40)

At last, the Gulf War bombing reduced the transportation system to almost nothing. More than a hundred bridges have been destroyed. (41) Roads, highways and railroads were heavily bombed. Three hundred locomotives and passenger and freight cars were also destroyed in the process. (42) Iraqi trains are not inviting : windows are broken, schedules erratic. Buses are crowded and operate in very uncomfortable conditions. (43) Since the 1990 U.N. resolution banning all means of transportation out of and into Iraq, international flights have disappeared. (44) Domestic flights were common, but they no longer work either. (45)

If repair work is rather efficient in the capital, the city of Basra receives no government help –Saddam’s revenge for the Basran’s rebellion in 1991. (46) Some U.N. diplomats believe that the Iraqi leader delays repair and assistance programmes in order to create propaganda. (47) Yet goodwill alone could not rebuild Iraq : economically, the country is not viable. Iraq possessed funds abroad. They were used to provide humanitarian relief. But two countries opposed this exception of the embargo : the United States, and France. In September 1992, U.N. Resolution 778 froze these bank accounts. In the meantime, Iraq only managed to use a small fraction of the funds available. (48) The United Nations adopted Resolution 986 in 1995. It was accepted by Iraq on 20 May 1996, and defines the ‘Oil for Food’ programme. It was devised to enable Irak to export $2 billion’s worth of oil every six months. 53% of this income, managed by the U.N., provides for Iraqi imports in food, drugs and other civilian goods. 13% is reserved for help to territories which escape Saddam’s jurisdiction, and the rest of the money is divided between indemnities to countries which suffered during the Gulf War and the functionning of U.N. agencies. (49) The programme permitted a significant improvement of living conditions in Iraq. (8 million cubic metres of food and drugs have been imported under U.N. control.) The Baghdad government is also cooperating actively and efficiently : 50 thousand agents spread all over the country are participating. And none of the cargo was stolen or misused, according to U.N. observers. However, the ‘Oil for Food’ programme is insufficient to help rebuilding the transportation network, the electrical plants, the water treatment centers, the sewage systems, or the hospitals... (50) Before the programme, Iraq could not sell enough oil to equal the pre-war income. Prior to the embargo, the country imported food and pharmaceuticals for an amount of $3 to 4 billion. By 1994, the resources only amounted to $800 million to 1 billion –this figure including the estimated illegal sales of oil to neighbouring Turkey and Iran, among other sources of income. (51) Up to 3 quarters of the consumption of food and drugs were missing in the country at certain periods. The extent of the sanctions was terribly wide. The ‘Oil for Food’ programme helped reduce their negative impact, yet it is far from sufficient to restore the pre-war prosperity of Iraq.

The destruction and embargo on most means of transportation virtually deprives Iraqis of the freedom of movement. Most journalists complain about the 10- to 15-hour drive from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad –the only remaining way in and out of the country. (52) For Iraqis, this is only a minor discomfort. Those who want to escape the country must get a visa, which western government officials barely ever grant to Iraqi citizens, no matter their motivations : some want to study abroad, others need to receive medical treatment… (53) For the few who will be eligible for a visa, another obstacle subsists : the cost of the document. In 1999, the monthly minimal wage was 6,000 dinars. A visa for going out of Iraq cost 400,000 dinars for an adult, 200,000 for a child. Thus, only the richer classes managed to go abroad. (54) The nation consequently misses some educated people who could grant valuable help for the reconstruction. (55)

From a modern industrial country, Iraq turned into a poverty-ridden nation within a few months. The collapse of the economy, with the devaluation of the dinar (56) and the multiple difficulties of everyday life have led to a complete restructuring of the Iraqi society. Richer people have either fled the country or are engaged in illegal activities in order to obtain whatever they fancy, by all means. Even though cars and parts are prohibited under the embargo, recent luxury German cars are still common in the streets of Baghdad. People perceive this injustice, as one Iraqi remarks : ‘[t]he embargo hurts just the good people. The bad people get whatever they want.’ (57) Higher officials and people close to Saddam escape the embargo. They have access to special stores where they may buy any commodities at low costs. Many businessmen make profit, protected by the government. They are not missing anything, not even big cars. (58) While this priviledged elite thrives, many people are unemployed, because the plants where they worked have been destroyed in the war, and the sanctions ban the raw materials which are the basis of a factory’s activity. (59) Qualified people have to change for worse-paid jobs in order to make a little much-needed money. For instance, an engineer will work as a mechanic, a professor as a taxi driver… (60) Young people cannot find employment which matches their education and training. The poorest of Iraqis have taken to begging (61) or stealing. Car theft, burglary and attacks are frequent. (62) Iraqi women enjoy a fairly liberated social position for an islamic nation. (63) In Iraq, a woman can live freely. For instance, Nermine al-Mufti, 39, is a journalist. She is fluent in English and has a degree in interpretation (Arabic-English) from a London institution, and the title of engineer journalist and photographer, from a Budapest school. She covered several war events, published children’s books, was part of the Iraqi delegation in the ship of ‘Women for Peace’ in 1990… She is divorced and lives alone with her son. Her life is difficult –her apartment is ruined, she suffers from privations… Yet she can enjoy a social position more comparable to that of western women than that of Afghan women. (64) Educated women used to replace men for qualified jobs during the Iran-Iraq war. But with the scarcity of positions available, men take the best jobs. Therefore, the whole social structure of the nation is undermined ; tensions are created between the wealthy elite and the people, and also between genders. These social conflicts find their expression in resentment for higher classes, criminality and sometimes fanaticism. (65)

In Irak, la Faute, 19 personalities express their points of view on the sanctions. All but one condemn the failure of the embargo. Israeli historian Elie Barnavi regrets that failure which makes Saddam Hussein the ‘martyr’ of the United States and the ‘hero’ of the Arab world. (66) Indeed, demonizing the dictator only strengthened his power in Iraq and in the Arab world at large. No positive change was observed after several years of embargo and military strikes. (67) Noam Chomsky points out that ‘[t]he embargo against Iraq has left Saddam’s power unaffected while causing many more civilian casualties than the bombardment itself.’ Worse yet, the embargo strengthens Saddam’s power visibly, since people who suffer believe that they are targetted by sanctions, not their ruler. (68)

More than 10 years of international pressure have taken a heavy toll on the Iraqi population -to no avail. Saddam Hussein is still in power, stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the people suffer and wonder when this war will end. Opposing an open war on Iraq is certainly a wise decision. Yet it should not make people forget that many governments still wage a terrible economic warfare which smothers Iraq. Beyond political rhetoric lies the actual facts : a coalition of ‘U.N.’ countries supports a logic of humiliation and frustration of a whole nation. It is the responsibility of all members of the U.N. Security Council to secure peace and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all people in the world. And citizens must watch their governments to ensure that they fulfill their duty.



1. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, ‘Manipulation aux Nations Unies, L’Irak broyé par le droit international,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, (Juin 1995) p. 8.
2. Mike Edwards, ‘Eyewitness Iraq,’ National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 196, No. 5, (November 1999) pp. 17-20.
3. Le Monde (10 Décembre 2001) in Jean Ziegler, Les nouveaux maîtres du monde et ceux qui leur résistent
(Paris : Fayard, 2002) p. 52.
4. Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New (London : Pluto Press, 1994) p. 9.
5. William Blum, Killing Hope, U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II, (Monroe, Maine : Common Courage Press, 1995) p. 338.
6. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, op. cit.
7. Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 16.
8. Eric Rouleau, ‘Le peuple irakien première victime de l’ordre américain,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, (Novembre 1994), pp. 10-11.
9. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
10. Denis Halliday, ‘Guerre sans fin contre l’Irak, des sanctions qui tuent,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, (Janvier 1999) p. 14.
11. William Blum, op. cit., p. 335.
12. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
13. Mike Edwards, op. cit., pp. 8, 12.
14. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
15. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
16. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
17. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
18. William Blum, op. cit., p. 335.
19. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
20. Mike Edwards, op. cit., pp. 22-23.
21. Eric Rouleau, op. cit. See also Denis Halliday, op. cit., and Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 17.
22. Noam Chomsky, op. cit., p. 16.
23. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
24. Alain Gresh, ‘Neuf ans de sanctions, neuf ans de détresses. Muette agonie de l’Irak,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, (Juillet 1999) pp. 16,17.
25. Mike Edwards, op. cit., pp. 16-17.
26. Noam Chomsky, op. cit., pp. 15-16.
27. Quoted in Noam Chomsky, op. cit., p. 15.
28. Noam Chomsky, op. cit., p. 16.
29. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
30. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
31. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
32. Françoise Germain-Robin, ‘Entre faute et apocalypse, Une politique criminelle,’ (Book review) Le Monde Diplomatique (Janvier 2000) p. 19.
33. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
34. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
35. Alain Gresh, op. cit.
36. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
37. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
38. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, op. cit.
39. Alain Gresh, op. cit.
40. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
41. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
42. Idem.
43. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
44. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, op. cit. See also Alain Gresh, op. cit. and Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
45. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
46. Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 22.
47. Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 17.
48. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
49. Alain Gresh, op. cit., note 2. See also Faleh A. Jabbar, ‘Comment Washington voudrait renverser le pouvoir irakien,’ in ‘Dossier : « L’hégémonie des Etats-Unis à l’épreuve, »’ Le Monde Diplomatique (Mars 1998) pp. 16, 17, note 2.
50. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
51. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
52. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, op. cit.; Eric Rouleau, op. cit. ; Alain Gresh, op. cit.
53. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
54. Alain Gresh, op. cit.
55. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
56. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
57. Quoted in Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 13.
58. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
59. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
60. Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 13.
61. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
62. Eric Rouleau, op. cit.
63. Mike Edwards, op. cit., p. 16.
64. Alice Bséréni, Chroniques de Bagdad 1997-1999, La guerre qui n’avoue pas son nom, collection ‘Comprendre le M5yen-Orient’ (Paris, Montréal : L’Harmattan, 2000) pp. 57-63.
65. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
66. Quoted by Françoise Germain-Robin, op. cit., in a review of the following books : Jean-Marie Benjamin, Irak, l’apocalypse (Genève : Editions Favre, 1999) and Irak, la faute, directed by Alain Michel and Fabien Voyer, preface and introduction by Alain Gresh (Paris : Editions du Cerf, 1999)
67. Denis Halliday, op. cit.
68. Noam Chomsky, op. cit., pp. 15, 16.


BLUM, William, Killing Hope, U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II, Monroe, Maine : Common Courage Press, 1995.

BSERENI, Alice, Chroniques de Bagdad 1997-1999, La guerre qui n’avoue pas son nom, collection ‘Comprendre le Moyen-Orient,’ Paris, Montréal : L’Harmattan, 2000.

CHOMSKY, Noam, World Orders, Old and New, London : Pluto Press, 1994.

ZIEGLER, Jean, Les nouveaux maîtres du monde et ceux qui leur résistent, Paris : Fayard, 2002.

CHEMILLIER-GENDREAU, Monique, ‘Manipulation aux Nations Unies, L’Irak broyé par le droit international,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Juin 1995.

EDWARDS, Mike, ‘Eyewitness Iraq,’ National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 196, No. 5, November 1999.

GRESH, Alain, ‘Neuf ans de sanctions, neuf ans de détresses. Muette agonie de l’Irak,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Juillet 1999.

HALLIDAY, Denis, ‘Guerre sans fin contre l’Irak, des sanctions qui tuent,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Janvier 1999.

JABBAR, Faleh A., ‘Comment Washington voudrait renverser le pouvoir irakien,’ in ‘Dossier : « L’hégémonie des Etats-Unis à l’épreuve, »’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Mars 1998.

ROULEAU, Eric, ‘Le peuple irakien première victime de l’ordre américain,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Novembre 1994.


GERMAIN-ROBIN, Françoise, ‘Entre faute et apocalypse, Une politique criminelle,’ Le Monde Diplomatique, Janvier 2000.