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Iraqi Rumbles on the Potomac
by Phyllis Bennis

April 4, 2000
In the last six to eight weeks, the longstanding stalemate in U.S. Iraq policy has been significantly shaken up. The latest twin resignations of high-level UN officials in Baghdad in February resulted in embarrassingly frantic but ultimately unsuccessful efforts, especially by the State Department, to spin the morality-driven decisions as craven or worse. Then 70 members of Congress urged President Clinton to lift economic sanctions, and the second ranking Democrat in the congress and close administration ally described those sanctions as "infanticide masquerading as policy." Three congressmembers circulated a sloppily-drafted and error-filled "keep the sanctions" letter in response, but could manage less than half the number of signatures of sanctions opponents. A hearing of the full House International Relations Committee on 24 March heard not only from the usual State and Defense Department witnesses, but as well from anti-sanctions leader Congressman John Conyers. His arguments, focusing on the need to delink economic from military sanctions, end the economic sanctions altogether and retool the military side, found an unexpectedly respectful hearing. Something was new. The pressure was mounting. And that was just on the domestic side.

In the United Nations, Washington was reduced to temper tantrums in the Security Council aimed at preventing the newly-resigned Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck, from briefing the Council, and pressuring Secretary General Kofi Annan to muzzle von Sponeck until his resignation takes effect March 31st. Speaking in Australia, the UN chief called on the UN to revisit sanctions, with the goal of reducing the suffering of civilians while figuring out ways to target the regime instead. Across the Atlantic, the release of John Pilger's important new film on Iraq engendered new calls for London to stop backing the U.S.-led sanctions regime, with Tony Blair weighing in to condemn the film as "one-sided" (not, we should note, inaccurate) and Labor's key sanctions official described as "apoplectic."

Everything is changing, perhaps the center will not hold.

When State Department Spokesman Jamie Rubin was informed of von Sponeck's decision, he replied "good." He then went on to repeat scurrilous accusations regarding Von Sponeck's alleged work "on behalf of ... the regime" in Iraq. This wasn't new. Since last November, Clinton administration officials, along with their counterparts in London, had been pressuring the UN Secretary-General, demanding that Von Sponeck be fired. His crime? As humanitarian coordinator for the world body, he insisted that tracking the civilian casualties from the continuing U.S.-UK bombings in the unilaterally-declared "no fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq was part of his job. Further, and perhaps most telling, he made clear that the economic sanctions themselves were devastating the people of Iraq -- and they, not the regime, were his concern. True to form, Rubin announced last fall that Von Sponeck had overstepped his mandate in "raising his own personal views as to the wisdom of the sanctions regime."

To his credit, Secretary-General Kofi Annan resisted the pressure and extended Von Sponeck's contract. But this time, the response went further. Congressman Tony Hall, Democrat of Ohio and long known as the conscience of the congress on hunger-related issues, sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a scorching letter calling her spokesman's remarks "unfair ... vilification," and noting that Rubins's remarks appear "to be an effort to stifle the expression of legitimate concerns about our country's policies toward Iraq." Hall pressed on that "if they accurately reflect your position, Madame Secretary, I hope you will reconsider it."

Von Sponeck was already familiar to one group around Congress. When the first delegation of congressional staffers travelled to Iraq last summer, von Sponeck provided extensive briefings and made his top staff accessible to them. In identifying the many coping methods to which Iraq's once-dominant middle class has been reduced in dealing with the economic crisis, he reminded the aides that "many of those methods are illegal, and reliance on them is creating in Iraq a generation of fixers, manipulators of the system, rather than thinkers or strategists."

By mid-February, strategically arranged leaks from the White House and State Department were indicating that efforts were in fact underway to ease some of the more drastic effects of the sanctions. But, as the AP reported February 26, "despite the Clinton administration's pledge to start easing restrictions on sending some industrial equipment to Iraq, diplomats doubt the goods Iraq most desperately needs will get there. UN officials, analysts and western diplomats say they have seen no indication that Washington has changed its hard-line position in the U.N. committee that reviews contracts for humanitarian supplies to Iraq. At the last committee meeting, in fact, the United States blocked 20 to 30 items, including fork-lifts and car batteries, from being included on a list of humanitarian goods that could automatically be sent to Iraq through the UN humanitarian program." The AP did not mention, however, that the lack of fork-lifts is among the desperate reasons for goods remaining in warehouses longer than they should before distribution.

The White House, after the 70 congresspeople released their letter to Clinton, leaked its decision to approve a long-delayed $80 million electricity contract. But, according to the UN, Washington is still responsible for more than 75% of the $1.78 billion worth of contracts still on hold; London claims the rest. Most of the contracts on hold are to purchase equipment to rebuild Iraq's dilapidated oil infrastructure, electrical power grid, and water sanitation infrastructure.