Baghdad does not know it's a city under a death sentence.
The sun still shines here. The date palms and poplars still line the Tigris river. The streets are still full of cars, and buses, and taxicabs searching for fares. When night falls, the mosques are full of people praying, and the sidewalks jam with families enjoying the festive Ramadan atmosphere of street vendors, sweets dealers, and restaurateurs roasting chickens in the open air. And with smuggling at an all time high, the shops are full of pretty things to look at - even if most people still can't afford to buy them.
Walking the streets of Baghdad you notice the architecture - the boarded-up buildings, the crumbling sidewalks. This is what happens after 11 years of economic ruin. But then you also notice the new, box-like structures being built, with huge archways, intricate brickwork, and jutting columns, balconies, and facades. It's a striking mix of old and new, of socialist sensibility and Babylonian splendor - Frank Lloyd Wright meets Lawrence of Arabia. These buildings are beautiful, and you have to wonder how many of them will be standing in six months if the U.S. does decide to massively bomb this country.
As America's "new war" winds down into civil disorder and lawlessness in Afghanistan, the focus is shifting to Iraq. President Bush has put Iraq on
notice: let weapons inspectors back into the country, or face the consequences. Media speculation that Iraq will be hit next is rampant. Rabid might be a better word. With this conflict, the media has all but erased the line between speculation, reporting, and enthusiastic encouragement.
There are facts that everyone at home seems to be forgetting. In 1998 there was a year-long series of conflicts with Iraq over weapons inspections. The Iraqi government claimed that the U.S. was using the inspectors to "spy" on the regime, and the U.S. claimed that Iraq was making up stories to hide an active weapons program. In December 1998, this conflict culminated in "Desert Fox," an intense, three-day bombing campaign against Iraq that marked the end of weapons inspections.
According to earlier Pentagon estimates, it also likely resulted in over 10,000 deaths.
In January 1999, both the Washington Post ("Annan Suspicious Of UNSCOM Role," 1/6/99) and the Boston Globe ("US used UN to spy on Iraq," 1/6/99) reported that the Iraqi charges were in fact true, and that the U.S. had been lying and had used the weapons inspection program to spy on the regime.
This is significant.
People cannot be punished for the failures of a government they only happen to live under. Nor can a government be punished because it refuses to assist in its own self-destruction. Nor can the United Nations be subverted to attempt to overthrow its member states. All of these things are gross violations of international law.
U.S. pundits and politicians are forgetting other uncomfortable facts. Primary among these is the devastation that has already been wrought throughout Iraq. In 1991, during the six-week Gulf War, the U.S. dropped over 88,000 tons of explosives on a country 2/3 the size of Texas. This was more firepower than was used by all sides during World War II. It compelled Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. It also devastated the country.
The Jordanian Red Crescent Society estimated the number of civilian dead at 113,000. This means that the ratio of U.S. soldiers killed by Iraqi fire, to Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed by U.S. fire, was roughly 1:1,000. In a press conference at the time, then Gen. Colin Powell said that wasn't "a number I'm particularly interested in." That wasn't particularly surprising. When the ratio of dead in a conflict is 1:1,000, you don't usually call it a war - you call it a massacre.
After Desert Storm, the international blockade was kept in place to force the Iraqi government to comply with Security Council dictates, including weapons inspections. Let's be blunt: linking the well being of a civilian population, suffering in the immediate aftermath of a devastating bombing campaign, to the vagaries of a brutal dictator - this was madness. It was and is an act of collective punishment. It is illegal, immoral, and, at the very least, it has been spectacularly unproductive at doing anything other than killing massive numbers of human beings.
To some degree, sanctions are crumbling now. Smuggling is widespread. Walking the streets of Baghdad you see more shops than before. But you also see young children, in torn and dirty clothes, searching through the garbage by the side of the road - looking for a meal. Street children are a new phenomenon in Iraq. This is a country where, before the war, childhood obesity used to be the biggest problem pediatricians complained about.
The problem is that sanctions have already devastated Iraq's economy, causing hyperinflation, chronic unemployment, and the collapse of critical civilian infrastructures - including the public health care and educational systems - resulting in the virtual destruction of Iraq's once prosperous middle class. Crumbling or not, economic sanctions, by design, damage economies.
If smuggling cannot take the place of normal economic activity, then neither can a handout. The Oil-for-Food program is at best a band-aid, and at worst an excuse to maintain sanctions. Despite having sold more than $50 billion worth of oil over the 5 years of this program, Iraq has only received some $16 billion worth of supplies through it. This is an average of $150 per person per year - making Iraq, by deliberate design, one of the poorest nations in the world.
In this conflict, the Iraqi people are caught between a dictator and a democracy - neither of which seem to give a damn how many of them die.
The central, shattering truth of this conflict is that hundreds of thousands of innocents have already died, and thousands more continue to die every month. According to the UN's own figures, more children have died in Iraq due to the sanctions than all U.S. combat deaths during all the wars of the 20th Century.
The suffering of the Iraqi people may not impress either the U.S. or Iraqi governments, but it has fragmented the international coalition against Saddam that once existed. And the vision of U.S. warplanes now routinely bombing Iraqi civilians, while U.S.-led sanctions impoverish them, has worked to rehabilitate Saddam's image throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
If Americans can't understand how that's possible, then maybe they can understand this: according to UN agencies and relief organizations in Iraq - organizations such as UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross - sanctions have caused at least 500,000 excess deaths among children under the age of 5. That's a children's 9-11 every month for the last 11
years: 250 World Trade Towers, full of babies and toddlers, crashing to the ground.
Mr. Bassel manages the Zahrat al-Kaleej Apartments in the heart of Baghdad. Like most of the older people here, he treated me with kindness and warm hospitality despite my nationality. He remembers a time when Iraq was a part of the world - and demonized, demoralized and seemingly discarded.
"Americans don't know anything about the world," Bassel told me. "They are on top. They first in technology. They first in military. Everything belong to them. But they should not think they are the only people in the world." Said Bassel, "we are also in the world."
He spoke those words to me as a plea, in the hope of reconciliation between our two peoples. But as America becomes drunk on war fever, we would do well to look at the devastation we have already wrought in Iraq, and to remember one of primary lessons of 9-11: 'We are also in the world' can be a plea - and it can be shout delivered in raging blood. l
Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist, and serves on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.saveageneration.org). He is currently in Iraq as part of a Voices in the Wilderness (www.nonviolence.org/vitw) peace delegation trying to stop the war.