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Published on Monday, March 20, 2000 in the Austin American-Statesman
The Siege of Iraq
by G. Simon Harak


Philosopher and author Michael Walzer called it "the oldest form of total war." History attests to the horrors of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the Prussian siege of Paris, the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Sieges are designed to inflict such horrible suffering on the civilian population that their will to resist collapses. Or, to quote Walzer again, that the "fearful spectacle of the civilian dead" will cause the government to surrender to the besieger's demands.

As we begin the third Christian millennium, siege warfare is making a comeback. Big time.

In the old days, we only used to be able to lay siege a city. Now, we can inflict the horrors of besiegement to an entire country. Take the case of Iraq. Like all good sieges, the siege of Iraq has several key elements.

The 1991 Gulf War bombing of Iraq laid the foundation. More than 60 percent of the 88,500 tons of bombs (More bombs than the United States dropped on all its enemy countries during World War II) were dropped on the cities and villages of Iraq. U.S. planes specifically targeted the "infrastructure" of Iraq, knocking out the electrical grid for the entire country.

Imagine what happens to a modern country when electricity is removed. Premature babies and frail elderly people die, because incubators and life support machines shut down. Sick people die, because medicines spoil in ruined refrigerators. Always the weakest die first. That's the design of a siege -- the "fearful spectacle." And then irrigation systems fail. Clean water can't be provided, sewage systems break down. The city -- now the whole country -- is flooded with disease-ridden water. Siege.

Then add the "sanctions." It means that Iraqi oil is off the market. Iraq got about 95 percent of its foreign exchange from the sale of oil. So, after all that bombing, take away 95 percent of their money. Nothing can be repaired. The economy collapses. It's the "Great Depression" times 10, times 100. UNICEF has reported 500,000 children now dead as a direct result of the sanctions. Imagine tens of thousands of grieving families.

Then add the "oil-for-food" program. If it worked perfectly, it would allot each Iraqi about a dollar a day to exist on. But the besiegers can be clever even then. Enter the veto.

Every contract under the "oil-for-food" deal has to be approved by a committee. Any member of that committee can veto any contract for any reason. The United States is a permanent member of that committee. And we have exercised our veto more than 1,000 times in the past three years (next is Britain with a paltry 120 vetoes). Sometimes we exercise a "straight" veto. For example, we invariably veto spare parts to repair the water or sewage systems; invariably veto spare parts for oil production. We sometimes veto baby milk powder because it has phosphates, and that can be used for bombs. We veto chlorine for water purification because it can be used for chemical warfare. The same with many drugs.

But the really winning strategy is what the U.N. calls "the problem of complementarity." We allow life support machines, then veto the computers needed to run them. We allow dentists' chairs, then veto the compressors. We allow insulin, then veto syringes.

Then finally, the bombing. We are now engaged in the longest bombing campaign since the Vietnam War. The government admits to 30,000 sorties over Iraq in 1999 alone. Imagine how you are going to explain the constant sonic booming and air raid sirens to your child.

In fact, you don't have to imagine. You could go to Iraq with a delegation of Voices in the Wilderness and see for yourself. Just be warned: We bring medicine and toys to Iraqi children, and this is against U.S. law. And it's punishable by up to $1 million in fines and 12 years in a federal prison. Because you see, we are breaking the siege.

Think, "siege." Think of our "total war" against Iraq. Think of the fearful spectacle of civilian dead. Then think, please, of those with whom history will associate us. And about what kind of a world we are constructing for our children.

Harak has resigned his professorship in ethics at Fairfield University in Connecticut to work full time against the siege of Iraq. He will be speaking at 7 tonight at St. Austin's Catholic Church, Hecker Hall, 2026 Guadalupe St. For information, call 502-2488.Telephone number in Baltimore, St. Mary's Parish: 410-435-5900

Copyright 2000 Austin American-Statesman


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