Albright’s Tiny Coffins

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Back in 1996, when the number of Iraqi children killed off by sanctions stood at around half a million, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her infamous declaration to Lesley Stahl on CBS that “we think the price is worth it”. Given such pride in mass murder at the top, it comes as little surprise to learn that the State Department views the truth about the vicious sanctions policy with the same insouciance as their boss regards the lives of Iraqi children, now dying at the rate of four thousand a month.

“Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”, released by the State Department on September 13, is an effort to persuade an increasingly disgusted world that any and all human misery in Iraq is the sole fault and responsibility of the Beast of Baghdad. The brazen tone of this sorry piece of propaganda can be assessed from the opening summary: “The international community, not the regime of Saddam Hussein, is working to relieve the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis.” An examination of how the sanctions system actually works tells a very different story.

Key to US self-justification is the so-called “oil for food” program under which Iraq is allowed to sell oil. The precise fashion in which the US manipulates this program is never set forth in its malign specifics. CounterPunch readers should know the following:

Proceeds from such oil sales are banked in New York (at the Banque National de Paris). Thirty-four percent is skimmed off for disbursement to outside parties with claims on Iraq, such as the Kuwaitis, as well as to meet the costs of the UN effort in Iraq. A further thirteen percent goes to meet the needs of the Kurdish autonomous area in the north.

Iraqi government agencies, meanwhile, under consultation with the UN mission resident in Baghdad, draw up a list of items they wish to buy. This list can include food, medicine, medical equipment, infrastructure equipment to repair water and sanitation etc., as well as equipment for Iraq’s oil industry. UN hq in New York reviews the list, approving or disapproving specific items. Then the Iraqis order the desired goods from suppliers of their choice.

Now comes the most crucial step in the process. Once the Iraqis have actually placed an order, the contract goes for review to the 661 Committee. This is made up of representatives of the fifteen members of the Security Council and is named for Security Council Resolution 661, which originally mandated the sanctions, on August 6 1990. The Committee has the power to approve or disapprove (although the preferred euphemism is to put “on hold”) any of the contracts. Approved contracts are then filled by the supplier and shipped to Iraq, where they are inspected on arrival by an agency called Cotecna. When this agency certifies the goods have arrived, the supplier is paid from the oil cash in the bank in New York.
“Since the start of the oil-for-food program”, the State Department report declares, “78.1 percent [of the contracts submitted for review to the 661 Committee] have been approved”. That means that 21.9 percent of the contracts are denied. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of the vetoes are imposed by the US and Britain. “The 448 contracts on hold as of August 1999”, the State Department report explains, “include items that can be used to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons”.

No one wants Saddam Hussein to make chemical or nuclear weapons, but it has been abundantly clear since the end of the Gulf War that the US and its British toadies regard the issue of Iraq’s mass destruction weapons principally as a means of ensuring that sanctions remain in place forever. For example, a friend of CounterPunch fully conversant in an official capacity with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection effort in Iraq-the nuclear equivalent of UNSCOM-reports that the IAEA has been prepared for at least two years to declare the Iraqi nuclear program dead but has been successfully pressured not to do so by the US.

UN officials working in Baghdad agree that the root cause of child mortality and other health problems is no longer simply lack of food and medicine but the lack of clean water (freely available in all parts of the country prior to the Gulf War) and of electrical power, which is now running at 30 percent of the pre-bombing level, with consequences for hospitals and water-pumping systems that Counter-Punch readers may all too readily imagine. Of the 21.9 percent of contracts vetoed by the 66l Committee, a high proportion are integral to the efforts to repair the water and sewage systems. The Iraqis have submitted contracts worth $236 million in this area, of which $54 millions worth-roughly one quarter of the total value-have been disapproved. “Basically, anything with chemicals or even pumps is liable to get thrown out”, one UN official tells CounterPunch. The same trend is apparent in the power supply sector, where around 25 percent of the contracts are on hold-$138 million worth out of $589 million submitted.

The proportions of approved/disapproved contracts do not tell the full story. UN officials refer to the “complementarity issue”, meaning that items approved for purchase may be useless without other items that have been disapproved. For example, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has ordered $25 millions worth of dentist chairs, said order being approved by the 66l Committee-except for the compressors, without which the chairs are useless and consequently gathering dust in a Baghdad warehouse.

Albright’s minions make great hay out of the vast quantities of medical supplies (including the dentist chairs) sitting in Baghdad warehouses, implying that Sad-dam is so cruelly indifferent to the suffering of his subjects that he prefers to let them die while stockpiled medicine goes undistributed. “They don’t have forklifts,” counters one U.N. official involved with the program. “They don’t have trucks, they don’t have the computers for inventory control, they don’t have communications. Medicines and other supplies are not efficiently ordered or distributed. They have dragged their feet on ordering nutritional supplements for mothers and infants, but it’s not willful. There is bureaucratic inefficiency, but you have to remember that this is a country where the best and the brightest have been leaving for the past nine years. The civil servants that remain are earning between $2.50 and $10 a month.”

The breakdown of the Iraqi communications system-it can take two days to get a phone call through to Basra from Baghdad-is obviously a fundamental impediment to the health system. The Iraqis have ordered just under $90 million worth of telecommunications equipment, all of which is “on hold”-i.e., vetoed. The excuse of course is that Saddam could use the system to order troops about, notwithstanding the fact that the Iraqi security services have the use of their own cell-phone system, smuggled in last year from China.

In further efforts to lay all responsibility for the misery of ordinary Iraqis at the feet of Saddam alone, the State Department report alleges that “Iraq is actually exporting food, even though it says its people are malnourished”. Leaving aside the copiously documented fact that the people of Iraq ARE malnourished, UN officials hotly dispute the notion that food delivered under the oil-for-food program has been diverted to overseas markets. “There is absolutely no evidence for that”, says one. “On the other hand, the Iraqis are very rigorous in rejecting sub-standard shipments. You find a lot of stuff such as baby milk, sent from neighboring Arab countries as aid, that in some cases has passed its expiration date when it arrives so they ship it out again.”

The Iraqis do not have this recourse for goods shipped under the UN program. Once Cotecna certifies the goods have arrived, whatever their condition, the suppliers get paid. The UN office in Baghdad supported a reasonable proposal to the Security Council that the Iraqis be allowed to withold ten percent of the payment until they have had a chance to inspect the goods. The proposal drew a 661 Committee veto, though not, for once, from the Anglo-Americans but from the French and the Russians, who are both currently doing well out of the Iraq trade.

Seeking out evidence of Saddam’s depredations against his own people should be an easy task, but the State Department report opts for fiction over fact when possible. The report featured an aerial reconnaissance picture of “destruction by Iraqi forces of civilian homes in the citadel in Kirkuk”. According to Mouayad Saeed al-Damerji, an internationally respected Iraqi archeologist, the picture shows what is in fact an archeological dig at the 4,600-year old citadel, in progress since 1985.

There appears little prospect of change in this miserable situation. Last year, Denis Halliday, the UN coordinator for humanitarian relief in Iraq, quit in protest over a policy that causes “four to five thousand children to die unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions”. White House officials expressed their delight that this irksome voice of moral outrage had been removed from the scene, but Hans von Sponek, Halliday’s successor, is showing signs of treading the same path, publicly appealing for the end of sanctions.

Friends say he is on the verge of quitting. For Albright that will be no less acceptable a price than the thousands of little coffins that will serve as her memorial.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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