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War on Iraq Debate

by Robert Jensen And Rahul Mahajan

The question dominating the news: When will we go to war against Iraq?

The answer: We are already at war with Iraq.

The debate over the Bush administration’s call for war is usually described as hawks v. doves — those for the war pitted against those opposing war. In fact, the debate in mainstream news is hawks v. hawks; the question isn’t whether or not to wage war, but what form that war should take.

Bush and the ultra-hawks want a full-scale war as soon as feasible, to secure control over Iraq and its oil. The hawks at the moderate extreme argue for continuing “containment,” a euphemism for devastating economic sanctions and regular bombing in the so-called “no-fly zones.”

Sanctions, imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, are administered through the United Nations but in place only because the United States insists; most of the rest of the world has condemned them. The embargo has helped cause the deaths of more than 500,000 children under the age of 5, according to a UNICEF study. That’s why two former U.N. humanitarian coordinators in Iraq — Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck — have resigned in protest, calling the sanctions immoral and even genocidal.

Though the sanctions have strengthened Saddam Hussein’s control over Iraq while punishing ordinary people, the United States insists they remain.

Starting with a complete ban on oil sales and frequent restrictions even on basic medicines, the sanctions have gone through stages. Currently, there is no limit on total oil sales and most medicines are allowed in, but there are still major problems with funding projects to repair critical infrastructure and foster economic development.

Combined with the almost complete (and quite deliberate) destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, particularly water- and sewage-treatment plants, by U.S. forces during the Gulf War, the sanctions have meant increased malnutrition, disease and death — not for Saddam but for the Iraqi people.

U.S. official blithely claim that the so-called “smart sanctions” approved by the Security Council in July would solve these problems. But instead of feeding Iraqis, the changes mostly helped confuse the public — which, according to some U.S. officials, was the original intent of smart sanctions.

Now, as worldwide attention to the effects of sanctions has decreased, the humanitarian situation has worsened. Even as cumbersome bureaucratic procedures for approving imports were supposedly streamlined, the monetary value of “holds” (contracts held up by some nation on the Sanctions Committee, almost always the United States) is at $4.7 billion, higher than before smart sanctions were proposed. Worse, because of a retroactive oil-pricing scheme recently implemented by the United States (oil companies don’t know what price they’ll pay for Iraqi crude until after it is loaded), Iraqi oil exports are way down; in August, exports averaged 800,000 barrels per day, compared with more than 2 million at earlier points. This funding shortfall means Iraq is unable to pay even for some approved humanitarian imports.

U.S. officials blame all this on Saddam, and certainly the Iraqi government has made some questionable allocations of resources. But Tun Myat, the current U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, has described Iraq’s food distribution as “second to none,” echoing evaluations by other UN officials.

While the sanctions kill slowly, the United States continues to patrol the no-fly zones in the northern and southern parts of Iraq, bombing at will and killing civilians — at least 27 attacks by U.S. planes in 2002. The most recent, on Sunday (Aug. 25), killed eight, according to Iraq.

When challenged, U.S. officials robotically repeat that they bomb only when threatened by Iraqi air defenses. However, despite U.S. claims, there is no U.N. Security Council authorization for this violation of Iraqi sovereignty. U.S. journalists rarely mention the obvious point — that if the United States ceased its illegal patrols, Iraqi radar would not “light up” U.S. planes, making U.S. attacks unnecessary.

While not militarily significant, these attacks serve to terrorize the Iraqi people and remind everyone that the United States exempts itself from international law. Combined with the sanctions, they constitute a war on the people of Iraq.

While the fanatical hawks argue with the moderate hawks about the way in which a war against Iraq should proceed, virtually all the world opposes a full-scale war. It’s time for us to realize that most of the rest of the world also wants to stop the containment war, end the suffering of the Iraqi people and begin the diplomatic process necessary for regional peace.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at

Rahul Mahajan is a member of the Nowar Collective and the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas. His book, “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” (Monthly Review Press, April 2002) has been described as “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism.” He is currently writing a book on Iraq titled “Axis of Lies: Myths and Reality about the U.S. War on Iraq.”

He can be reached at


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