Seeing the Devastation with Their Own Eyes
Published November-December 1999
The U.S. State Department warned Phyllis Bennis not to go to Iraq because of the danger. A fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, the progressive Washington think-tank, Bennis traveled to Iraq anyway at the end of August with a delegation of congressional staffers she had organized for a humanitarian fact-finding mission. Privately sponsored, the group represented the first congressional staff to travel to Iraq since the Persian Gulf War.
What dangers did the State Department foresee? According to Bennis, it claimed that Iraqis hate Americans, and it could not protect the delegation from being attacked. When Bennis confronted State staff with the reply that other humanitarian groups have reported being welcomed by the Iraqis, the State Department changed its tack. "The danger," says Bennis "came from U.S. bombing. They (told us they) had not been explicit enough in the earlier briefings. The perils we faced were from "friendly fire."
Purporting to protect Kurdish and Shiite minorities, American and British planes have been patrolling the no-flight zones over northern and southern Iraq for almost nine years, bombing Iraq regularly since last December. Asked why this activity is not considered front-page news, Bennis replied that it is simply "not ’news.’ The story is too consistent."
Neither are the bombings of Iraq deemed acts of war. "They are considered defensive retaliations for provocations. But the argument starts from the wrong point," Bennis noted. "’No fly zones’ are themselves illegal and without any international authorization."
As a Middle East and U.N. analyst for the last 20 years, Bennis has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, had her words published in such media as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and The Nation and been a featured speaker on campuses that include Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown, New York University, Howard University and UCLA. Her books include Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader, From Stones to Statehood: the Palestinian Uprising and, most recently, Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. She made this trip with the congressional staffers in the hope that it would stimulate "more movement in Congress and perhaps a (Congress) members’ delegation soon for an independent look at conditions in Iraq."
"The State Department’s position," Bennis explained, "is that members of Congress and their staff should not be allowed to travel to Iraq. The UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) reports are so comprehensive and useful, it asserts, that you don’t need to go. They lie about the reason."
The Sanctions’ Effect
"I don’t think anything can prepare you for seeing dying babies up close," Bennis said of the journey. "(Before this trip), I completed a long speaking tour with Denis Halliday that presented the statistics about dying babies, but it’s hard being there." (According to UNICEF, the mortality rate for Iraqi children under five has more than doubled since 1990.) Halliday is the former UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who resigned his post in protest against the sanctions. Funded primarily by the American Friends Service Committee, he and Bennis spoke to audiences in 21 U.S. cities last spring about the effect of the sanctions on ordinary Iraqis.
"What we try to keep the focus on—as dramatic and wrenching as are the individual children—is the impact that is less visible, the sociological impact," Bennis added. "For example, we met a 12-year-old girl with cancer. She’s had chemotherapy, but the only thing that might save her life is a bone marrow transplant, which is impossible under current conditions. What this indicates is that you are going to have a whole generation of Iraqi medical students who won’t see a bone marrow transplant done. Before the war, Iraq (had) the most advanced health care system in the Middle East. Its public health system was used by the World Health Organization as a model.
"But there another image that’s stayed with me," Bennis admitted. "We toured one of the best hospitals in Baghdad, and we were taken to the operating theater. The window on the operating theater door had been blown out and had been replaced by cardboard. How could they keep the room sterile? There was no air conditioning. The temperature outside was 110 degrees and about 95 degrees in the hospital—a prime breeding ground for infections. The image of that door...."
What about reports of Iraqi warehouses stockpiled with medicines? Bennis conceded that "a lot of medicine and equipment is being stockpiled." But, she said, "Twenty-five percent of all contract fulfillment comes incomplete. For example, a recent shipment of insulin arrived with no hypodermic needles."
And "there are serious problems with transport," Bennis added. "Somebody argued that Saddam Hussein can transport his soldiers around easily enough. But his soldiers don’t travel in refrigerated trucks. (With) 120-degree (temperatures) in Basra, medicines can’t be thrown on the back of a pickup."
Still another problem that Bennis found is that "the Iraqi distribution plan (defines) equal distribution as distributing the same number of goods to the same number of people on the same day." In other words, goods are warehoused as they come in until enough are accumulated to ship everyone who needs them at the same time.
Bennis confirmed that "oil is being smuggled out by the regime, and it amounts to $400 million a year, not a lot of money for feeding 22 million people," she remarked. "Could it be used to make things better?" she asked and answered, "Absolutely. Are they criminal for not doing that? Absolutely." But, she notes, the Iraqi people "are not evil people. Most officials you meet are dependent on the food basket. The head of (the World Health Organization) reports that 70 percent of the income of the Iraqis goes for food. The statistic is a pre-famine indicator."
There is some truth in the U.S. State Department’s assertion that Saddam Hussein is building "palaces" instead of feeding his people. While some of the buildings being built in Iraq are government buildings, some are private palaces. But Bennis said that "building them is like the WPA program (the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s) in that it puts people to work. It uses local materials like cement. But could the $400 million be spent instead to fix some things? Of course. But that’s what we can expect from a military dictatorship."
In 1996, the U.N. Security Council began allowing Iraq to sell up to $5.2 billion in oil in a six-month period to purchase food and medicines. The State Department points to the contrast between high child mortality rates in Iraq and low child mortality rates in its protected Kurdish region. If the U.N. oversees the food distribution throughout Iraq, how can we account for the disparity?
Bennis explained that there are 32 non-governmental organizations, including private charities, operating in Iraq’s Kurdish north, and only 11 in central and southern Iraq. The 13 percent of the population living in the north receive 13 percent of the sale of oil right off the top, accounting for the higher per capita benefit there compared to the rest of Iraq. The next 30 percent of the sales is earmarked for reparations to Kuwait and other claimants, and four percent is deducted to cover U.N. costs in Iraq. Eight-seven percent of the population in the middle and south of Iraq must share the remaining 53 percent of sales.
"There’s a cash component in the north," Bennis said. "Some chunk of the money can be used to pay local workers. The north has a traditional agricultural area that is working as before. Agriculture in the south was more technical and was destroyed by the bombing."
Bennis reported that the delegation had a cordial 45-minute formal discussion with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz, but she refrained from commenting on the meeting until the U.S. congressional representatives have a chance to respond to the reports of their returning staffers. The staffers include Peter Hickey, an aide to Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA); Amos Hochstein with the office of Rep. Sam Gejdeson (D-CT); Danielle LeClair from the office of Rep. Bernard Sanders, an Independent from Vermont; Brian Sims from the staff of Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-IL); and Jack Sylman, who works for Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-AL).
Since returning from Iraq, Bennis spoke at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where she happened to meet the commander of the Southern Watch who had just been rotated out of Saudi Arabia. He knew who she was. "We didn’t bomb while you were on the ground in Iraq," he told her.
"There was no intention of bombing while we were there," Bennis said. "Our being there (gave) the Iraqis about five days of respite."