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The EditorsDecember 02, 2000

According to the Book of Genesis, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq is the site of the legendary Tree of Life. Today the waters of these rivers bring death, according to UNICEF estimates, to some five thousand to six thousand Iraqi children each monthbecause the sewage and water treatment plants that once guaranteed clean drinking water were destroyed during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, and cannot be repaired because of the trade embargo imposed by the United Nations. Even when Iraqi hospitals have vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella, frequent power outages so damage the supplies that many go unvaccinated. Iraq’s child mortality rate now exceeds that of Sudan.

No, Saddam Hussein is not a nice man; a brutal dictator, he has used chemical weapons against his own people, and he has been known to interrupt a meeting to take one of his cabinet officers into the next room to shoot him in the head. Even so, abhorrence of Saddam Hussein does not justify declaring war against the Iraqi people.

The statement issued on Nov. 14, 1999, by Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, is unequivocal: The comprehensive sanctions against Iraq have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people. They violate a fundamental principle of engagement in conflictstates may not seek to destroy a government or a military by targeting the innocent. It is incumbent on the U.N. Security Council and the United States, as the chief proponent of sanctions, to terminate promptly the economic embargo against Iraq.

Demonizing Saddam Hussein has become such a national sport that Americans notice only Saddam’s continued refusal to cooperate with the U.N. program of weapons inspection. We conveniently forget that the credibility of that program was undermined when in 1998 it became apparent that the C.I.A. had been using U.N. monitoring posts as covers for espionage to help American and British aircraft target Cruise missiles on their daily sorties. Meanwhile, no one makes much of the following:

On Aug. 26, 1998, Scott Ritter, a former Marine officer and aide to General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf war and a leading U.N. weapons inspector since 1991, resigned, accusing the U.S. government’s spy chiefs of undercutting the U.N. disarmament program. The press largely ignored Ritter’s claim that Iraq’s army is in total disarray, and that by 1998 Iraq’s biological and missile plants were destroyed. In terms of the intent of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iraq had been disarmed.

In September 1998, Denis Halliday, U.N. assistant secretary and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, resigned in protest against sanctions against Iraq.

On Feb. 14, 2000, his successor as humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, resigned in protest; and two days later, on Feb. 16, Jutta Burghart, head of the U.N. World Food Program in Baghdad, also resigned in protest.

Why, despite the oil-for-food program, have U.N. officials stationed in Iraq been rebelling? Because, for one thing, these civil servants see that Iraq has been saddled with the impossible task of proving a negativethat it no longer possesses even the capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. (It would have to kill all its scientists to do that.) By the mid-1990’s, however, according to most U.N. monitors, all of Iraq’s means of producing such weapons had already been found and destroyed.

Finally, though, what has driven U.N. officials to protest is their moral revulsionthey are sickened by the cruel and unusual punishment to which the Iraqi people have been subjected. American and British advisers to the U.N. Sanctions Committee continue to veto the sale of materials that would enable Iraq to rebuild its electrical grid, its water treatment and sewage plantson the grounds that these things might be used instead for military purposes. For similar reasons, ambulances, chemotherapy drugs, radiotherapy equipment and analgesics are interdicted, as are incubators, blood bags, science books and even pencils (because the graphite might go into a ballistic missile). Powdered milk has been vetoed because it contains phosphates that could be used in bombs. Has any of this weakened Saddam Hussein’s hold on power by one iota? If anything, it has only strengthened it.

Current U.S. policy toward Iraq is both morally and politically bankrupt. What is needed instead is an end to the lethal conflation of Saddam Hussein and his regime with the innocent people of Iraq, a recognition of the qualitative success of the U.N.’s disarmament program in Iraq and a much more finely targeted embargo to prevent Iraq and its neighbors from obtaining weapons of mass destruction from arms merchantslike ourselves.

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