Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 18. Economic Sanctions on Iraq: Weapons of Mass Destruction

July 22, 2020

[Featured Image: Joy Gordon]

On August 6, 1990, four days after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 661 imposing economic sanctions on Iraq, a full-blown trade embargo by all U.N. member states, followed by resolutions for naval and air blockades “to halt all inward and outward shipping.” The 661 sanctions would stay in place for 13 years, until Saddam was removed from power in May 2003.

MIF [U.S. Navy]

Although in theory allowing food, medicine and “other essentials,” it was effectively a total ban on everything in or out of Iraq, enforced by the so-called “Multinational” Interception Force (MIF), i.e., the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a few British warships. 

Anyone wishing to deliver anything to Iraq, commercial or humanitarian, including food and medicine, had to apply for an export license, considered case-by-case by the U.N. Sanctions Committee, shorthand, the 661 Committee.

The Committee’s deliberations were in secret, behind closed doors, it had sole and absolute discretion and rarely gave any reason for denying an application.

Any goods with potential “dual use,” e.g., farm tractors, irrigation pipe, turbines, fire trucks, ambulances, radios, computers, even trousers, were banned as “inputs to industry” because they could, might, be used for military purposes, and even approved shipments remained subject to inspection and impoundment on the high seas. 

Iraq’s civilian population was extremely vulnerable to sanctions. A highly urbanized society, 70% of Iraq’s 18.8 million people lived in cities, and before 1990, 70% of its food, to the tune of $3 billion per year, was imported, all paid for with oil exports, which generated 60% of Iraq’s gross domestic product and 95% of its foreign currency revenues. Exports and imports were the lifeblood of its economy. Without oil, Iraq would be Sudan or Somalia. 

By 1990 Iraq was pumping three million barrels of crude oil daily, second only to Saudi Arabia, 675 million barrels a month to the U.S. alone, and per capita Iraq was among the 17 richest countries in the world.

Al-Shaheed Monument – Baghdad (1980)
[Steve McCurry]

Saddam Hussein had directed this flood of oil revenues into a robust infrastructure of modern roads, dams, irrigation and flood control, electricity and clean water in even the smallest villages, subsidized housing, land reform and interest-free loans for farmers, and education and health and social services unprecedented in the Middle East.

Education was compulsory from ages 6 to 17 and free through graduate school, with at least one university in every one of its 18 provinces and a 95% literacy rate.

Iraq had lavishly equipped hospitals, and universal health care, including birth control, was free, even for guest workers – 1.5 million from Egypt alone – and its infant mortality rate measured up to Western Europe. Not incidentally, women fared far better under Saddam than in any other Middle Eastern country then or since. In 1970, equal rights for women, including the right to vote, run for political office and own property, were enshrined in Iraq’s constitution.

Women entered the work force in large numbers, holding high positions in both the private and public sectors, including 46% of all teachers, 29% of doctors, 46% of dentists. Women were guaranteed equal pay for equal work and six months of paid maternity leave, setting an example the U.S. has yet to follow.

But all this crumbled under the one-two punch of bombs and sanctions. The 39-day Desert Storm strategic bombing campaign, 90,000 tons of bombs, obliterated Iraq’s infrastructure, its roads, bridges, rail lines, factories, oil refineries, broadcasting stations, telephone networks and, most devastating of all, 18 its 20 power plants. Electrical generating capacity dropped to less than 23% of pre-war 9,500 MW, for context, Washington State alone generates more than 90,000 MW annually. 

Totally dependent on electricity, Iraq’s water purification and sewage treatment plants stopped functioning. Tap water was unfit to drink. Raw sewage backed up into homes and streets and was discharged untreated into the Tigris River. Typhoid, cholera and other water-borne diseases exploded to what a Harvard School of Public Health inspection team called “epidemic levels.” And Iraq’s 130 hospitals, once on par with those in the U.S. and Europe, became empty shells, lacking even the most basic medicines and supplies. 

The 661 dual use label was applied to yogurt-making machines, refrigerators, both human and animal vaccines, virtually anything that might be used to make and store chemical weapons. And to chlorine, routinely used in water treatment facilities around the world to kill bacteria, but which was also used by Irag Iraq in chemical weapons during its war on Iran. Bottom line, sanctions meant that Iraq could not even purify its drinking water or vaccinate its children, much less repair its infrastructure. 

The Iraqi economy imploded. Per capita income plummeted 87%, from $3,510 in 1989 to $450 by the end of 1996, real earnings dropped to 7% of 1991 levels. Food became scarce, prices doubled, tripled, skyrocketed. After exhausting their savings, families sold first their jewelry, then appliances and furniture. Professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, left the country in droves, eviscerating Iraq’s once-thriving middle class.


Children were hit the hardest. 30% of Iraqi children stopped going to school altogether and went begging in the street. In 1997, UNICEF (U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund) found that 960,000 children, 31% of the total in central/south Iraq, were suffering from chronic malnutrition, 11% from acute wasting, and 70% of Iraqi women were anemic, which increased the risk of both low-weight babies and postpartum hemorrhage. Malnourished babies and children typically suffer from iron anemia, which stunts growth and lowers cognitive scores, and from Vitamin A deficiency, which increases the incidence and gravity of chronic infections, even into adolescence and adulthood. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), from 1991 to 1997 maternal mortality, the number of Iraqi mothers dying in childbirth, more than doubled, from 50 to 117 per 100,000 births, and infant mortality from 47 to 108 per 1,000 live births, one baby in 10, from among the best in the world to the worst in just five years. 

In February 1995, researchers with a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Society, concluding that sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children. Rounded to 500,000, this number became a meme, repeated again and again in op-ed pieces, talk shows and anywhere anyone from the Clinton administration went to speak. Nancy E. Soderberg, then posted to the National Security Council, recalled, ”I could not give a speech in the U.S. without someone getting up and accusing me of being responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children.”

Defenders of sanctions, for example, Matt Welch of The American Conservative and David Cortright writing for The Nation, argued that the FAO number was inflated, citing the 1999 report “Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children,” by Richard Garfield of Columbia University, who using a logistic regression analysis of four prior child mortality surveys to calculate the number of “excess deaths,” his term, at “only” 227,000, but later updated his estimate to 350,000. 

But whether the number is 350,000 or 500,000, it is quibbling, dicing and slicing really. Garfield himself conceded that “even a small number of documentable excess deaths is an expression of a humanitarian disaster, and this number is not small, . . . [and is just] the tip of the iceberg. . . .” 

Jim McDermott [Getty Images]

Indeed. Before the House Select Committee on Hunger in November 1991, Rep. Jim McDermott (D. WA) asked the question everyone should have been asking, are sanctions worth the price?

“Since the end of the Gulf war, our singular focus has been the downfall of Saddam Hussein. But given the public health disaster in Iraq today, we must ask ourselves, at what point does the starvation of 18 million people take precedence over our attempts to remove one person from power? The Iraqi people did not vote for Saddam Hussein, yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them children, are hungry, sick, and dying because of Saddam’s intransigence and our commitment to oust him at all cost. . . . Starving the people of Iraq will not topple Saddam Hussein. He is eating, and his advisors and the Republican Guard are eating. Hussein will continue to hold out, and I do not doubt that he is willing to let the Iraqi people starve in the process. We are confronted with an ethical and moral dilemma: What is more important, feeding the Iraqi children or opposing Saddam?”

Madeline Albright [CBS]

On May 12, 1996, after almost five years of sanctions, Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes asked Madeline Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the same question, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima . . . is it worth it?”

Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but . . . we think the price is worth it.” Albright later called Stahl’s question “loaded,” adding, “I said something I did not mean,” and “regret coming across as cold-blooded and cruel.”

April 1995. In response to the growing outcry about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 986, commonly known as the Oil for Food Program (OFP), which allowed Iraq to sell to U.N. member states $1.6 billion of oil every six months. The proceeds went into an escrow account administered by the 661 Committee ensconced in “Villa La Pelouse” in Geneva, which allocated 25% to the War Compensation Fund, i.e., to Kuwaiti sheiks, 3% for the U.N. weapons inspection program and administrative costs, and 72% for Iraq to import food, which worked out to $180 a year, $15 a month, for each Iraqi. 

And Saddam gamed the system. Iraq could pick and choose particular foreign companies to fulfill contracts for food imports, and it did not take long to set up kickback schemes in which the face value of a contract was more than the cost of fulfilling it, with a good chunk of the difference deposited in secret accounts controlled by Saddam’s cronies and the rest pocketed by suppliers. Medicines purchased from the World Health Organization and marked “Not for Commercial Sale” were diverted from hospitals to private pharmacies. One Arab businessman summed it up, “The poor U.N. didn’t have a clue, . . . it was just a bazaar.” 

Right-wing pundits bashed the U.N. for allowing Saddam to “steal billions” using the OFP. The number bandied about was $21.5 billion, taken from a chart distributed at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations, whose chair, Sen. Norman Coleman (R. MN), repeated it on talk shows and in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. But it wasn’t true, just finger pointing and political grandstanding.

In 2004, a comprehensive 1,000-plus page report from the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, commonly referred to as the Duelfer Report, concluded that Saddam’s illicit income under sanctions between August 1990 and March 2003 was less than $11 billion, half Coleman’s number, and very little of that under the auspices of the OFFP. The lion’s share, 84%, was from oil smuggling, $4.4 billion from Jordan, $2.8 billion from Syria, and $710 million from Turkey, all of it blessed by the U.S. with a nod and a wink.

Robert Pelletreau, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 1994 to 1997, told Joy Gordon, writing for Harper’s and author of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, “We decided to close our eyes to the leakage via Turkey,” because Turkey, like Jordan, complained that sanctions were hurting its economy and both were crucial allies of the U.S. in the Middle East.

Edward Walker, Assistant Secretary of State under both Bush Senior and Clinton, told Gordon, “We had a great amount of cooperation with the Jordanians on the intelligence side, and with the Turks as well, so we were getting value out of the relationship.” Very simply, U.N. sanctions were gutted by a member of the Security Council. By the U.S.

In any case, rather than wounding Saddam politically, sanctions increased his control of the Iranian people. Rising prices and shrinking stocks led to food rationing, and every Iraqi head of household had a ration book listing everyone in his immediate family and the precise quantities of food to which each was entitled.

John Pilger [Neil Hall / Reuters]

A young Iraqi told John Pilger, an Australian journalist (Squeezed to Death, Guardian 2004), “First we got used to the idea that the government provided food. Then we started to see the government as the provider of absolutely everything. For Saddam, it was great. The more he controlled distribution, the more effective the Iraqi police state became. After all, practically the worst thing you could do was to lose your ration card.”

Pilger concluded, “[This] meant in practice that the regime maintained a database on every Iraqi, a secret policeman’s dream, courtesy of the sanctions program that the U.S. and Britain conceived as a way of limiting his power.” Brilliant.  

But even after Oil for Food started, life for ordinary Iraqis got much worse, the country’s social fabric simply disintegrated. Denis Halliday from Ireland, U.N. Assistant Secretary General appointed U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Bagdad in September 1997, resigned one year later saying, “I don’t want to administer a program that satisfies the definition of genocide. . . . We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. . . , [and] I do not want to be complicit. . . . This is nothing but collective punishment of a civilian population for the sins of its leader.” Halliday’s successor, German diplomat Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest of what he called a “criminal policy.”

Richard Holbrooke [Paula Bronstein]

High-level Bush and Clinton-era officials steadfastly defended sanctions then and still do. Richard Holbrooke, U.S.  ambassador to the U.N. under Clinton, argued, ”Sanctions are not just still valid; they are necessary. What else fills the gap between pounding your breast   . . . and going to war?” 

For Madeline Albright, sanctions were the lesser evil. “I wish people understood that these are not black and white choices; the choices are really hard. . . . Sanctions are a blunt instrument. That’s their tragedy. . . . There’s a terrible price you pay.” 

But these arguments are disingenuous, the U.S. made the box it found itself in. When the Gulf War ended, Bush Senior and company decided, with a presidential election around the corner, not to go on to Baghdad and take Saddam out, and then, because they didn’t want to “destabilize” Iraq, hung the Shi’a and Kurds out to dry when they rose up against him. 

[Greg Gibson / AP])

Even after Hussein pulled out of Kuwait, the US, with its Security Council veto, refused to allow the sanctions to be lifted. Their new rationale was that the restrictions were needed to disarm Iraq. Yet as early as 1992, the US knew Iraq had given up its weapons of mass destruction. It didn’t matter. In 1997, Clinton declared, “The sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he [Hussein] lasts.”

But no one was under the illusion that sanctions would actually force Saddam from power, everyone knew he would do anything, no matter what it cost his people, to stay in charge.  So if regime change was the goal, sanctions were an utterly futile policy, and punished only those least responsible for Saddam remaining in power. Massive indiscriminate bombing followed by 13 years of punitive sanctions. Destabilize indeed. 

The other rationale? According to Brent Scowcroft, Bush Senior’s national security adviser, “What we were trying to do with sanctions was prevent Hussein from threatening the region, and they worked in the sense that he was never able to rebuild his conventional army.” The same army the U.S.-led coalition had annihilated in less than 10 weeks? No other options? 

In Iraq, sanctions became the economic equivalent of carpet bombing, denying an entire country food, medicine and other basic necessities, causing malnutrition and disease on an epic scale, and transforming a once thriving modern society into a third world country in the blink of an historical eye.

John Pilger, in his 2000 documentary, Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq,:

What happens when modern civilized life is taken away? Imagine all the things we take for granted are suddenly not available, or severely limited: clean water, fresh food, soap, paper, pencils, books, light bulbs, life-saving drugs. Telephone calls to the outside world are extremely difficult, computers no longer work, when you fall ill you must sell your furniture to buy medicine, when you have a tooth out there’s no anesthetic. No country will trade with yours, and your money is almost worthless. Soon your children become beggars. It’s as if the world has condemned your whole society to a slow death, and all because of a dispute between governments over which you have no control. That’s what has happened here in Iraq, where almost 10 years of extraordinary isolation, imposed by the U.N. and enforced by America and Britain, have killed more people than the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, including half a million young children.”

In the words of Hasmy Agam, President of the U.N. Security Council in 2000, “How ironic is it that the same policy that was supposed to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction itself became a weapon of mass destruction!”


Coda: And Iraq is not alone. The U. S imposed economic sanctions on Iran in 1979 and has kept them in place ever since, 40 years and counting, lifting them only for two years following the 2015 nuclear agreement, until Donald Trump blew up the deal and reimposed sanctions in May 2018. Four decades of sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy, and as in Iraq the pain was endured not by the elites, but by ordinary Iranians, who were “luckier” only because, unlike Iraq, sanctions on Iran were not preceded by a devastating strategic bombing campaign and a full-scale invasion. At least not yet. More in future posts. 



Joy D. Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, (2010)

Hans von Sponeck, A Different Kind of War: U.N. Sanctions Regime in Iraq (2006)

John Pilger, The War You Don’t See, documentary (2010)


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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