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The Gulf War: Ten Years Later

Ten years of sanctions and bombing have led to widespread suffering. What will the new Administration do?

by Peter Lems

Ten years after the launch of Operation Desert Storm to expel Iraq from Kuwait, most Americans are as ill-informed about Iraq and the Arab World as they were in August of 1990. The humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war has been acknowledged, but blamed on the government of Iraq itself. The United States, the principle proponent of continued sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, professes concern but accepts no blame. The use of economic power and continued bombing to isolate and threaten Iraq is creating a dangerous backlash in the Arab World. Popular opinion in the entire region is becoming anti-American. Many in the Arab World see this policy as flawed and punitive. While many countries work for a change in policy towards Iraq, it is now the United States and Britain that find themselves more isolated through their insistence on continued economic sanctions.

Looking Back

In 1990, many Americans were introduced to Iraq for the first time through network news that scrambled to explain the behavior of President Saddam Hussein. We were told that Iraq had just finished a brutal war against neighboring Iran. We learned that Iraq possessed the fourth largest standing army in the world and featured battle-tested special forces and a seasoned air force. We were taught to fear a President who was portrayed as ruthless, protected by highly trained Republican Guards, and harboring regional ambitions. We were told that the war was to liberate Kuwait, a country run by a few rich families where only a minority of men could vote.

The demonization of Saddam Hussein led to the largest air assault in history, and a cease-fire arrangement that imposed the most comprehensive international sanctions ever designed. Since then we have witnessed the first attempt to forcibly eliminate biological and chemical weapons potential through outside inspectors, and discovered that attempting to control a government’s use, or threatened use, of these weapons systems would be difficult if not impossible with available technology and diplomatic tools. We have witnessed the use of economic isolation to crush an economy whose infrastructure was destroyed during the war.

Sanctions and Suffering

A decade of sanctions have left the country depleted of life-sustaining human and physical resources. The result has been the death of over one million Iraqis, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The destruction of the infrastructure of the country, including the water and sanitation systems, the electrical grid, and the important oil infrastructure, has left the economy in shambles. Schools are in serious disrepair, and skyrocketing inflation has forced many people to work two or three jobs just to survive. Civil servants, teachers, and government employees have been hit particularly hard with inflation decimating their salaries, forcing many to work as taxi drivers and peddlers of cigarettes. In post-war Iraq, sanctions have clearly become the weapon of mass destruction.

Why is it that Scott Ritter, one of the chief weapons inspectors for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), is ignored when he states that Iraq is qualitatively disarmed and could have been ruled free of weapons of mass destruction in December 1998? Why is it that UNSCOM has refused to release the names of the companies and countries that provided Iraq with the technology for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons? It is clear that US policy in no longer about eliminating weapons of mass destruction, but about keeping the status quo in Iraq: to keep Iraq weak and dependent.

The Arab World Responds

Iraq is being integrated into the Arab World. In September of 2000, France and Russia were the first UN Security Council members to allow direct flights into Baghdad. Since then over 70 flights have arrived in the country, including a flight with Americans on the 10th year anniversary of the Gulf War.

In October of 2000, Iraq was invited to participate in a special summit of the Arab League to discuss the outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine. Business interests are evident; more than 40 countries were represented at an international trade fair in Baghdad in November of 2000. Turkey has become the first NATO country to establish diplomatic relations with Iraq.

Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates have all sent humanitarian flights into the country. Iran has sent its Foreign Minister to negotiate about prisoner exchanges from the Iran-Iraq war and to discuss the increases in Shi’ia pilgrims that are allowed to travel to the holy site of Karbala in Iraq.

There is a new pipeline that travels through Syria that is not monitored by the United Nations and the Oil-for-Food Program, and there is now unrestricted border crossing from Saudi Arabia. It is clear that after 10 years, public opinion in the Arab World will not stand back and allow for the continued punishment of the Iraqi people.

What Will the New Administration Do?

Among the first pronouncements of Secretary of State Colin Powell was a call to reinvigorate the sanctions - to continue with the Clinton policy that calls for the removal of President Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite for the lifting of the sanctions. The new administration has hinted that it will invigorate the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act that set aside $98 million to support the opposition in Iraq. Such language is reminiscent of the call by former President George Bush for an uprising after the Gulf War.

The only organization that would accept the funds was the Iraq National Congress (INC) that operates in exile in London. The INC has called for the establishment of a revolutionary force of 10,000 armed soldiers to challenge the regime. It also requests the establishment of a no-drive zone that would eliminate Iraq’s ability to drive tanks and artillery into either the Northern or Southern no-fly zones. This policy has failed once before.


For 10 years the US has used economic power, threats, and military action to maintain a stranglehold on post-war Iraq. Only lifting the economic sanctions will address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. The Arab World and the international community are pushing for a change in a US policy that insists on keeping the sanctions. To learn what you can do to help lift the sanctions, please join us with the Campaign of Conscience for the Iraqi People.

About the Author

Peter Lems is on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee. He can be reached at askaboutiraq@afsc.org.

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Iraq: 10 Years After Gulf War from Foreign Policy in Focus
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