What Sanctions Did to Iraq


Earlier this year eight Iraqi students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three read the debate in Commonweal about the sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 (“Better Than War?” February 10). The students belong to the Iraqi Student Project and are in Damascus, Syria, for nine months of preparation in hopes of gaining undergraduate scholarships to U.S. colleges. Ironically, as guests of Syria—where over a million Iraqis still live as refugees—they are again living under sanctions.

After reading the Commonweal articles by Joy Gordon, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, and George Lopez, the students wrote brief responses. The following excerpts are taken from three of those responses.

Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak
Directors of Iraqi Student Project, Damascus


My father’s stories always had the same beginning—“In my days....”  I used to listen carefully to the wondrous tales of an Iraq I hadn’t seen. My parents told me stories about a different Iraq, a wealthy Iraq. After I came to Syria, I stopped listening to my father’s “glories of the past.” I could not comprehend or imagine a prosperous Iraq where pleasant and educated people built their lives. Iraq became the place where I witnessed the worst experiences of death and fear. Syria came to be my home, the place where I blossomed away from the daily bombings and broken glass. But I never forgot my parents’ and grandparents’ stories, secretly wishing to go back to their time.

When I started reading “Sanctioning Death in Iraq” by Joy Gordon, I found the validation for my parents’ fairytales of Old Baghdad. Iraq was described as a “sophisticated modern nation with a robust middle class and a highly educated population.” I read the lines and felt a tear go down my cheek. Make no mistake, I’m not sentimental about Iraq and I do not cry easily. But I did not have the chance to see the “sophisticated” Iraq. The only Iraq I saw was the one Joy Gordon describes as being in a “preindustrial condition.” Thanks to the United States, during the UN sanctions, an Iraqi lived with half of the average income of those in the poorest countries in the world.

My mother used to say that Iraqi women are the strongest and the most creative because they survived the sanctions. I admired my parents for never letting us feel deprivation or need. I survived the sanctions with the memories of baking bread on our stove, sitting in the candlelight chatting with my family and listening to my parents’ stories. I cannot call myself a child of the sanctions because there were children who slept hungry every night, thanks to the U.S. prohibition of milk and eggs. I want to know how the United Nations could give the United States this power to decide a nation’s fate. Didn’t the ridiculously high rates of infant malnutrition and mortality set off a humanitarian alarm? I want Americans to know that before they “rescued” us from the reign of Saddam, they mutilated our past, destroyed our present, and darkened our future. They were not the heroes, they were the villains.

All Americans should consider their responsibility for the lives lost because of the sanctions and two wars. I ask the United States to leave the world alone. Stop widowing women and killing loved ones. Stop the aimless effort to seize absolute power in the world. Stop!



“Better Than War?” could be a great title for a movie. But not for an article about Iraq, because neither the sanctions nor the war was a logical action. They were both imposed for false reasons.

The sanctions were imposed in the 1990s because Iraq invaded Kuwait. Yet in 1990, Saddam Hussein had told the American ambassador in Iraq about his plan to invade Kuwait. She responded that Kuwait was not an American state. Iraq invaded Kuwait based on the American ambassador’s answer—not knowing that this would bring about Iraq’s destruction. The invasion caused nothing but tragedy and pain for the Iraqi population. After the sanctions were imposed, as I heard from the generations before me and know from my own observation, Iraq had no food to feed its children, no medicine to cure the ill. Some surgeries were performed with no anesthetic. For thirteen years Iraqis suffered for invading Kuwait.

In 2003, the United States used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for the war on Iraq. But George Lopez and David Cortright say that “the sanctions worked,” and that they eliminated the WMD. Then why did the United States invade Iraq if it didn’t have WMD? In the end, the war just destroyed what the sanctions couldn’t and left Iraq with nothing but...no, just nothing.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels asks: “Isn’t there good reason to ask whether maintenance of sanctions might have been a more humane and moral policy?” This is not the right question, because the sanctions and the war were the same. They both contributed to ruining Iraq and keeping it in misery for years.



Reading the original UN Resolution 661, I would have signed it myself to stop the Iraqi aggression on Kuwait. The resolution’s original aim was to force the Iraqi government to leave Kuwait, and that’s when it received acceptance from the thirteen countries that voted for it in the Security Council. The question then was: Would it be war or sanctions? War did happen. And war accomplished the objective of the nations that voted for resolution 661: to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The sanctions’ role was over once their purpose was met. Nonetheless, the sanctions persisted and were markedly exploited by the United States—and maybe other countries too.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels writes that “the quick defeat obviously demonstrated that the sanctions had succeeded in eliminating the WMD and hollowing out Iraq’s army.”  But the Iraqi army was not a robust and threatening force even before the sanctions. In the decade prior to the sanctions, Iraq fought an eight-year war with its neighbor Iran. Most of the time, the Iranian forces were on the offensive, while Iraq struggled. So what should we expect from a war against the world’s superior military power, a country with ten times its population—a war fought with antiquated tanks and weapons largely ineffective against high-tech American weaponry?

The sanctions were utterly ineffective in ousting Saddam. He still lived in palaces, was well fed, and had a fleet of armored Mercedes vehicles. He misdirected resources that should have gone to the Iraqi people. Nonetheless, even if these resources had been divided equally among Iraqis, the sanctions would have left each Iraqi with only $204 a year. Saddam was not responsible for the humanitarian crisis; his irresponsibility only increased it.

It was clearly stated in the UN resolution that the sanctions would not affect food imports or humanitarian aid. In reality, the sanctions hit poor, middle class, and even wealthy Iraqis hard. Unemployment skyrocketed. Factories closed. Raw materials that could create jobs or help industry were blocked. Teachers received salaries as low as $2 a month. My father, a retired officer, received about fifteen cents a month in pension. People had no food to eat. My family lived for months on bread and yogurt, tea and dates. The rate of malnutrition soared. So did death rates, especially  among children. Simple medications were being held off, as they were somehow magically connected to manufacturing weapons. Education deteriorated. Our schoolbooks were torn and overused. University lab experiments came to a stop.

Saddam failed to use diplomacy to solve his country’s economic downfall. America failed to use diplomacy to restrain him and to protect the Iraqi people. The sanctions, whatever their purpose, only caused harm to the population. Therefore they were absurd, not smart, sanctions.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 
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