Personal Journey:
A Flight Against The Iraqi Blockade

by Gregory Elich

March 19, 2001

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The boy paced rapidly back and forth, driven by desperation. His mouth, twisted in anguish, produced an expression of such intensity that I could not avert my eyes as I gazed at him through the window of our bus. Only moments before, as we approached the bus that would take us to the airport, we were surrounded, as if from nowhere, by several street peddlers. They were all pre-adolescent boys carrying trays filled with goods, their hopes soaring at the sight of more than 90 Westerners. This was Baghdad, and we were about to return home. The boy who caught my eye appeared to be no more than eleven or twelve years of age, and his tray was filled with packs of cigarettes. He hadn't made a sale, and his suffering countenance told me that this failure wasn't merely a matter of losing extra income. The very survival of his family could well depend on him and he had just missed the best opportunity to put food on the table that evening. He was not alone. As a side-effect of UN sanctions, plummeting living standards pushed nearly one quarter of Iraq's children age 6 to 11 to drop out of school in order to help support their families.

We were in Baghdad to challenge these sanctions and our delegation of peace activists, journalists and Greek politicians was led by former First Lady of Greece Margarita Papendreou. Our flight, on an Olympic Airways Boeing 737, was only the second Western flight and the first by a Western national carrier to land in Baghdad since the imposition of sanctions in 1990. We planned only to notify the UN Sanctions Committee, rather than seek its permission. Olympic's insurer, Lloyds of London, however, wouldn't cover the flight unless the Sanctions Committee approved it. The Committee insisted on two conditions. First, that we classify our flight as humanitarian and provide to the committee a list of the medical supplies we were bringing to Iraq. By acceding to this demand, we lost the symbolic effect of challenging the sanctions, as only humanitarian flights are permitted by the sanctions regime. The purpose of their demand was to deflate that symbolic value. Second, and more outrageous, that we provide a list of the names and passport numbers of our passengers. My immediate thought was that the list would be in the hands of the CIA within five minutes of its reception by the Sanctions Committee. To allay our fears, the Sanctions Committee promised that the list would not be released to any outside authority. Based on that assurance, the organizers of the delegation agreed to the demands and approval for our flight was granted. The following day the American Embassy in Athens telephoned the organizers, complaining that one of our passengers had a "bad reputation." As expected, the Sanctions Committee had immediately broken their promise. Our passenger list had been passed to U.S. officials.

Although the American Embassy in Athens had our passenger list, they asked that we send it to them, adding that they would process our request to fly over Turkey in a few days. A delay of that length, the Embassy knew, would necessitate the cancellation of our flight. Olympic Airways managed to plot an alternative route but could not get permission to fly over Syrian and Cypriot airspace, possibly as a result of U.S. pressure. Yet another flight path was devised, following a zigzag course. By this time, night had fallen and our flight crew, fearing a possible shoot down by U.S. or British jets, postponed our departure until the following morning. Finally, having overcome all obstacles, our plane took off the next day, on November 11, 2000.

A cheer went up when the wheels of our plane first touched ground at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. As we disembarked, we noticed that our plane stood alone on the tarmac. Except for the hospitality rooms Iraqi officials led us into, the terminal itself was darkened and empty, enveloped in an eerie silence that seemed to symbolize the grip sanctions held on this beleaguered nation. By the front entrance, a piece of cardboard scrawled with "Down USA" rested against the back of a chair.

After the griminess of Athens, the charm and beauty of Baghdad, aside from a few kitschy monuments, was striking. At first glance, Baghdad appeared much like any other Third World city, but in time differences became apparent. One soon noticed there was a widespread state of disrepair. When something became broken, it stayed broken, due to the difficulty of obtaining spare parts under conditions imposed by sanctions. A small group from our delegation wandered through the streets of Baghdad and encountered an elementary school. Suzie Flood, an activist in the Action from Ireland organization, was appalled at the sight. "It was a derelict building," she later told me. "In Ireland we would demolish it." The school appeared quiet when they first walked in, but they were quickly met with a warm welcome from the staff and students. Blackboards were hanging precariously by one corner, Flood noted, and the light fixtures were not operating. Virtually every window was broken and the school lacked a sewage system. In one room, a small cabinet held the supplies for the entire school, an amount more appropriate for a single class.

Two video camera crews from our delegation visited a marketplace. One shopkeeper told them, "Before the embargo, we did very well. The market was full of people buying stuff, but now we don't do anything like that because people don't have enough money to buy. So it has hurt us. We are really suffering." Another shopkeeper pointed out that household items and spare parts for radios, televisions, stoves and automobiles are very difficult to find, and that buying these things was nearly impossible, even when they found them because they don't have enough money.

Although we frequently encountered beggars and street peddlers, many residents of Baghdad appeared to be scraping by in straightened circumstances. The situation outside of Baghdad was more desperate and a brief trip confirmed a deeper level of misery and poverty. Our limited time in Iraq prevented us from visiting the province of Basra, in the south, where living conditions were said to be dire. Inflation has sent the value of the Iraqi dinar plunging into near worthlessness, and providing food for one's family is a daily struggle for all.

During the Gulf War, U.S. and British warplanes deliberately bombed water treatment plants. Since then the population has been forced to rely on contaminated water because the import of spare parts required to rebuild these plants, as well as the chlorine needed for their operation, has been blocked by the UN Sanctions Committee. Disease is rife. Over ten percent of babies die before reaching their first birthday. During just the single month of our visit, November 2000, a total of 7,556 children under the age of five died from diarrhea, pneumonia, respiratory illnesses and malnutrition, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry. Over half of Iraqi's children suffer from diarrhea, reports UNICEF.

Our tour through the multi-story Saddam Central Hospital for Children gave a face to the statistics. Mothers, dressed in black, maintained vigils at the bedsides of their children who lay sick or dying. Journalists from our delegation charged through the rooms, shoving others aside, flashing pictures and thrusting cameras in people's faces. It almost seemed a desecration but the patients and their families bore the intrusion patiently. A young girl of about 13 walked on wobbly legs up and down a corridor, leaning on her mother for support. A boy who appeared to be about five lay motionless on a table, his eyes rolled back so that only the white showed. He would soon die. In the leukemia ward, I choked up when a young boy of about 12 forced a weak but sweet smile and waved at each of us from his bed as we entered the room. He will not live to adulthood. A mother buried her head in a handkerchief, sobbing over the bed of her young son, who was curled asleep on a bed. Another mother sat on a bed, her arms enfolding her adorable daughter of about eight, who was wearing a beautiful red dress. Her daughter will not survive. In fact, none of these children will survive, for the fatality rate in the leukemia ward is 100 percent.

Most of the patients in this ward hail from Basra province, a region heavily bombed with depleted uranium munitions during the Gulf War. Missiles and bombs tipped with depleted uranium, with 1.7 times the density of lead, are extremely efficient at penetrating targets. The aerosol released by their explosion, however, sows thousands of alpha radioactive particles into the environment, where they may be borne by the wind or soak into the ground and water, entering the food chain. People and animals ingesting even a single particle of depleted uranium suffer grave consequences as it wreaks havoc in its victim. Leukemia and other cancer rates in southern Iraq have skyrocketed since the Gulf War. In all, U.S. and British warplanes saturated the region with up to 800 tons of depleted uranium. With a half-life of 4.5 billion years, depleted uranium has essentially guaranteed the near permanent contamination of southern Iraq.

The doctor who led us through the leukemia ward told us they have seen a marked increase in patients admitted with lymphoblastic leukemia and the even more deadly myoblastic leukemia. Both are rapidly advancing leukemias, in which cancer cells spread through the blood and bone marrow. "These are all cases of malignancy," the doctor told us. "This is a case of malignancy also," he said as he picked up the chart of one child. "Diagnosed in 1996, he has received multiple chemotherapy but there is a shortage of chemotherapy drugs in our country. Sometimes we have no drugs here to give to our leukemia patients." Multiple drugs are required for the treatment of leukemia, and some are effective only when used in tandem with companion drugs. We were told that U.S. and British officials on the UN Sanctions Committee would often allow the import of one drug but not the other in such cases, thus giving the appearance of allowing the shipments of drugs. On its own, though, the drug was essentially useless. "As you see," the doctor pointed out with a wave of his hand, "there are multiple age groups affected. Sometimes we even have cases of a two month old baby with malignancy of myoblastic leukemia." We were shown a young girl who was dying from leukemia. "We have no facility for bone marrow transplantation," the doctor explained, "nor any facility for bone marrow transplantation to take her to."

In another ward of the hospital, we entered a small room. A tiny baby lay motionless inside an incubator, while the father sat nearby, filled with anxious nervousness. "Five days newborn," we were told. "Admitted to the hospital and diagnosed as a case of atresia." This baby would require surgery. "We have a shortage in many things, including anesthetics, surgical supplies and antibiotic drugs…. This intravenous set, which is needed for every surgical patient is in extremely short supply." Due to medical and surgical complications, the hospital had many cases of septicemia, or blood poisoning. "Septicemia needs triple antibiotics," the doctor continued. "So many times we have only one of the drugs or nothing at all." Mortality rates were high as a result of the lack of antibiotics. Another doctor, Dr. Adil Riyadh explained that the health crisis meant a huge influx of patients. "We have seen as many as 2,000 patients per day" during a peak period the previous year, he said. "In this hospital, I see 300 patients in three hours." To cope with the flood of patients, the understaffed hospital is forced to rely on parents of the patients to perform many of the nursing functions.

Although no hospital in Iraq has the capability of performing bone marrow transplants, the Iraqi Health Ministry hopes to open a bone marrow transplant center at Mansour Hospital in Baghdad. The plan, however, can come to fruition only in the unlikely event that the UN Sanctions Committee permits the import of necessary equipment. Past experience holds little promise for the new transplant center. The UN Sanctions Committee has blocked nearly half of the medicines and equipment contracted for by the Health Ministry. Some of the items the Committee refused to allow Iraq to import include spare parts for kidney transplantation equipment, refrigerators, numerous medicines, artificial limbs and spare parts for x-ray equipment. The Health Ministry was not alone in finding its contracts cancelled by the UN Sanctions Committee. In all, nearly 2,000 contracts totalling $4.4 billion have been blocked. The Committee has approved a mere seven percent of Iraq's contracts for water purification and sewerage equipment. Barely ten percent of the contracts for educational needs met with UN approval.

Under terms of the UN's "oil for food" program, Iraq may export a portion of its oil to purchase goods for civilian purposes, although many items are blocked by the UN Sanctions Committee. Out of the earnings, Iraq must pay the United Nations a significant percentage and an additional 25 percent is set aside for compensation for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In just one claim, the UN Compensation Commission (UNCC) awarded the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation $15.9 billion of Iraqi export earnings, more than double the amount Iraq was allowed to spend on food and care for its citizens during the first four years of the program, from 1996 to 2000. The case took six years to prepare and entailed tens of thousands of pages of claims. Yet the Iraqi representative was allowed only one hour to present his country's case. According to a lawyer hired by Iraq, Michael Schneider, "Not only has Iraq been refused money to defend itself, but all the major law firms have already been hired by the claimants or by the UNCC itself." Price Waterhouse, in an apparent conflict of interest, served sequentially both Kuwait and the UNCC. Each year, the UNCC allocates $50 million of Iraqi earnings to maintain itself. Kuwaitis filed 160,000 individual claims, including on behalf of newborn babies. Separate claims were often filed by the same individuals for a single loss. Kuwaiti claims amount to $180 billion - nine times its gross domestic product in 1989. In all, claims totalling $320 billion have been filed with the Commission. It is speculated that perhaps only one third of this amount will in the end be awarded, but if one adds interest this brings the total to $300 billion. At the current rate, it will take Iraq until the year 2070 to pay down this amount, ensuring the country's continued impoverishment and suffering.

The U.S. and Great Britain, the driving force behind the sanctions, seek to impose a collective punishment on the entire population of Iraq. Along with sanctions, U.S. and British warplanes routinely bomb Iraq about once a week or so. During our short stay in Iraq, Western jets fired four missiles at the Ali Al-Hayaini School at Hmaidi village in Basra province. Four children, aged 12 and 13, and three teachers were wounded. Several nearby houses were also damaged during the attack. Every week or so these attacks continue, killing about 300 and wounding over 800 civilians since December 1998. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and potential further Iraqi military actions is given as justification for Western hostility. Skepticism is called for if one examines the broader historical picture, even limited to the immediate region. Just ten years before its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq invaded Iran in a war of aggression that lasted eight years. Over 1.7 million people were killed in one of the major wars of the twentieth century. An Iranian friend described to me graveyards stretching as far as the eye could see, blanketing hill after hill. By comparison, the invasion of Kuwait was a minor affair. Yet, the Western Powers responded with full support to the far more serious breach of international law and peace posed by Iraq's invasion of Iran. The U.S. and Great Britain backed Iraq with diplomatic measures and supplied it with weapons and satellite photos of Iranian positions. Without that support, it is doubtful the war would have lasted so many years and filled so many graveyards. American and British leaders, so eager to act as self-appointed judges in regard to others, have shown that no one poses a greater threat to peace than they do. Whether sending missiles to flatten a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, or bombing an Iraqi neighborhood now and then, or waging a full scale unprovoked war of aggression against Yugoslavia, Western leaders demonstrate a contempt for the lives of others. "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the so-called Cold War," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz observed to our delegation, "a new hot war and warm war has been imposed on many nations, and at the forefront this nation: the people of Iraq."

Post-Gulf War inspections by UN personnel oversaw the destruction of significant portions of the Iraqi arsenal, until the news broke out that the UN inspection teams were being misused to carry out intelligence activities for the CIA. By the time the UN inspection teams were expelled by Iraq, 97 percent of its so-called weapons of mass destruction had been demolished. According to former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, "By 1994, it was clear that Iraq had been disarmed."

After years of forced acquiescence, several nations have reached the point of exasperation with Western insistence on maintaining sanctions against Iraq. Our flight to Baghdad was part of a burgeoning movement to reopen air traffic to Iraq. In the last three months of 2000, over 80 flights - primarily from Eastern European and Arab countries - defied the ban on air travel. Regular air links are slowly being reestablished, including twice-weekly flights between Damascus and Baghdad. Egypt and Jordan have also resumed regular flights. In defiance of U.S. and British efforts to tighten the screws on Iraq, the sanctions policy is crumbling. Even Iran is seeking a rapprochement with Iraq, establishing joint committees to resolve contentious issues and work towards a resumption of normal relations. While we were in Baghdad, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi called for the cessation of sanctions against Iraq.

During our visit, a major trade fair was held in Baghdad, drawing over 1,500 trade representatives from 12 countries, and 18,000 business people from 45 countries. Already, Russian buses, trucks and agricultural machinery are arriving in Iraq, and recent agreements with India will result in expanded trade. An oil pipeline running between Syria and Iraq, dormant nearly twenty years, was reactivated following extensive repairs. Plans call for the pipeline, currently pumping 150,000 barrels of oil a day in contravention of the sanctions, to be extended to the port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Meanwhile, a second pipeline is undergoing repairs. After its completion, plans call for increasing the flow of oil to 1.2 million barrels per day. Iraq recently signed an accord with Syria, establishing a free trade zone between their countries, as it has with Egypt as well. In an effort to shore up the sanctions regime, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to the Middle East in late February. Unconfirmed reports indicate that he may have pressured Syria into agreeing to place oil imports from Iraq under UN sanctions control. Jordanian officials were forced to cancel a planned free trade agreement with Iraq when Powell told them the agreement would discourage congressional approval for a Jordanian-American free trade pact. The road connecting Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, though, remains heavily traversed by trucks bearing goods. Despite Western pressures, a growing number of nations are brushing sanctions aside and pursuing more normal relations with Iraq and its people. "All free women and men in this world don't support injustice," Tariq Aziz told our delegation. "They don't support a policy which inflicts death and suffering on other people." Rapidly expanding trade contacts and flights into Baghdad demonstrated that "the sanctions regime is cracking" he added. "What should be done now is lifting the sanctions," he concluded. "We are not expecting the Security Council to take it, but it will be done. It will be done by the will of the people of the world. By the will of the freedom lovers."



       Gregory Elich has published over 40 articles on the Balkans and East Asia. He has been published in Covert Action Quarterly, Politika, the Columbus Dispatch, and other publications. He has been involved in peace activities going back to the Vietnam war, and including work on Central America, the Cuban embargo, Clinton's 1994 war threats against North Korea, the bombing of Iraq, and sanctions on Iraq, and especially work on the Balkans. He was coordinator of the Committee for Peace in Yugoslavia, located in Columbus, Ohio. He has a chapter in the International Action Center's "NATO in the Balkans," and he spoke at their opening session of their Commission of Inquiry into NATO war crimes on July 31, 1999, and again as one of their witnesses at their final session of the Committee of Inquiry.


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Published March 19, 2001
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