Bush Approach on Sanctions May Offer Iraqis Hope

BASRA, Iraq — The Shakir family had a good life before the war.

The seven Shakirs shared a spacious home with two other families, in the Al Jumhuriya neighborhood of Basra in southern Iraq. They had a courtyard, gardens and patios. The family still keeps photographs of the old house.

Those photographs are almost all they have left. War with the United States, and American and British trade sanctions, have left Iraq devastated even as military dictator Saddam Hussein's wallet bulges. The Shakirs lost their house, sold their furniture and their bridal jewelry.

Now the Bush administration has given new hope to families like the Shakirs, and to Catholics, from Pope John Paul II to U.S. human rights activists, who say sanctions should be lifted.

On Feb. 26, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the State Department was considering reforming the sanctions on Iraq. The sanctions currently prohibit other nations from trading with the oil-rich country except through a U.N.-administered fund for food and medicine.

Powell told reporters that he had discussed sanctions with President Bashar Assad of Syria, and that the United States was “exploring ideas” of modifying the sanctions. “The message I've consistently heard is that overdoing it with the sanctions gives [Hussein] a tool that he is using against us, and really is not weakening him,” Powell said, echoing many human rights groups' concerns.

One possible change is an easing of “dual-use” sanctions. These prohibit Iraq from importing items that have both a civilian and a military use — anything from water pumps to refrigerators. Powell gave no specifics on dual-use, but noted that the decision would be difficult because even innocuous items like eggs have military uses: “You can do certain things with eggs that can create a biological weapon.”

Even as Powell discussed possible changes in the sanction policy, a new report from the German intelligence service, suggesting that Saddam Hussein may be able to lob atomic weapons at Europe and Israel by 2005, may slow efforts to ease sanctions. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. and Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has announced that he will hold hearings on Secretary Powell's statement this month.

Tom Jackson of the Chicago-based anti-sanctions group Voices in the Wilderness hoped that sanctions would be eased sooner rather than later.

Before the sanctions, he said, “Iraq was considered to be an emerging first world country.” Its oil wealth fueled the growth of a middle class of families like the Shakirs. That middle class disappeared in the wake of the Gulf War.

A representative of Voices in the Wilderness stayed with the Shakirs last summer. The Shakirs had air conditioning once, but now they simply wait out the hottest part of the day, when temperatures can reach 130 degrees.

The Shakirs, like most other Iraqis, live on rations from the “oil for food” program. Iraq can sell its oil to other countries only if the proceeds are put in a special fund administered by the United Nations. The rations are lentils, rice and a little flour.

Powell acknowledged the suffering in Iraq. He told reporters that sanctions should take into account humanitarian concerns, and said, “I'm not going to let a water pump not go to a well to fill up water to help a village that might be having cholera or other kinds of epidemics.”

Pope John Paul II has called for easing the sanctions for years. He even placed a personal phone call to then-President George Bush Sr. hours before the Gulf War began, asking Bush not to bomb Iraq.

And the Vatican specifically denounced sanctions on Iraq on June 9 during a visit by the president of the Iraqi parliament. The Holy Father has described the Iraq sanctions as “pitiless,” harming “the weak and the innocent.”

But Ken Bricker, a spokesman for the American Israel Policy Action Committee, said that the sanctions have not been without good effect. He argued that the sanctions have hobbled Hussein's arms program. He blamed the anti-sanctions campaign on “public relations” by Iraq and its allies.

Bricker noted that Iraq sells more oil (under the U.N.-administered program) than it did before the Gulf War. “Saddam has taken the proceeds from that ‘oil for food’ program and he's rewarded his cronies,” Bricker charged. “The sanctions are not responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein is.”

Although Bricker was not entirely opposed to revising the sanctions, he said such changes would only be acceptable if “end-use inspection” were tightened — checking to make sure that imports were not used for military purposes. Without that, he said, “Reducing the sanctions probably will equate to scrapping them altogether.”

Bricker cited the German intelligence service's finding that Iraq could build an atomic bomb within three years, and could have medium-range missiles capable of delivering bombs to Israel and southern Europe by 2005. He said sanctions had slowed Iraq's weapons programs down.

Voices in the Wilderness's Jackson disputed Bricker's claim that the sanctions are not the true cause of Iraqis' suffering. “The current head of the ‘oil for food’ program has said that it's not true that the government diverts anything” from the program, he said.

His organization maintains that the sanctions actually help the Iraqi dictatorship, both in their anti-American propaganda value and because impoverished people struggling for food are less troublesome to a dictator than an educated, powerful middle class is.

Meanwhile, any change may be too late to help the Shakirs.

Since last summer, the Shakirs have slid even farther from that middle class. A Voices in the Wilderness representative said that last fall she got “a pretty disheartening letter” from the family. They were evicted from their shack after a rent hike.

Said the representative, “We don't even know where they're living at this point.”