Seeking the True Face of Iraq

The streets of Baghdad are plastered with posters of Saddam Hussein. Every time a new hospital, school or government building opens, it is adorned with his portrait. These days, Hussein's face is inseparable from the face of Iraq, and that is exactly how the Iraqi dictator would like things to remain.

It is unfortunate that the media speaks as if only one man, Saddam Hussein, lived in the state of Iraq. Unfortunate also that U.S. foreign policy is almost always directed at this individual, to the neglect of the Iraqi people. Hussein could not have planned it any better himself. Every day he becomes a more entrenched part of Iraq's national identity, and it becomes more difficult for the Iraqi people to oust him from power.

From April 24 to May 2, the Society of Arab Students is promoting an Iraq Awareness Campaign and will be sponsoring speeches by Hans von Sponeck, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, as well as Anthony Arnove, editor of the recently released work "Iraq Under Siege." The week aims to deconstruct the misleading portrait of Iraq which has become predominant in the U.S. media.

This monolithic view that has prevailed ever since the Gulf War is as flawed as the American policy that has accompanied it. The sanctions that are currently imposed on Iraq, while not eliminating Hussein's biological weapons program, can be credited for preventing him from rebuilding his army. However, recent U.N. reports have shown that these sanctions also have had lethal consequences: The collapse of the Iraqi economy, the death of at least 200,000 Iraqi children under five and the crushing of a people who were once, both culturally and intellectually, at the forefront of the Arab world.

Sanctions on Iraq have been in place ever since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But long after the American-led coalition expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and long after U.N. inspections oversaw the dismantling of Hussein's nuclear arsenal, the sanctions are still in place. To U.S. policy makers, they are clearly warranted. Hussein is a ruthless dictator who will jump at the first opportunity to rebuild his arsenal. Something must be done to keep him in check. If the sanctions are hurting the Iraqi people, they say, this is only due to Hussein's own belligerence. They assert that he has abused the U.N. humanitarian oil-for-food scheme, preferring to spend money on defense equipment and luxury palaces rather than food for Iraq's starving children.

Left unmentioned is the fact that Hussein is unable to touch a cent of the money earned through the oil-for-food deal. While it is true that Iraq is permitted to sell several billion dollars worth of oil per month, these funds are not at the discretion of Saddam Hussein, but rather are kept in a U.N. escrow account in the Bank of Paris in New York.

Moreover, the sanctions have only increased popular support for Hussein's regime because in response to relentless U.S. pressure, the Iraqi people have rallied behind their "fearless" leader. Meanwhile, as sanctions have decimated the Iraqi people, they have shattered the few institutions that could have harbored and sustained opposition against Hussein's government. But although the sanctions are now working in Hussein's favor, much of this turnaround is due to factors that are out of his control.

Under the original terms of the sanctions, the U.N. banned all trade with Iraq and froze all Iraqi assets overseas. Although food and medicine were theoretically exempt from this scheme, the country could not pay for such imports without export earnings. Moreover, since every sector of the Iraqi economy depended on foreign machines and parts, the Iraqi government could not repair electric, telephone, water, road, or sewer networks that had been destroyed during the Gulf War and the previous eight-year war with Iran. As a result of the economic collapse, Iraqi civil servants now earn about $2.50 per month. Engineers have abandoned their professions to drive taxis, and academics sell their books for spare cash in street flea markets. Meanwhile, Iraqi hospitals scramble to maintain a supply of basic goods such as sutures, transfusions and disinfectant.

The past two heads of the U.N. humanitarian mission in Iraq have resigned, complaining that the program is hopelessly ineffective, not because of Hussein's deliberate interference, but because of bureaucratic incompetence and failing infrastructure. At the same time, others have observed that although the U.N. has set up stringent sanctions, it has not monitored the Iraqi borders as well as it should. Reporters in Iraq have observed that for every legitimate load entering Iraq from Turkey, as many as 200 enter without permission. Hussein is quick to make use of such loopholes. Meanwhile, his people suffer under the sanctions, and blame the U.S. for their troubles.

While a complete lifting of the sanctions on Iraq is out of the question, it is clear that the current scheme is riddled with problems. At the moment, U.S. policy is supposed to be keeping arms away from Hussein. But, paradoxically, it is also helping to keep him in power. This is not surprising, given previous American foreign policy toward Iraq. Much as the U.S. demonizes Hussein, it does not really want to see him go. It is well known that when Kurds and Shiites posed a democratic challenge to Hussein's regime at the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. government stepped back and watched as Hussein violently crushed the uprising. In American eyes, it may be better to have a predictable dictator at the helm than risk the chaos of a fledgling democracy. Meanwhile, however, Hussein is commissioning new portraits, and millions of Iraqi citizens are nowhere in the picture.

Lama N. Jarudi '00 is a history of art and architecture concentrator in Eliot House. She is a member of the Society of Arab Students.