"A human catastrophe" is how Denis Halliday sums up the policy toward Iraq that he saw firsthand as a United Nations relief administrator stationed there.
Besides delivering a crippling and humiliating defeat to the Iraqi army during the short, furious 1991 Gulf War, the bombing campaign by the United States and its allies devastated the country’s civilian infrastructure. The war left the country without sewage, water purification, health, food distribution or agricultural systems. Since the imposition of United Nations sanctions, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that "more than one million Iraqis have died" from a lack of food, health care and sanitation. The U.N. World Health Organization says that deprivations caused by the sanctions result in the deaths every month of 4,000 to 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5.
Halliday, an Irish national and former head of the U.N. Oil for Food program in Iraq, lived in Iraq for 13 months, administering the effort to assist Iraqi civilians before resigning in late 1998. He calls the effort by the United Nations "grossly inadequate."
Halliday says he quit the U.N. after 34 years as a career diplomat "to be free to speak out about the impact of sanctions." He was in Detroit and Ann Arbor last weekend as part of a 21-city speaking tour. The Metro Times reached Halliday at his New York City residence prior to his appearances here.
Metro Times: When people are informed of the dire consequences sanctions have on the Iraqis, many blame Saddam Hussein.
Denis Halliday: That’s a very common reaction. Unfortunately, the demonization of Saddam Hussein has rubbed off on his people in the eyes of many Americans, and the average person doesn’t think beyond him. My answer is that he may well be at least jointly responsible for this dreadful catastrophe. He made appalling errors in Iran and Kuwait, but we shouldn’t sink to his level. We are the ones who are sustaining sanctions and therefore the ones responsible for the impact of them.
MT: The sanctions were put in place following the 1991 war to force the Hussein government into compliance with resolutions imposed by the United Nations. What was their intent and what has been achieved?
Halliday: The resolutions which permitted military force and the sanctions were passed to stop Iraq’s aggressive behavior — to get the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. This was accomplished in March 1991. The sanctions were retained to rid Iraq of its armament capability so they would not be threatening again. That job began in 1991 and in two or three years much of their hardware had been identified and destroyed by UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission). The U.N. set about making sure there was no nuclear capability in Iraq and that was accomplished. Then they looked at its long range missile capability and that was destroyed several years ago. Then they looked at chemical and biological capacity which is much more difficult to pin down.
Since then, in the past several years, the U.N. inspection teams have been reduced to looking for bits and pieces and largely paper evidence, but the sanctions remain despite the fact that they’re causing havoc for the people of that country, including killing thousands every month.
MT: After the pre-Christmas raids on Iraq you said, "The military strikes constitute a futile and short-run irrational action of desperate men." Could you explain this?
Halliday: Nobody could articulate, including President Clinton or (British) Prime Minister Tony Blair, exactly what this was all about or what they expected to come out of this. There was a hint that these attacks would lead to an overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but that was pretty vague. If that was the case, none of us knows what the result would be. Many of us feel to overthrow Saddam Hussein may not be beneficial in the sense that we might get something worse. The country might fall apart. The Saudis and others don’t want that.
MT: What is driving United States policy in Iraq?
Halliday: The official line is a great fear of Saddam Hussein and the need for his containment, but the real goal appears to be continued domination of the region for the purpose of controlling the world’s oil supply.
MT: Is the U.S. really concerned that Iraqis will make another aggressive move given how badly they were defeated? Does Iraq even have a military capable of carrying out another adventure?
Halliday: The military capacity of Iraq is heavily diminished and reduced to very basic defense resources, and that is being destroyed right now. Technically, the U.S. is at war with Iraq. You mentioned the military attacks in December, but there were military attacks yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, with significant damage. I think there is no serious danger from Iraq. It is surrounded by very powerful, heavily armed states and rather aggressive ones. Turkey invaded Iraq a couple of weeks ago and probably is in there right now.
MT: Saddam Hussein is often portrayed as another Hitler with absolute dictatorial power over the country. Is this the sense you have of the political situation there?
Halliday: I never met Hussein. I worked with the foreign minister, the minister of trade, and the vice president in Baghdad, but never saw the president. This Hitler, this madman, and so on, was an ally of this country who worked closely with the United States when it suited them. He attacked the Iranians in the mid-’80s. He was provided with conventional and chemical weapons including biological weapons by this country. When he used them against the Iranians, that was fine, and he also used them against the Kurds. At the time, nobody bothered about it; it is an issue now that he’s become a bad guy.
In terms of what’s happening currently, there are complex domestic politics in Iraq. Hussein doesn’t run the country single-handedly. There’s a large Baath Party with a new generation of politicians coming up who have been isolated and alienated from the rest of the world without experience internationally. They’re pushing the regime further and further to the right. If sanctions were lifted and the economy re-established, I think then the Hussein regime would be in great danger of being removed. As it is, Hussein is stronger than ever. His people are totally dependent on him and his government for what little food they get.