Unable to shake Saddam Hussein from his perch, the United States nine years ago introduced the most sweeping economic sanctions in modern history against the people of Iraq.
Now the Iraqis, who have suffered the brunt of the sanctions, are devastated. Thousands die from preventable disease every week. Less than half the population has access to clean water.
Earlier this year, a United Nations Security Council panel reported that "the gravity of the humanitarian situation is indisputable and cannot be overstated."
U.S.-led sanctions prevent Iraqis from buying equipment and parts to maintain water purification and sewage treatment plants. Reports from UNICEF (the United Nation's Children's Fund), and other United Nations agencies operating in Iraq estimate that more than a million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo.
Once a country rich in medical technology, doctors now do not have access to medicine, vaccines or even textbooks. Infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world. The country's electrical, transportation, agricultural and industrial production systems -- severely damaged during the 1991 Gulf War -- have never been fixed. There are no parts available, due to the sanctions.
Alarmed by these statistics, three Colorado Springs women and a Colorado College student recently defied U.S. sanctions which prohibit travel to Iraq, to witness the conditions first hand.
"Our primary purpose was, we wanted to openly and publicly defy the law," said activist Susan Gordon. "It was essentially an act of disobedience for me, personally."
The organization that sponsored the trip, Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, has sent additional delegations to Iraq, and its members have been threatened with fines or arrest. But, Gordon said, arrest would result in a huge public relations nightmare for the U.S. government, which would be exactly what Voices wants.
After flying to Amman on Thanksgiving Day, Gordon and her companions drove 12 hours to Iraq and had no problems entering the country, she said.
Once there, the group visited hospitals, an orphanage, and with representatives from humanitarian and advocacy organizations.
"We visited private homes and listened to their stories," Gordon said. "The people were incredible -- they were welcoming and hospitable. They were quick to differentiate between the government and us people."
Betsie Weil, a Colorado Springs nurse who was part of the group, said she too was taken with the kindness of the people they encountered. Many at times expressed anger over the U.S.-led sanctions, but mostly, said Weil, they just asked why Americans appear to want to decimate an entire generation of Iraqis.
Visiting the hospitals, was particularly heartbreaking.
"We saw extreme suffering and heard time after time how, prior to the Gulf War, this was a health-care system that was state of the art," Gordon said. "The major health concern then was obesity. Now, nine years later, the diseases that had been eradicated are resurfacing -- polio, typhoid, black fever. And, there's been a huge increase in cancer."
Gordon said she saw one deformed child who had a sac of brain matter attached to the outside of his head. The attending doctor, she said, gestured at the boy and said, "This is what America wants -- a whole generation of physically and mentally handicapped men."
Faced with these kinds of bleak reports of devastating conditions, an increasing number of Americans have begun to decry the continued sanctions. In a recent letter to President Bill Clinton, two members of Congress asked the sanctions against Iraq be dropped. Reps. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) noted that the sanctions have failed to remove Hussein from power, but the people of Iraq are continuing to suffer.
"Morally, it is wrong to hold the Iraqi people responsible for the actions of a brutal and reckless government," Conyers and Campbell wrote. "Politically, this policy deprives the Iraqi regime of any incentive to comply with UN resolutions and international norms."
Back home in Colorado Springs, Gordon said she has attempted to contact Rep. Joel Hefley to voice her protests over the ongoing sanctions. So far, she said, she has been unsuccessful.
Now, she and the others plan to talk to as many people and groups as possible to raise the level of concern.
"Everywhere we talk, people raise the issue of 'What about Saddam?' " Gordon said. "I think it's time to move beyond that and acknowledge that he's not a nice guy, but also acknowledge that there are two parties involved in this."
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