Business Backs the Iraq Embargo (5/00)

I can buy anything. If I have to agree to take oil or gas to Dubai, I’m going to do it. I’m not here in Iraq for the excitement. I want to make money; I’m like you … . This embargo is going to end. I need an order. I need it now." It was one of those blunt realities which idealists, especially those moved to actions by human suffering, refuse to believe. Too crass to be true. Too pragmatic to face. 

It happened two years ago. I was in Baghdad, in one of the five star hotels where businessmen stay, and talk. You find no humanitarian oriented social activists in the lobby here. "Too many secret service agents," they say. Few journalists hang around here, either. But I was meeting a friend. Behind me sat two men, facing each other, and apparently unaware of me. They talked freely, although in low voices. My back was to them, and I leaned forward over the coffee table in order to write down verbatim what I heard. I didn’t look at the men, but I could recognize from their accents that one was an Iraqi. The other was a US businessman. He did most of the talking, was very blunt, and spoke without formalities.

"I need an order for some generators, transformers, big stuff," he said. "I need it now. Either you give me an order or you pay for this trip. I’ve got to get something out of this. I’m doing this because I’m looking for something É ." He wanted big contracts to supply Iraq, and he also talked about a future scheme he wanted to develop in the country. "ÔA’ has agreed to take me to General Motors; I’m going to meet a senior person at GM and present everything to her. We can get Chrysler to make a jeep in Iraq. You can supply millions of cars here."

Then he returned to his main interest – supplying Iraq with desperately needed heavy industrial equipment, contracts that would be in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. "Is it possible with transformers to get something there? I can get that immediately." The American referred to his need to get the ear of an Iraqi official (I recognized his name) close to the president – namely Saddam Hussein.

Later, in response to something the Iraqi said that I couldn’t hear, the American replied, " My first priority is to get a meeting here with President Jimmy Carter. If he can make a statement on human suffering in Iraq É" His voice trailed off, but again I heard the name Carter and the words "human rights."

The Iraqi left, but the US dealer remained in his seat. Passing his chair, I took a look at him. He was about 40, with thinning hair and wearing a plain brown suit. Unimpressive. He seemed absorbed in his own thoughts.

I didn’t know what to do with the notes I’d made. I wasn’t ready to confront the man and ask more pointed questions. I didn’t doubt the authenticity of his commercial ambitions. But Iraq had announced it would only give contracts (where UN approval was forthcoming) to friendly states, their friends. They wouldn’t deal with US firms, they said. I also doubted that ex-president Jimmy Carter could become involved in support of Iraq. The country was generating some sympathy from the public, but no major figure, political or private, had dared to come out in favor of lifting sanctions. Carter didn’t seem to fit anywhere in the Iraq issue.

That conversation in the hotel lobby took place in the spring of 1998. A few days later, I passed over $1500 worth of Iraqi dinars to a hospital so they could purchase new mattresses to replace the disintegrated ones they had been using for eight years. It was a gift some friends had given me – to help relieve the suffering. The hospitals were in a terrible state. Electricity cuts were bad, and bound to cause even more hardships, among the well and the sick.

Later in the year, after Baghdad’s confrontation with the UN weapons monitoring team UNSCOM, the US and Britain launched a major bombing campaign. It was dastardly and gratuitous, causing havoc inside Iraq. It also helped activate more support for Iraq among the anti-sanctions activists in the US and Europe. Quietly, more Americans, although they still only amounted to a few hundred thousand, questioned American policy against Iraq. Their cause was strengthened when Denis Halliday, a senior official in the UN office in Baghdad, resigned. He opposed the oil-for-food deal and the US-British punishing embargo policy.

Meanwhile, a lot of money was to be made by businessmen supplying Iraq with basic needs – mainly food and medicines. UN Resolution 986, called the oil-for-food program, permitted limited imports. Iraq was pumping oil feverishly to meet its quota of more than $5 billion every six months. With that revenue, it could order food and basic supplies, if the UN sanctions committee approved. Hundreds of businessmen from Jordan, Syria, Turkey, but also the European and Asian nations came from Baghdad with contracts for cooking oil, sugar, wheat, and medicines. Basic supplies also included medical and agricultural equipment, so some contracts were sizable, although barely 10 percent of what Iraq really needed.

The UN has approved only a third of the money generated by Iraq’s exports over these years for implementation by those companies. But it still amounted to several billion dollars. "Iraq is rich," exclaimed a Jordanian merchant. It was strange to hear, but true, if you were a potential contractor. Jordanians knew that if they didn’t get those contracts, their own country was in trouble. Iraq was providing huge profits for those lucky suppliers.

Inside Iraq as well, farmers, given a free hand to set their own prices, were becoming wealthy. And the smugglers who arranged shipments across Iraq’s porous borders were doing well, too. They supplied clothing, computers, car tires, light fixtures, canned food, cigarettes, and numerous other items.

Meanwhile, more reports were published about the rising death toll, the spreading diseases, the growing malnourishment, and the spiraling poverty. In January, I returned to Iraq, my third visit since 1998. I saw some sectors of Baghdad enjoying new wealth, but I also witnessed the ongoing decline in living standards for the majority of the population.

Again, businessmen moved to and fro in the hotels, waiting for contracts. Several government delegations – from Korea, Jordan, Belgium, Hungary, Britain, and Vietnam – were shown on TV discussing contracts successfully completed. They were mainly supplying foods and medicines, according to the reports. No US contractors appeared on TV shaking hands with Iraqi ministers, but one senior official told me contracts were being finalized with US firms. Instead of buying rice from Kansas as first discussed, he said Iraq had signed a deal to purchase heavy equipment and transformers from a US firm.

Transformers? It was a very big contract, worth far more than a year’s supply of rice. (The less valuable rice order went to Vietnam.) So, Americans were doing business, and their contracts were big ones. I wondered if our friend was involved in that.

Later, I saw a minor item over the Internet, a reference to statements made by Jimmy Carter. On January 12, after a speech in Washington, he said "I think in every instance where we have sustained sanctions (Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea) they are counterproductive. But if we impose sanctions against a people already suffering under a despot, we tend to make a despot popular É. In addition, we hurt the people severely … . and if we had full diplomatic exchange with the countries I have mention-ed … it is really shocking to look at the statistics by the WHO and UN of the instance of disease and the shortened life expectancy in Iraq."

How about that? Thank you, Mr. Carter. Thank you very much.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a broadcast journalist, is a regular TF contributor.