By Ramzy Baroud
Locating Dartmouth House, where Hans von Sponeck, former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq was scheduled to speak in London 18 April, was a challenge. Yet having been lost for an hour in the ever-confusing and expanding city of London was the least of my concerns the moment I slipped quietly into the lecture hall. His statements were shocking, as were his many statistics: Iraq was simply and shamelessly robbed blind during the period of US-championed UN sanctions. Sadly, the robbery and mismanagement continue to this day, but now the figures are much more staggering.
As Mr von Sponeck spoke, I reflected on my lengthy interview with Iraq’s former Ambassador to the United Nations Mohamed Al-Duri. Al-Duri, being interviewed for the first time by English-language media since taking up his post at the UN, revealed to me in early 2001, in equally shocking detail, what sanctions had done to his country and people. He claimed that the UN was a key part of the problem. Led by two countries, the US and Britain, the UN Oil for Food Programme and the "humanitarian" mission it established in Iraq was reducing Iraqis to beggary, robbing the country blind and mis-managing funds, whereas the large bulk fuelled UN-related missions and operations, with needy Iraqi families receiving next to nothing. He spoke of the manipulation of Iraq’s wealth for political purposes and alleged that the UN was a tool in the hands of the US government, aimed at encouraging widespread popular dissatisfaction with Saddam’s government, before the country was dragged into war.
In hindsight, Al-Duri’s assessment was very accurate. Promoting his new book, A Different Kind of War, von Sponeck reiterated in essence and substance Al-Duri’s claims; the only difference is that von Sponeck was an insider; his numbers and stories impeccable and hardly contestable. It’s no wonder that one and a half years after taking up his post in Baghdad, in 1998, he resigned. Even within such an uncongenial bureaucracy like the UN, some people still possess a living conscience; von Sponeck was and remains a man of great qualities.
By March 2003, when American forces invaded Iraq, the UN was generating $64 billion in sales of Iraqi oil, according to von Sponeck. But scandalously, only $28 billion reached the Iraqi people. If distributed evenly, each Iraqi received half a US dollar per day. According to UN figures, an individual living under one dollar per day is classified as living in "abject poverty". Even during the most destructive phases of the war with Iran, Iraq managed to provide relatively high living standards. Its hospitals were neither dilapidated nor did its oil industry lie in ruins. Only after the advent of UN sanctions in 1991 did Iraqis suffer with such appalling magnitude. Alas, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein expanded to become the tyranny of the international community as well.
"Neither the welfare nor sovereignty of the Iraqi people were respected," by the UN and its two main benefactors, asserted von Sponeck. The UN Security Council’s "elected 10 or veto-wielding five" had nothing for Iraq but "empty words," and there were "deliberate efforts to make life uncomfortable (for the Iraqis) through the Oil for Food Programme". All efforts to modernise Iraq’s oil industry were blocked, said von Sponeck, at the behest of "two governments that blocked all sorts of items," necessary for even basic living — again, the US and Britain, the same two that invaded and currently occupy Iraq. The logic in all of this is clear; the "pre- emptive" war on Iraq was but an extension of the sanctions regime.
The assessments of Al-Duri and von Sponeck converge, revealing the shameful intents of the US government and its followers many years before the horror of 9/11 polarised public opinion and allowed Washington’s political elites, the neoconservatives and contractors, to make their "case for war". But where did the money go, during the sanctions and now, four years after the invasion?
Von Sponeck reports that a large chunk — 55 per cent of the money generated from Iraq’s oil — went to fund the UN’s own inadequate "humanitarian" programmes. Much of the rest was usurped by the UN Compensation Commission, entrusted with handling damages claims made by those allegedly harmed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. According to von Sponeck, the Iraqi oil "pie" was so large there was plenty for everyone: Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, and all the rest. But most ironically, the commission awarded a large sum of money to two Israeli kibbutzim in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, for allegedly losing some of their income due to the fact that the war damaged the tourism industry in Israel.
The robbery in Iraq hardly discontinued after the "liberation". On the contrary, it intensified beyond belief. The US Government Accountability Office uncovered appalling discrepancies in the US military administration’s handling of money: uncountable billions went missing; hundreds of contractors fully paid but the work never done; layer upon layer of shady companies, mercenaries and sub-contractors (Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root but mere illustrations). In partnership with the new rulers of Iraq, these corporations are stealing the wealth of the once prosperous nation, leaving it in shambles.
And now, the Iraqis are facing enormous pressure to approve the Iraqi oil and gas law. The draft bill, according to Iraqi MP Nureddin Al-Hayyali, would give "50 per cent of the Iraqi people’s oil wealth to foreign investing oil firms". The nationalisation of the country’s oil industry in 1972 is being reversed. The robbery that began in the early 1990s continues unabated. Shameful as it is, Iraq’s new rulers are stealing from the poor and giving the spoils to the rich.
–Ramzy Baroud is an Author and Journalist. His latest volume: The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London) is available from Amazon and other book vendors.