Under growing domestic and international pressure to lift sanctions on Iraq, the Clinton administration is considering ways to ease restrictions on the import of machinery, oil industry spare parts, pesticides and other industrial products deemed necessary for the health and welfare of ordinary Iraqis.
As a member of the U.N. Security Council, the United States has frequently exercised its right to block Iraq from acquiring items such as pesticide sprayers, which can be used for biological warfare as well as for helping farmers to grow food.
At the same time, there is rising concern on the part of Britain, France and other U.S. allies that restrictions on such "dual use" technology are undermining efforts to ease human suffering in Iraq. Mostly as a result of U.S. objections, for example, the U.N. sanctions committee has held up $601 million in contracts for repairing Iraq's power grid, 48 percent of all the contracts in that sector.
Similarly, the sanctions committee has placed "holds" on the import of $297 million in spare parts--or 38 percent of the total--intended for Iraq's oil industry, according to U.N. data. Iraq uses its oil revenue to pay for humanitarian imports under the U.N.-sponsored "oil-for-food" program.
Under pressure from fellow Security Council members, Washington has quietly begun to review its screening of imports under the sanctions regime, according to U.S. and Western officials. Earlier this week, for example, U.S. officials agreed to release their hold on an $80 million electrical repair contract on condition that U.N. workers verify that the parts are used as intended, according to a spokesman for the U.N. Iraq program.
Administration officials have not advertised the change. In effect, they are trying to walk a fine line between accommodating Security Council allies, who want to show more flexibility on Iraqi imports, and doing anything that might be perceived as making life easier for Saddam Hussein.
In considering Iraq's import requests, "We're trying to change the presumption from passive denial to something with a little more forethought in it," said a senior State Department official. "We want it to be more effective."
Notwithstanding their desire to ease the plight of ordinary Iraqis, U.S. officials say they are determined to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring spare parts and technology for his military machine under the guise of humanitarian imports--even if that means irritating fellow Security Council members or handing Baghdad a propaganda victory.
"As the volume of transactions has increased, we want to be sure that we can be as secure as possible [without] gratuitously impeding the humanitarian program," the senior official said. "At the end of the day, if we're going to make a judgment, I'd prefer to make that judgment conservative and take the heat for it on the Security Council."
The review comes amid mounting pressure to relax or eliminate the international trade embargo imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions, which place Iraqi oil revenue under U.N. control and bar the country from importing anything without a clear humanitarian purpose, have long been unpopular in the Arab world and in Europe.
But opposition has also been building in the United States. Last week, in an appearance with Arab American leaders on Capitol Hill, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) denounced the sanctions as "infanticide masquerading as policy," adding, "This embargo hasn't hurt Saddam Hussein or the pampered elite that supports him but has been devastating for millions of Iraqi people."
In a study published last summer, UNICEF estimated that the death rate for Iraqi children under 5 has doubled--from 56 per 1000 to 131 per 1,000--in the decade since sanctions were imposed.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the suffering is real. But they say the Iraqi government deserves most of the blame, accusing Baghdad of mismanaging relief programs and diverting oil revenue to prop up the regime. Last year, they note, Washington supported a council resolution that lifted the ceiling on Iraqi oil sales to increase the revenues available for humanitarian spending.
Critics of American policy say the continuing restrictions on imports of goods other than food and medicine have inflicted needless misery on ordinary Iraqis. European officials, for example, complain that the United States has held up contracts to supply chlorine for water-treatment plants and fogging machines to control malaria.
In Australia earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that unless Iraq is allowed to import more spare parts for its oil industry, "it may have to cut back on its production," imperiling the country's only source of foreign currency.
In theory, any council member can ask the U.N. sanctions committee to place a "hold" on a particular Iraqi contract. In practice only the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain, regularly choose to do so. Contracts are reviewed by relevant agencies in Washington, such as the Defense Department, which make recommendations to export-control officials in the State Department.
State Department officials involved in the process defend their skeptical approach, noting that Iraq skillfully adapted Western "dual use" technology in its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs during the 1980s. Chlorine, for example, can be used to make mustard gas as well as to purify water.
"My perspective on it is that Iraq's entire WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program over the last two decades was constructed by exploiting dual-use technology under a carefully orchestrated system of alternate uses," said Steven Dolley of the Nuclear Control Institute, which promotes nonproliferation efforts. "I don't think you can be too cautious."
In recent months, however, pressure on the United States has intensified as Baghdad's increased oil revenue has translated into more requests for imports. Increasingly, Baghdad is seeking contracts to repair the country's damaged oil industry and public utilities, rather than food and medicine. According to U.N. diplomats, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov complained in a recent letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright about U.S. holds on such contracts. Even Britain, Washington's closest ally on the Security Council, has called for a more flexible approach.
U.S. officials say that in many cases, contracts are blocked simply because the Iraqis and their suppliers have failed to provide adequate information, and are quickly lifted once the information is supplied. They note, however, that in the absence of U.N. weapons inspectors, who departed Baghdad in December 1998, there is no way to be sure that Iraqi officials will not put some industrial imports to nefarious use.
A larger question concerns the impact of the sanctions. Even now, said the senior official, "the situation of your average Iraqi isn't worse than your average Yemeni, who is not under sanctions . . . It's not my job to turn Iraq into Abu Dhabi."