U.S. Suffers Iraq 'Smart Sanctions' Setback

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Iraqi school girls hold a portrait of President Saddam Hussein

The Bush administration had hoped to "smarten" international sanctions against Iraq, but right now the U.N. Security Council is more inclined to keep them dumb. The U.S. and Britain were forced Wednesday to hold back a revised sanctions program they had hoped to have in place when the current oil-for-food program expires on June 4. Instead, the Security Council voted Thursday to simply extend the existing sanctions package and the oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to purchase its basic food and medical needs.

The revised package would have lifted sanctions on all but a specified list of items that might be used for military purposes, and would ensure that all Iraqi revenues would be paid into U.N.-controlled accounts. Their purpose is to ease the burden on ordinary Iraqis in order to make continued sanctions more palatable to their critics in Europe and the Arab world, as well as to tighten up the increasingly porous borders across which Iraq does a booming trade in smuggling.

Iraq has loudly resisted the new proposals and threatened to cut off discount oil supplies to any of its neighbors that go along with the new program, but sympathy for continued sanctions against Iraq is at a low ebb in the Arab world anyway — and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, which has raised the anti-American temperature across the Arab world makes it even more difficult for Arab leaders to be seen to endorse new sanctions. But Russia, France and other U.N. Security Council members have also raised objections to many of the details in the U.S.-British proposal, rendering consensus in the Security Council impossible by June 4. Washington now faces the challenge of building a consensus over the new package first among the Security Council's five veto-wielding permanent members — Russia, China, Britain, France and the U.S. — and then more widely.

While the discussions at the U.N. will focus on such technical questions as which items should be on the prohibited list, there's also a deeper divide between the U.S. and most of the other members of the Security Council over the purpose of sanctions. They were originally put in place to force Saddam to comply with the an arms inspection regime designed to eliminate Baghdad's ability to threaten its neighbors and its restive citizens with weapons of mass destruction. But it's been two years since there have been weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Saddam isn't likely to allow them back any time soon. While his civilian population bears the brunt of the suffering, Saddam and his cronies profit from a sanctions-busting economy believed to be worth around $3 billion a year — and the propaganda value of being able to blame Iraqis' suffering on the West, coupled with the lucrative business opportunities created by the sanctions gives Baghdad plenty of reason to resist "smartening" them.

But the U.S. runs into a further problem over the purpose of sanctions. The Europeans and others believe that whatever the formal explanations, Washington intends to keep sanctions in place until Saddam is out of power — a position most Security Council members refuse to endorse. So the U.S. will be under pressure, particularly from the Europeans, to more clearly spell out the steps Baghdad could take to bring sanctions to an end. (And overthrowing Saddam is not going to be one of them, given that sanctions are a U.N. rather than a U.S. affair.)

The reason the Bush administration moved to develop a new package of sanctions was precisely that the current regime is full of holes, widely unpopular and steadily crumbling. Which may be why Saddam and even some of those states more sympathetic to Iraq's plight may be in no rush to reform them.