Scott Portman arrived in northern Iraq in August 1991, a few months after the end of the gulf war. He headed the International Rescue Committee’s relief program for the Kurds and other minorities inside the UN safe haven for a year, then spent two years in charge of the education, agriculture, health-care, and village-reconstruction programs of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. One of his first tasks was to survey the towns and villages that had been destroyed in Saddam Hussein’s campaign to depopulate rural Kurdish land in the late 80s—to find out which ones people had returned to and what they needed to get them through the coming winter. He was shocked by what he saw. More than 4,000 villages had been destroyed, in an area 300 miles long and up to 100 miles wide.
“The order had been that no two stones should be left on top of each other, and it was literally followed,” Portman says. “There were Assyrian ruins and ancient archaeological sites that were in much better shape than the villages that were there three years before.”
This was the same campaign in which the Iraqi military used chemical weapons in more than 250 attacks, including the notorious one on the town of Halabja. More than 100,000 Kurds were also rounded up and executed, and hundreds of thousands of those who survived were forced to live in “collective villages,” cinder-block camps surrounded by barbed wire. Portman says that even after the safe haven was set up many people remained in the camps because they had nowhere else to go. Other displaced Kurds wound up living in public buildings and forts the Iraqi military had abandoned after the war, including a security-forces office in Sulaymaniyah. “When I first visited this building the basement floors were completely coated with dried blood and human hair,” he says. “Families eventually scraped the floors clean and scrubbed them down, but everyone was well aware of the atrocities that had occurred in those rooms.”
Portman’s no longer directly involved in the situation in Iraq—he’s now an administrator at the Kovler Center, which helps torture survivors, and the Midwest Immigrant & Human Rights Center, which provides legal aid to immigrants. But he has many Iraqi friends and contacts in Chicago, and he has followed news about Iraq closely since he left. He’s appalled that the world has ignored the cruelties the Iraqi people have endured for more than two decades under Saddam Hussein, and he’s frustrated that they’re a peripheral concern for so many in the current debate about whether to go to war. He’s convinced the human rights abuses won’t end until Saddam and his power base are gone, and has reluctantly come to believe that the only way this can happen is if the world forces the regime out.
“In Iraq I came in contact with a very palpable evil,” he says. “To let that system continue indefinitely is more intolerable to me than the idea of a war to end it.”
For 12 years the world has tried to change the situation in Iraq without force—through the UN sanctions, probably the greatest nonviolent intrusion into the affairs of a sovereign nation the world has ever seen. The sanctions have failed, for complex reasons, and Portman doesn’t see them, in any form, as an alternative to force. “Sanctions work when the world community can drive a wedge between the economic and political elite of a country on the one hand and the security services on the other,” he says. “This was the case in South Africa. In Iraq the economic elite and the security services are synonymous. There is simply no way to create an opening for internal dissent.”
The first sanctions were set up in August 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Hoping to pressure Saddam to pull his troops out, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 661, which declared that all states were to prevent “the import into their territories of all commodities and products originating in Iraq” as well as the sale of any goods to Iraq except food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies. The Iraqi government immediately set up a food-rationing system, which still exists, but refused to withdraw from Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, the coalition forces, led by the U.S. and Britain, began bombing Baghdad.
After the cease-fire on February 28, the Security Council passed new resolutions continuing the sanctions and calling for inspections to ensure that Iraq would destroy its long-range missiles and chemical and biological weapons and stop developing nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence had thought Iraq wouldn’t have the means to build a nuclear bomb for five to ten years but soon discovered it was only six months away from finishing one.
The sanctions were intended to control Saddam’s access to oil revenues, something Portman says is impossible. Iraq’s entire oil and refining industry is controlled by the state, and Saddam—along with a small coterie that includes members of his extended family, longtime Baath Party associates, and people from his hometown of Tikrit—controls the state. “The problem with oil,” says Portman, “is that it is not a commodity that encourages a diverse, decentralized economy.” And so Saddam had a huge, continuous stream of income, much of which he used to buy weapons as well as the loyalty of his armies and vast security forces. The Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988, reportedly had left the country $80 billion in debt (it later became clear that Saddam had large hidden reserves), and the assumption was that Saddam would soon be so desperately in debt, so vulnerable to the anger of his people, that he’d surrender his weapons and the sanctions could be lifted.
But only a few weeks after the new sanctions were imposed, Portman says, they were being broken. He remembers seeing a thousand trucks lined up at the Turkish border in late 1992. Some were headed to Kurdish territory with relief supplies, but most were rolling toward Mosul and other cities in Iraq to buy diesel fuel. At first Portman’s agency and the UN had paid their drivers to haul relief supplies, but soon the truckers were willing to do it for free—so long as they could fill up with diesel in Mosul on the way back. They kept showing up with bigger and bigger fuel tanks. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “There would be these trucks with enormous fuel tanks and the bed of the truck perched on top of them.” But no one seemed to care that the sanctions were being ignored. “The U.S. was willing to go along, and the Turks certainly liked it. It was good for the Turkish economy, and it helped make up for some of the economic losses from the sanctions.”
Fuel and oil also began flowing illegally across the borders with Jordan, Syria, and Iran. The Coalition for International Justice (CIJ—a nonprofit set up in 1995 to provide technical and legal assistance to the international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—has been following the money in Iraq in hopes that the world will someday use the information to bring Saddam and top Iraqi officials to trial. It states in a 2002 report that Jordan, Turkey, and Iran paid Saddam between 300 million and a billion dollars a year between 1991 and 1996. It wasn’t nearly what he’d been taking in before the war, Portman points out, but it was obviously enough to control any dissent and to start rearming, legally and illegally.
The illicit oil and fuel trade grew rapidly, and Iraq also began shipping to Lebanon and the gulf states. According to a 1994 article in the Jerusalem Post, even Israel made a tentative agreement to buy Iraqi oil through Jordan. The CIJ estimates that Saddam took in $2.5 billion from illegal trade in 2002, 90 percent of it from oil and fuel. The UN Security Council—including the U.S., which needs the help of these states to track down terrorists and tolerate its troops—continues to ignore it.
Saddam, characteristically, used this trade not only to reward the obedient but also to punish the disloyal. In the fall of 1992 trucks carrying UN-purchased supplies began blowing up soon after they entered Kurdish territory. One day Portman reached a convoy of ten trucks shortly after they’d exploded. “The first one blew, and the other drivers stopped and jumped out,” he says. “The rest went off like popcorn.” Amazingly, no one was hurt. But over the next few months the relief operations lost a third of their trucks, including a $250,000 shipment of medicine—the entire allocation for the Kurdish region—and drivers began refusing to haul in supplies. The relief workers suspected the Iraqis. The Iraqis blamed Kurdish bandits. Finally, Portman says, a British colonel caught security officials at an Iraqi checkpoint dropping taped grenades into the trucks’ fuel tanks—the tape would slowly dissolve, and after the trucks were in Kurdish territory the grenades would explode. The Americans and Europeans spent four months building two new roads across the mountains and never lost another truck.
UN officials, also characteristically, refused to investigate the matter. “I don’t know that the UN necessarily believed the Iraqi government’s explanation for why these trucks were blowing up,” says Portman, “but it wasn’t a battle they were prepared to fight.” At first they also opposed the program he oversaw that helped Kurds go back to their destroyed villages and rebuild, saying it was illegal under Iraqi law. The UN’s reluctance to confront the Iraqis only seemed to encourage them. In 1992 Portman, who speaks Arabic, heard from several sources that Iraqi security forces were offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who killed a foreign relief worker, of whom there were around 50 in Kurdish territory at any given time. A couple months later the UN issued a warning to the workers, but it refused to lodge a protest with the Iraqi government. Three foreign workers and 20 Kurdish staff were killed, and Portman—who’d been shot at the second day he was in Iraq–says someone was attacked nearly every month. “Sometimes the intimidation was more subtle,” he says. “An unknown person would drive up, roll down the window, and say your name—nothing else—just to let you know you were being followed. This happened to several relief workers, mostly female. By 1994 relief operations were very much constrained by security concerns.”
After the war the Iraqi government rapidly repaired roads and bridges but paid little attention to the country’s water pumps and pipes, power stations, or sanitation systems—which the coalition bombers had deliberately targeted in hopes of increasing the pressure on Saddam. The government, Portman says, also found money to shore up its power. “The Iraqi leadership’s highest priority is to fund the overlapping security services, tribal leaders, and systems of patronage that make up the infrastructure of repression in Iraq,” he says. “Maintaining absolute control over dissent matters far more than repairing the water, health, food distribution, or transportation infrastructure.” Rend Rahim Francke wrote in a 1995 issue of the Middle East Report that Saddam took particularly good care of the Republican Guard and other elite military and security units. “At the same time,” she wrote, “security and intelligence measures were further tightened and any suspected unrest within the military was eradicated through execution and collective punishment. Across the spectrum of society, reprisals against any disaffection increased in scope and severity.”
The Iraqi government did provide most people with a basic food ration, but without clean water they began dying of diseases such as typhoid and amoebic dysentery. “Malnutrition itself, except in extreme cases, rarely kills people,” says Portman, who worked on famine relief in Africa before going to Iraq. “What kills people is diarrheal disease. Without enough food people are more susceptible to disease.” According to UNICEF, the mortality rate for Iraqi children under five doubled between 1995 and 1999; 70 percent died of diarrheal and acute respiratory infections. It gives a conservative estimate of 300,000 excess deaths among children under five between 1991 and 1999. How many older children and adults died is unknown.
The UN Security Council thought Saddam wouldn’t let his people suffer long and so would give up his weapons. Saddam thought the world wouldn’t be willing to let his people suffer and would lift the sanctions. Both were wrong. The Security Council blinked first, passing new resolutions in 1991 that would allow the Iraqi government to sell a limited amount of oil to buy humanitarian goods. But Saddam said it was too little and rejected the terms.
Portman says that in the beginning even the Iraqi opposition supported the sanctions, in part because people had reserves. But they quickly ran out. “As people became increasingly desperate,” he says, “the West didn’t care. Clinton just let things drift. And the Iraqi government realized it could divert attention from its own abuses of its people to the sanctions issue.”
By the mid-90s the French and Russians—the two largest holders of Iraqi debt, mainly from arms sales in the 70s and 80s, who couldn’t be repaid until sanctions were lifted and wouldn’t be repaid if Saddam were overthrown—were lobbying to ease the sanctions. The Security Council softened the terms of the earlier resolutions, allowing the Iraqis to sell more oil for humanitarian goods and offering to lift the sanctions if Iraq simply complied fully with the weapons inspectors. Saddam, his economy finally near collapse, accepted the terms. At the end of 1996 oil began flowing legally out of Iraq.
The oil-for-food program—the largest humanitarian relief program ever, though Portman calls it “a little like trying to conduct the Marshall Plan with Hitler in power”—was soon delivering much more food and medicine to Iraq. But contaminated water remained the primary cause of preventable diseases and deaths, and the electrical equipment and machinery the Iraqis said they needed to repair power plants and damaged water and sewer lines was often held up by the U.S. and Britain, which refused to allow the sale of any equipment that might have military uses. Sometimes the holds on these dual-use items were perverse, sometimes they were justified. In 1992 Portman had watched the Iraqi government make a deal with the Kurdish administration to quietly sell off huge amounts of heavy machinery such as bulldozers and front loaders to Iran—just the sort of machinery the Iraqis now wanted to buy. He saw lines of 50 to 60 of these machines—some on trucks, some chugging along under their own power—at the Iranian border. The U.S. persuaded the Kurds to stop playing go-between, but the next year the Iraqis were selling more equipment through a southern port of entry. “Anything that could be hauled to Iran that had a high capital value,” says Portman, “was sold across the border for hard currency.”
In 1999 the Security Council removed the limits on the amount of oil Iraq could sell for humanitarian goods, and in the spring of 2002 “smart” sanctions were put in place, finally separating food and humanitarian goods from possible dual-use equipment and streamlining the whole process. Late last fall UNICEF reported that acute malnutrition among children under five had dropped by more than half, though close to a million children still suffered from chronic malnutrition.
“The sanctions have created an image of the Iraqi people as being victims of U.S. aggression rather than their own government,” Portman says, “when in fact it’s both.” Malnutrition rates in the Kurdish-controlled areas were never as high as in the central and southern parts of Iraq, he says, even though the Kurds have always been subject to the same UN sanctions—and were subject to further sanctions by the Iraqi government that prevented any Iraqi goods from being sold in the Kurdish region until 1997. A 2002 European Parliament report came to the same conclusion, observing that the oil-for-food program had been effective only in the north and that “the lack of effective implementation elsewhere in Iraq and the consequential shortages of food and medical supplies have been largely the responsibility of the Iraqi government.”
The oil-for-food program was also manipulated by Saddam for his own ends, Portman says. The Security Council let him control which foreign oil buyers got contracts and which foreign food and equipment suppliers got contracts—contracts that have been worth an average of $6 billion a year to both buyers and suppliers. Iraqi officials, says the CIJ report, “have stated many times that the money will flow to those who demonstrate political support for Baghdad in the international arena.” According to the report, the biggest share of supply contracts during the first four years of the program went to France, Russia, and China, which had all lobbied consistently for more lenient terms for Iraq. In 2000 France made the mistake of calling for reforming the sanctions instead of lifting them, and its supply contracts were cut from nearly $500 million in the prior six months to $150 million. The biggest share of the oil-buying contracts has gone to Russia—though the biggest end consumer has always been the United States. Saddam also placed illegal surcharges on oil that netted him $175 million in 2001. Kickbacks were expected on supplier contracts as well, though no one knows how much that brought in.
The Security Council also let Saddam have full control over what food and humanitarian supplies could be bought for both Iraq and the Kurdish region. And he got control over the distribution of those supplies in the south and central portions of Iraq, though the UN was in charge of distribution in the north. According to the UN, 60 percent of Iraqis now depend on the Iraqi government for all of their food.
“This system is also a means of social control,” says Portman. “If you have a hungry population that’s dependent on you, you can control the rest of their lives. They control where people live. Everyone has to be registered to get a ration card, so you can’t move without the security system knowing. The ration cards are also a way of tracking relatives of deserters and dissidents.”
The resolution setting up the oil-for-food program did ask that the secretary-general report on whether Iraq was ensuring “the equitable distribution of medicine, health supplies, foodstuffs, and materials and supplies for essential civilian needs.” But there was no enforcement mechanism, and so the UN continued to report to itself that many people, particularly in the south, were being denied ration cards. A 1997 UN report states: “The system is widely used by the Government of Iraq to reward political supporters and to silence opponents.” Other agencies complained that vehicles and spare parts intended for humanitarian uses were being turned over to the military.
“After the safe haven was set up in 1991, the mass graves and secret prisons, the degree to which the Kurds had been terrorized by the Iraqi government, was exposed,” says Portman. He saw many of these prisons firsthand and spent a morning watching a scientist from Human Rights Watch in the process of exhuming a mass grave, part of the organization’s effort to document the massacre of Kurds three years earlier. It was also interviewing survivors and going through 18 metric tons of documents Kurdish rebels had seized from security offices.
Faced with undeniable evidence of atrocities, the Security Council made human rights in Iraq an official issue, passing Resolution 688. It condemns “the repression of the Iraqi civilian population” and demands that Iraq end it “immediately.” But condemning was as far as it went.
During the 1991 uprising, the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south had quickly taken control of 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. President George H.W. Bush had encouraged the rebels but offered no support, and within a month both the Kurds and Shia were being crushed. “The U.S. foolishly and cynically abandoned them to their fate,” says Portman. “If you talk to any of the Iraqis who escaped that, the sense of betrayal is overwhelming. The Shia wanted the U.S. just to protect them long enough to get to Baghdad to take over the government. The Kurds in the north wanted the same. They just wanted air protection. They didn’t want U.S. troops.” In a 2002 BBC interview James Woolsey, director of the CIA from ’93 to ’95, said, “I think the decision not to support that was one of the worst American decisions of the 20th century, frankly. I think they had a bit of a blind spot on not wanting bad states to break up because they didn’t know exactly what was going to follow.”
The coalition forces and the UN, embarrassed by the media coverage of refugees in the north, created the Kurdish safe haven, but they refused to help the Shia in the south—though a safe haven there might have given them a chance to regain enough strength to overthrow Saddam’s regime. “It’s tragic,” says Portman, “that the world didn’t give the Shia the same opportunity to live without fear and run their own lives.”
Human Rights Watch guesses that thousands of unarmed civilians in cities and towns across the south were killed and thousands more imprisoned, tortured, and executed. “The true numbers will only be known once the Iraqis are free to tell their stories,” says Portman, “just as the Kurds were able to do after the safe haven was established.”
Tens of thousands of people, including army deserters, fled into the huge marshes north of Basra, home to some 250,000 Marsh Arabs—a culturally distinct group of Shia Arabs. The military pursued them, indiscriminately shelling and strafing villages using artillery and helicopter gunships; the U.S., Britain, and France would set up a no-fly zone over the south in June 1992, but the Iraqi military would simply intensify its ground operations. Many Marsh Arabs, who’d been discriminated against by the government for years, quickly joined the opposition, especially after the military began forcibly relocating their families to collective villages much like those the Kurds had been pushed into a few years earlier. Many were refused ration cards, and in 1993 the UN would note that food and medical supplies were not being allowed into the marshes. The military burned villages and reed beds, and they allegedly attacked rebels and civilians with napalm and phosgene gas. The UN reported that in August 1992 a group of 2,500 Marsh Arabs were told they would be given land to farm, transported to an army camp, locked in sheds, and executed.
Portman says some people managed to escape to the north through an underground railroad run by Arabs and Kurds. In the summer of 1992 he came across a man sleeping under a stairwell, who a Republican Guard deserter later told him had come from the south. The man’s entire body was covered with cigarette burns. “They had burned him, carefully and deliberately, for weeks or maybe months,” Portman says, “to the point that he could neither speak nor make eye contact with another human being.”
To make it easier to wipe out the rebels, the Iraqi government stepped up a massive dam and canal project that would prevent water from the Tigris and Euphrates from flowing into the marshes, the largest wetlands in the Middle East. By late 1992 the marshes were swiftly drying up, and by 2000 90 percent of the marshland had been drained. Fewer than 40,000 Marsh Arabs still live in the remaining portions.
The campaign against pockets of opposition continues—reed beds reportedly could still be seen burning in September 2002—and unknown numbers of people are still being relocated, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. In 1995 the U.S. State Department counted more than 60,000 Marsh Arabs in refugee camps in Iran; Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 100,000 are now displaced inside Iraq.
Meanwhile the Iraqi government continued its long-standing ethnic-cleansing campaign. (Of the 23 million Iraqis, more than 75 percent are Arab, nearly 20 percent are Kurdish, and the rest are mostly Turkomans and Assyrians. Of the Muslims, 97 percent of the population, more than 60 percent are Shia, the rest Sunni. The vast majority of Kurds are Sunni.) In the past decade 100,000 to 120,000 Kurds and other ethnic minorities have been expelled from northern cities that are still controlled by Iraq. The government’s “Arabization” program gave them a choice of signing documents “correcting” their ethnicity to Arab or eventually being forced out of their homes, often without any of their belongings. Property deeds have been systematically destroyed so that people can never prove what they owned.
Some of the ethnic minorities have been pushed south. Many wound up inside Kurdish territory in the old collective villages or in refugee camps, which Portman says the Iraqis would occasionally shell. He points out that Saddam’s regime had its logic: “It got rid of a lot of Kurds—who’d been living peacefully with Arabs—and it burdened the Kurdish administration with people who could no longer support themselves.” Some Shia and Marsh Arabs were resettled in the abandoned homes, and Sunni Arabs from central Iraq were offered incentives to move in. Tens of thousands of Shia were also expelled from the huge slums of Baghdad. The number of people driven from their homes but still in Iraq is estimated at more than 700,000; another 500,000 are refugees in neighboring countries.
Every year until he resigned in 1999, UN special rapporteur Max van der Stoel, who oversaw human rights in Iraq with a staff of only two, urged the Security Council to demand that human rights monitors be allowed into Iraq. He himself was permitted to enter only once, in 1992, and his report was so damning the Iraqis wouldn’t let him come back. The Security Council never pressed for monitors—a lack of will Saddam surely noticed—but every year the UN condemned the violations. In a December 2001 resolution the UN General Assembly “notes with dismay that there has been no improvement in the situation of human rights” and “strongly condemns the systematic, widespread and extremely grave violations of human rights . . . an all-pervasive repression and oppression sustained by broad-based discrimination and widespread terror . . . summary and arbitrary executions, including political killings . . . the use of rape as a political tool . . . involuntary disappearances . . . arbitrary arrests and detention . . . widespread, systematic torture.” Yet no action was taken, and there was no pressure to act—neither the media nor the public in the U.S. or Europe or the Arab world was interested in what Saddam was doing to Iraqis.
The world wasn’t interested in trying Saddam and his top associates for war crimes or crimes against humanity either, though that too might have pressured the government to at least moderate its repression. “The Kurds want to see an international tribunal happen,” Portman says. “Human rights organizations formed in every town and city once the safe haven was formed. They don’t want to just shoot people—they want a measure of justice.”
Human Rights Watch staff took the information they had gathered on the massacres of Kurds in the late 80s to the UN, but France and Russia threatened to veto any attempt to create a special tribunal. The organization then tried to find a government willing to bring a suit in the International Court of Justice in the Hague charging Saddam and his government with genocide. The U.S.—which hadn’t protested the massacres at the time, having spent the 80s arming and supplying grain to Iraq—couldn’t bring the suit because it had ratified the genocide convention with so many restrictions that it would have little credibility in the court. In the end Human Rights Watch could find only two small countries willing to bring the case—but only if a major European power would sign on. Not one did.
In the U.S., one hope behind the sanctions had always been that the Iraqi people would get so desperate and angry that they would rise up and overthrow Saddam themselves. The U.S. went public with this hope in 1998, when Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, later signed by President Bill Clinton. It states: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” But, Portman says, “neither France nor Russia nor for that matter much of the Arab world, has ever had much interest in regime change in Iraq.” And he doesn’t believe the Iraqi people have ever had a prayer of succeeding without serious help: “No more than the Ukrainians against Stalin.”
Portman doesn’t see many options available to either those worried about Iraq’s weapons or those worried about the long-suffering Iraqi people. He believes the sanctions will have to be lifted—even though the 1999 changes in the policy already make it possible for Iraq to buy as much food and medicine and other humanitarian supplies as it wants—because the world still sees them as the source of immense misery and blames that on the U.S. and Britain. “The U.S. has destroyed its credibility and will be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for every child who dies in Iraq until sanctions are lifted or Saddam is gone,” he says. “It’s making Muslims around the world hate us more. Saddam has the support of Arabs everywhere—except in his own country—because he can present himself as a champion against ‘U.S. imperialism.'” Portman also thinks the sanctions have to be lifted because it’s the only way private business in Iraq can begin functioning again.
But that would also mean allowing the Iraqi government to sell as much oil as it wants and buy whatever it wants. “If you still have the same government in power, and Iraq is allowed to sell oil again, and that hard currency is going into the Baath Party and Saddam’s regime,” says Portman, “how on earth are you going to control the security threat that that could pose? Iraq simply cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.”
The world could insist on more weapons inspectors, but Portman doesn’t believe they’d find everything or that Saddam would tolerate them for very long without the threat of real force being used against him. And how long would the U.S. be able to keep huge numbers of troops on Iraq’s borders? As soon as they left, Saddam would probably throw the inspectors out, just as he did in 1998. And then, Portman asks, “how long would it be before there was a massacre of the Kurds in the north? One day, without protests or anyone much noticing, Saddam will clean out the slums of Baghdad and butcher the Kurds. There can be no forgiveness or amnesty for the Kurds and no secure future for the Shia.”
The only other options, he says, are overthrowing the government by force or simply disengaging from the situation. “Disengagement is wrong,” he says. “Saddam is evil. We have to respond to that fact. We have seen this before, in Germany, in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia.” He thinks it’s difficult for most people to comprehend such brutality if they haven’t witnessed it: “It’s a measure of our humanity that we can neither understand that kind of evil nor impute it to others.” And so he’s dismayed when he hears people making excuses for Saddam. “There was a person from Voices in the Wilderness who went to Iraq—it’s no longer on the Web site—who was of the opinion that the new palaces Saddam built were like WPA projects, that it was a way to employ people, a way to have pride in their country.”
Portman knows that many of the people who oppose a war had their opinions about intervention shaped by U.S. actions in Vietnam and Central and South America. But he’s seen good come from the world’s decisions to intervene—and he understands the terrible consequences of its refusal to do so. He worked in northern Sudan for the International Rescue Committee when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were fleeing the 1984 famine and was in southern Sudan trying to set up a primary health care system during the famine sparked by civil war there. He says the U.S. did more to end the famine in Ethiopia than any other nation and did a lot to help the Sudanese. And, he says, “despite the shameless failure of George [H.W.] Bush to back the uprising, the U.S. pressured Turkey to let Iraqi Kurdistan exist, tried hard to keep the parties from fighting, and helped foster a quasi-state that respects human rights.” He also points to the horror of the slaughter in Bosnia and Kosovo that went on and on before anyone did anything, and the massacres in Rwanda that could easily have been stopped if the world had found the will. “I probably agree most with people like Tom Lantos and Vaclav Havel,” he says, “who have both said about the Iraqi situation that when a totalitarian government has achieved such total control over a country you can’t not confront that.”
He won’t deny that he’s deeply troubled to be supporting a war. “Arguing for intervention and the inevitable loss of life should make one uncomfortable, just as arguing against it should carry with it the burden to fully consider the human rights abuses and loss of life that flow from that decision,” he says. “It is a horrible gamble. We are committing a crime either way. I genuinely feel that there will be less death and suffering if the regime is forced out soon.”
But, he says, “we should have the support of Europe, even if we have to wait another six months to get it. A unilateral U.S. invasion accomplishes the immediate goal of getting rid of Saddam. The value of doing the same thing multilaterally is much, much greater—it would create a little more clarity about when and how a nation’s sovereignty should be limited, what the limits are beyond which the international community is compelled to intervene. So let the inspections continue while the U.S. builds a coalition to remove him. Spend the next six months aggressively inspecting Iraq—and I mean really intrusive inspections with many times the current number of inspectors. I would add human rights monitors as well and insist on surprise visits to jails. At the same time, the U.S. desperately needs to work with the UK to achieve some rapprochement with Europe. This split with NATO and all the acrimony didn’t need to take place.”
He’s not sure he’s being realistic. “It might be possible to contain Iraq long enough to obtain consensus on the use of force. However, this would require subtlety, diplomatic skill, good intelligence, diligence, and the courage to follow a course of action even if it doesn’t have an immediate positive effect on poll numbers in the U.S. Those are not the characteristics of the Bush administration.” He adds, “We need a foreign policy that places human rights first—whether for Iraqis or for Palestinians—because our immediate safety and our long-term viability as a nation depend on it.” And he’s concerned that his support for a war could be misinterpreted. “I don’t want it to be seen as somehow support for the administration imposing an unjust settlement on the Palestinians or using unilateral force in other conflicts for which there isn’t compelling justification.”
Portman understands the horrors a war could bring. “Saddam and his closest advisers will attempt to force the U.S. to kill as many civilians as possible,” he says. “I am sure the U.S. will not make the protection of the Iraqi people its first priority during the war, because most Americans will judge success based only on U.S. casualties. However, the Iraqi people and the rest of the world will rightly judge success or failure on the loss of civilian life. Any targeting of Iraqi civilians and any massive attack against the ‘popular army,’ as was done in the gulf war, is wrong.”
But he’s not sure a war would be as awful as many people think. He says that before the Kurdish uprising in 1991 many of the local tribal chieftains, or agas, had been co-opted by the Iraqi government—they were told they could either join the military in controlling the Kurds or be killed. But within four days of the start of the uprising they had all switched sides. “Saddam’s war planning will have nothing to do with defeating the Americans,” he says. “It will be all about preventing his forces from deserting or turning on him, and hoping for massive antiwar protests to force a suspension or a settlement. Nearly all informed opinion suggests that the vast majority of the army has no interest in fighting whatsoever. Everyone close to the regime will be looking for a way out.”
His nightmare is that Saddam will use chemical or biological weapons—which he has no doubt Saddam has hidden somewhere—against his own people. “Nobody knows whether the Republican Guard or security forces will follow orders and use weapons of mass destruction against their fellow Iraqis,” he says. “However, the regime controls its forces through fear and economic interest, not true belief or indoctrination. I simply do not believe that the military leadership is going to be willing to commit mass suicide.”
More than the prospect of war itself, what worries Portman is the aftermath. “Most of the Iraqis I know wait with a combination of hope and fear for the invasion,” he says. “The way we handle the postwar situation in Iraq is far more important and potentially far more dangerous than the war itself. We simply cannot install another nonrepresentative government that abuses human rights. If this ends up being about U.S. access to Iraqi oil with another Sunni Arab general in control, with some sort of deal that sells out the Kurds again, that grants no political rights to the Shia—that would be an unbelievably awful outcome.”
The Bush administration, despite all its talk of democracy, may be inclined to follow the logic of the British, who installed the minority Sunni Arabs in 1921 as a way to hold together the country they’d carved out of the Ottoman Empire. “I don’t think the administration wants to see a Shia-dominated Iraq,” Portman says. “But the Shia are an absolute majority.” And he doesn’t believe fears that the various ethnic and religious groups will slaughter one another are justified. “During the uprising the Kurds did not indiscriminately attack Arabs, and I don’t have the sense that the Shia will engage in a widespread bloodbath against the Sunni Arabs. I think there will be a lot of personal retribution against anybody who was affiliated with the security services, anybody who made a lot of money from their connections with the regime.” The Kurds, Shia, and Sunni Arabs have long been far more integrated than most people realize, he says, and besides, the Sunni Arabs have suffered too. He points to recent statements by Shia leaders in exile that they understand the minorities need to be represented in any government, and he doesn’t believe the Kurds will demand their own state. “They’ve survived because they’ve very carefully assessed when they could rebel and when they couldn’t. I think the Kurds are realistic—that Iraqi Kurdistan can’t be a country and that there’s no possibility of a Turkish Kurdistan or an Iranian Kurdistan.”
He also believes that Iraqis, who’ve been called the Germans of the Middle East, have the capacity to build a modern, democratic state. Iraqis, he says, are technologically savvy—within two months of the Kurds taking over the north they’d set up television stations, and they now have Internet cafes. “The Iraqis are not ignorant, angry people who will replicate the brutality they suffered under Saddam once the central power collapses,” he says. “I think there is some not so subtle racism in some of the policy documents and editorials I read about a postwar Iraq. Maybe we should accept the Shia and Kurdish leadership at their word when they claim to advocate a democracy that respects human rights.”
He knows that Kurdish factions fought each other viciously after the 1991 uprising, but for the past several years they’ve been managing to get along: “Iraqi Kurdistan has a better human rights record and its people enjoy more personal freedom than any other neighboring country, except perhaps Jordan.”
Of course building a responsible government will be difficult, he says, which is why U.S. policy in the immediate postwar period would be critical. “Goodwill is not going to last very long, and the U.S. needs to use all its influence to get everyone to agree to a federal state that protects minorities right from the start—and then figure out some way of enforcing that in a multilateral fashion until a government can form,” he says. “We should not break faith with the Iraqi people. They need freedom as much as medicine. We should have the courage to insist on real change in Iraq and the faith in the Iraqi people to let them try to build something better.”
To show why he has hope, he describes the elections that were held in the Kurdish region in May 1992—the first free, multiparty election the Kurds had ever in their history been able to participate in. He spent the day with a Reuters reporter, part of it at a border crossing. “We watched a beaten-up taxi pass though the Iraqi checkpoint and slowly make its way up the road toward us,” he says. “As it approached, we realized it had a couple of flat tires. The driver had spent a considerable sum to bribe his way north so he could vote for the first time in his life, and he literally drove to the polling station on his rims. We saw people bearing their elderly relatives on stretchers to the polls. That evening, at the appointed time, the Kurdish authorities tried to close the polls in Ain Kawa. A huge crowd was still waiting to vote, and they rioted rather than endure the shame of not voting. This was about more than just whether Barzani or Talabani would have a majority in the Kurdish assembly. Saddam warned the Kurdish authorities not to hold the elections. Every person who could walk or be carried went to the polls—and they went because the rest of Iraq couldn’t.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Scott Portman, Lloyd DeGrane.