Iraq Faces Hunger

May 02, 1991

It is not in the American interest to let Iraqis go hungry. The news of imminent crop failure is not only an ill omen for Iraq. It is, to some extent, a further unintended consequence of Saddam Hussein's aggression and the gulf war.

The worst problem showing up, according to reports, is the winter wheat crop in the north. That is the Kurdish homeland where farmers fled their land before army onslaughts, where guerrillas roam by night and soldiers by day. The chief reason for bad conditions is likely the absence of the farmers. The biggest sufferers of the coming wheat famine would surely be those very Kurds, should they be persuaded by deals reached in Baghdad to return to their homes.

The official Iraqi explanation of poor crop yields is U.S. refusal to allow planes to fly for crop-dusting, which cannot be taken at face value. Iraq lacks the foreign exchange with which to buy the fertilizer with which to crop-dust. Previous spraying in the north included the poison gassing of Kurds -- by crop-dusting planes -- in 1988. The greater cause of crop failure is certainly the government attacks on the Kurdish people who were doing the farming. Barley and other crops in the fertile Euphrates Valley are also failing. Iraq's military draft and distortion of the economy for aggression surely had much to do with that.

United Nations sanctions against Iraq rightly exempt food and medicine for humanitarian purposes. The United States should encourage, even provide, such shipments.

None of this would put Iraq back on its feet economically. That would require massive reconstruction of roads and bridges, sale of Iraqi oil in world markets now closed to it and infusions of international capital. These are not imaginable while Saddam Hussein, the Baathist Party and the secret police tyrannize Iraq.

Iraq is a rare Middle Eastern country that is naturally prosperous and blessed with both oil and water. Its poverty is self-induced from the dictator's mad quest for world power. Food and medicine, however, should not be contingent on political acceptability.

Even while warning Iraq not to harm the Kurds, and while bringing carrier-based weapons and armed forces into range to back up that warning, Washington can enter constructive dialogue on ways to avert human suffering.

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