Voices in the Wilderness, a U.S.-U.K. campaign to end economic sanctions against the people of Iraq, has maintained a presence in Iraq since 1996, primarily through civilian delegations that deliver donated medical supplies to hospitals and clinics. But their humanitarian efforts are being penalized: Also known as the "Iraq Peace Team," the group is facing $20,000 in fines from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the branch of the U.S. Department of Treasury responsible for enforcing sanction violations. An additional $30,000 in fines has been levied against individual members of the group, including Voices co-founder Kathy Kelly, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet Voices, which recently returned to Iraq, vows that it will continue to send delegations to the country and refuses to pay the U.S. government.

"The most basic point we are trying to make," says fellow Voices member Danny Muller, "is that we are not doing anything wrong. Any laws that stop people from helping others are a violation of our human rights - our right to travel, our right to speak freely, our freedom of religion ... above all, it is unspeakable to think that our government would take actions to limit acts of mercy."

Voices delegations have witnessed the dire living conditions faced by Iraq's 22 million civilians. Since 1996, Voices has sent more than 50 aid delegations to Iraq. In addition to medicine and medical supplies, group members have also delivered toys, books, and school supplies to Iraqi civilians.

Like traveling to Cuba, entering Iraq without permission of the U.S. government is illegal. For each infringement of Iraqi economic sanctions - such as unauthorized travel and delivery of goods - violators face up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

The payment deadline to the U.S. government was December 6. Voices in the Wilderness held a press conference December 5 in their home base of Chicago, where the group's spokespersons reiterated their refusal to pay the fines and continued plans to break the travel ban and economic embargo on Iraq. Yet, Voices sent the Office of Foreign Assets Control a symbolic payment of 6,750 Iraqi dinar. Valued at $20,000 before the Gulf War, 6,750 dinar now equates to roughly $3.33.

"Let us not be misunderstood," wrote Voices responding to the Treasury Department's collection notice. "Each of us knows for a certainty that it is no more necessary to ask our government's permission to visit and care for the sick, no matter where they live, than it was for women to seek the permission of men for the right to vote, or for African Americans to petition their white brothers for equal protection under the law.

"Voices would most certainly welcome any official permission the U.S. government might wish to bestow on our acts of charity, solidarity, and justice," continues Voices' letter. "Make no mistake, though, that we will continue to act according to the dictates of our consciences should our government continue to deny us permission to alleviate the suffering of an already devastated people. All of us understand that you, too, must follow your conscience as you perform your job."

Voices asserts that economic sanctions against Iraqi are ultimately suffered not by the government but by its citizens: starvation, malnutrition, and sickness-related deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Many Iraqis, mostly children, have died from dysentery, diarrhea, and respiratory infections - illnesses easily treatable in the developed world. The infant mortality rate in Iraq has doubled since 1990, and UNICEF estimates 500,000 children died of malnutrition and illness from 1990-1998.

"The Iraqi people live in a state of fear," says Muller, who returned from Iraq in October, "Not only are these people afraid of their own government, they live in constant fear of actions being contemplated against their very lives anonymously from abroad. I am from New York City, and I lost friends on September 11. I think about how scary life has become for my family and friends, who are still suffering from the effects of one single event. We've bombed Iraq 55 times just this year. Iraqis are people who have learned to live through grief and come out on the other end. Understanding that concept was very important for me. It certainly helped put recent domestic events in the proper perspective."

Proponents of the sanctions, including the U.S. State Department, have repeatedly claimed that the Iraqi government is stockpiling medical supplies (presumable housed next to those invisible weapons of mass destruction) and denying civilians access to them. Voices and former U.N. employees stationed in Iraq, claim that this notion is preposterous and unfounded. Additionally, under the Oil for Food Program and the new "Smart Sanctions" adopted by the U.N. Security Council last spring, certain medical supplies are now allowed to pass into Iraq; however, Voices in the Wilderness alleges that procedural restrictions make it impossible for civilians to receive the supplies. "When things start to look bad, we `the U.S.` often put the word smart in front of them: Our bombs are smart now, our sanctions are smart," Muller explains. "Smart sanctions are a makeover for a failed policy that changed some element within the bureaucracy of sanctions, but never addressed the main concerns of those who oppose economic sanctions."

Limits on the goods people can buy or sell has not changed. All medical supplies ordered by Iraq must be approved through the U.N. Sanctions Committee, which has repeatedly proven itself to be inefficient in dealing with logistics: Syringes arrive without needles; surgical blades are delivered without handles, refrigerated trucks (essential to transporting medical supplies) are banned because the military might use them; due to soaring temperatures, sensitive medical cargo is frequently ruined. Chlorine and other chemicals used to purify water are also banned, as are pesticides, which are essential in combating diseases spread by insects or rodents, but could also be used to make chemical weapons.

Supporters of U.S. policy on Iraq maintain that if Saddam Hussein stepped down, sanctions and mass suffering would cease. Yet if the stated goal of U.S. sanctions were actually met - the ousting of Saddam Hussein - what would happen? Would destroyed cities and villages miraculously repair themselves with a waggish wiggle of George Bush's nose? Electricity suddenly lights every remaining Iraqi home? Potable water spews from the ground like oil?

"I think this could be a time of awakening for many Americans," says Muller. "We are living in a country where it is legal to bomb kids from 40,000 feet up, but it is illegal for us to choose to go and help them. Not only is our government spending millions or billions on instruments of war, it is spending hundreds of thousands to prosecute its own citizens for acts of nonviolent resistance - for exercising the freedoms that this country was founded upon."

For Iraqi civilians, the U.S. embargo is merely a passive-aggressive means of genocide: In comparison, a swift death by bombing seems more humanitarian.



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