PERSPECTIVE ON IRAQ : Barbs Aimed at Saddam Misfire : The U.N. embargo has shattered the once-substantial social and political rights held by women.

I recently attended a human-rights conference in Baghdad. When I told a friend that the Iraqi Federation of Women had invited me for this purpose, she smirked and, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "Human rights? In Iraq?"

No one can condone any of the human-rights violations by Iraq, such as the suppression of the Kurdish and Shiite peoples or the invasion of Kuwait. But there are other parts to this story, especially concerning the status of women.

Iraq, before its long war with Iran and during the brief two-year interlude before the Gulf War, was one of the most progressive Arab states on women's rights. Women's education, for example, benefited from the law on compulsory education of 1976, the national comprehensive literacy campaign of 1978 and the law of higher education and scientific research of 1987. For 15 years, there was a close association between Iraqi women and the organization I headed, the Women's Union of Greece. In 1979, I visited many after-hours classes in elementary schools where women of all ages were learning to read and write. Thousands of young women were on government scholarships studying abroad, encouraged to enter any and all professions.

The Iraqi women's political rights included the following: the right to vote and hold parliamentary office and membership in political parties, the right to membership in non-governmental organizations and associations, and the right to hold public-sector jobs. Compare this to women's situation in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

Most of these rights were wiped out by the conditions created when the United States and its allies dropped 88,500 tons of bombs--equal to seven Hiroshimas--on this land. The bombing killed and wounded tens of thousands of men, women and children, hitting mosques, churches, hospitals, schools, homes for children and the disabled and civilian shelters. Bombs and missiles also destroyed power stations, sewage systems and municipal services. This is a breach of Article 51 of the first protocol of the Geneva conventions of 1977, which calls for protection of civilians against military operations and forbids attacks targeting them.

The U.N. economic sanctions were placed on Iraq for refusing to withdraw from Kuwait and were continued after Iraqi troops pulled out, following the cease-fire. The stated aim was to compel destruction of the country's capacity to produce chemical and nuclear weapons. The whispered aim was to bring down Saddam Hussein and to aid the Kurds and the Shiites.

Saddam is still in power, with a weary and impoverished population unable to gather the revolutionary zeal for his overthrow expected by President Bush. As for the Kurds, the United States has never been a friend of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Its policy after the war produced the painful exodus of the Kurds, resulting in thousands of dead and homeless, hungry people. Now it is trying to assuage its guilt by dropping pallets of food into refugee camps while Turkey carries out military raids against Kurdish villages in Iraq. The U.S. call for an uprising of the Shiites, only to abandon those who made the attempt, resulted in the deaths of thousands more.

Sanctions have, however, managed to create a weak economy, a physically debilitated people and three societal problems practically unheard of in prewar Iraq: crime, unemployment and prostitution. Women and children are bearing the brunt of these sanctions. Women whose partners were lost were thrown into the job market to feed their children. Divorce rates are up in two-parent families because of the stress and strain. Girls are dropping out of school to help in the home. The acute shortage of basic food and medicines as well as their soaring prices has triggered a nearly 550% increase since 1990 in the mortality rate of children under 5. And women are withdrawing from political activity, unable to handle all the added responsibilities they now have.

The stated aim of the U.N. resolution on sanctions was to stop Iraq's production of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has complied with all the conditions. It has officially dropped its claim to Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province. And it has agreed to long-term monitoring to ensure it is not resuscitating its weapons program. What is the purpose of continuing the sanctions? A healthy, vibrant society is in a much better position to work for political change, to correct human-rights abuses, to build a democratic system.

If the civilized world is to carry the banner of human rights, it has to look at its own actions. Denying people food, medications, sovereignty and peace of mind is another form of war. The Clinton Administration inherited a policy. It is time it examined that inheritance and took the bold, humane action of removing the sanctions.

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