Hard-hitting Scottish Labour MP GEORGE GALLOWAY pricked the conscience of the country when he brought a young Iraqi cancer victim to Britain for urgent medical treatment. Mariam Hamza is four years old and suffering from leukaemia. She is one of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children denied food and medicines by the inhuman United Nations sanctions regime maintained by AngleAmerican imperialism. Mariam, accompanied by her grandmother is now receiving treatment in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow. George has helped one victim but the Emergency Committee on Iraq which he has launched wants to help them all. Last week Andy Brooks asked him about the progress so far.
ANDY BROOKS: The first thing our readers want to know is the condition of Mariam Hamza now.
GEORGE GALLOWAY: She's considerably better on a superficial level. She's eaten better I'ood in the last two weeks than she's ever eaten in her whole life. She lives in cleaner and sterile conditions for the first time in her short life and she's got clothes, soap and shampoo and all the things that are taken for granted here in this country but which the people of Iraq have been deprived of these last eight years.
Her grandmother has taken to Scottish life, quite the thing. She's joined the smokers' circle outside with the hospital cleaners and other staff members cutting quite a dash in her black traditional robes having a cigarette out there on the street with the hospital workers.
The hospital workers have donated £500 to the Mariarn Appeal to help with the cost of her treatment. She's made quite an impact in the hospital. Mariam's put on a pound which is a lot when you are only 19 pounds. She weighs less than half of what she should for her age. But she's still terribly weak. Her condition is such that she's not been able to start the chemotherapy until today. Which means they spent the first ten days or so building her up and trying to cure some of the. ancillary infections that she bad which included salmonella and gastro-enteritis and just general malnourishment.
The tragic thing is thatthe emaciated little child that the British people saw for the first time when we brought her into Heathrow was one of hundreds of thousands of such children in Iraq. It was apt, I thought, when we took her to Greenwich Hospital on the first night that it was in Trafalgar Road. Nelson famously put the telescope to his blind eye and said "I see no ships" and I think the British have been Putting the telescope to their blind eye and saying "I see no suffering in Iraq".
Now Mariam has tugged the patch away from the eye and that's why a huge debate took place in the country on the issue of sanctions. It's also why the supporters of the sanctions policy are so angry and so aggressive with me.
AB: How far has the campaign taken off in the last couple of weeks?
GG: I was astonished at some of the media response which seemed to wish to reveal to the country that this child's plight would be used to illuminate the bigger picture. Far from being a revelation this was an explicit and often stated goal by me from Baghdad.
Through satellite television I made several news broadcasts in which I said exactly that. The Orwellian phrase of the sanctions-people -- "Mariam's trip to Britain has a dual use" -- is true. It's first use isto save the life ofa child who wguld otherwise die. I carl think of no good argument against doing that. But the second purpose is -- I described it as a candle -- to illuminate a bigger, blacker picture which remains the reality for millions of Iraqis who have suffered under sanctions.
So we have produced 25,000 postcards which we're asking people to send to the Prime Minister at Downing Street. I will ask a regular Parliamentary Question asking the Prime Minister how many people have made rcprcsentations on the sanctions policy. I hope that's a steadily increasing number. Downing Street will have to write to everyone who writes to them so we'll sec the beginings of pressure on the apparatus of Downing Street to justify their policy.
We have a public meeting on 11 May in the Parliament House which will campaign under the slogan "Lift Sanctions Now!". We are writing articles and giving interviews all over the country in local and national media and in the universities. There's been a tremendous snowball effect which is exactly what I thought would happen.
I feel that the British people did not really know what was being done in their name. Now they know and more and more of them do not like what they see.
AB: As you know there was a news black-out here and in the Middle East on what was going on. How far has that been broken here and there now?
GG: I think it has been broken in both places. I'm a great believer in the thesis that events aggregate upon each other and then critical mass is suddenly achieved. Critical mass for concern over sanctions was reached over the last couple of months -- not just over the Mariam affair -- and it's no longer possible for the imposers of sanctions to get away with doing so quietly, in the dark, without any real justification.
Suddenly they're on the back foot. They're on the defensive. The US was forced yesterday at the UN to acknowledge that there had been progress by the Iraqi side so far as the UN resolutions are concerned. They were forced to say, and I quote, "premature", to lift sanctions.
Well that's a considerable step forward from the effective position of Albright [United States foreign minister], that sanctions would never be lifted until the Saddam regime was overthrown, which might have meant, in perpetuity.
So I feel that the news blackout has been breached. I can tell you with some certainly because I have many friends and family in the Middle East that this Mariam episode has been subject to blanket coverage in every country's television except Kuwait's.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries carried extensive footage of my last visit and the air-lifting out of Mariam.
AB: How do conditions in Iraq today compare to when you were last there?
GG: It's very bad indeed. I should say I never visited Iraq before the Gulf War because I had serious political disagreements with the government there. I never saw Iraq at its best as you might say with its tremendous deve lopment, welfare system and its education and health attainments. I only visited itafter the war.
The difference between my first visit in 1993 and my last visit in 1998 was truly horrifying. The situation has deteriorated very steeply indeed. The condition of the people is really dramatically bad -- made all the more dramatic by the fact that it's taking place in a modern urban setting.
I've been in many places in Africa and Asia which are poorer than Iraq. But they are poorer countries with no experience of having lived a modern developed urban life. When you are in a modern developed urban situation and all systems collapse then the result is catalysmic. Sewage and water purification systems no longer work. People's immunity had been reduced by the better life they'd lived in the past.
They're now devastated. There is real hunger. They are a very thin, gaunt people -- walking around, spending most of the day looking for a chance, looking for a turn that might just give them the chance of eating that evening.
I attended the Easter Sunday Mass in the cathedral in Baghdad and the Cardinal presided and spoke to me afterwards. He begged me not to think that because everyone was in their Sunday best this was a normal scene. He indicated that practically every one of them now had nothing left to sell.
The Christian community is big and more than free to follow their religion, which is not the case in every Arab country. It contains, amongst it many ofthe intellectual and leading elements of Iraqi society. They have sold everything -- their typewriters, their books, their pens and internal doors of their houses. All their jewellery and ornament, everything built up over generations has been sold. that there left with is literally their Sunday best.
When I came out of the church a man on the other side of the road who hadn't been in the church fell down -- collapsed in front of us. Everyone rushed forward and tried to revive him. It turned out he'd fallen down for no other reason than hunger. He hadn't eaten for three days. He was given water and people brought food out from nearby houses. This is apparently quite a common site in Iraq.
The health situation is where you see it most dramatically and the figures speak for themselves. Perhaps a million, perhaps a million and a half Iraqis have perished over the last eight years as a result of sanctions. Amongst children and old age pensioners and amongst those predisposed towards illness the Grim Reaper has been extremely busy.
The percentage of Iraqi children who die in their first year is now 25 per cent Before sanctions the rate was almost nought. Iraq had an infant mortality rate which was approaching Cuban levels of success. Now one in four children die before the age of one. The average Iraqi child has 15 severe bouts of diarrhoea in one year and one in fifty of those die from diarrhoea. The whole country is a sea of water-borne disease because of the collapse of the sewage system and the water-purification systems.
Families like Mariam's cook and drink straight frotn the Euphrates River which is thoroughly polluted. This situation is laying waste to people. The average caloric intake is down to 1,000 -- about a third or half of what we would consume in Britain.
If you're on a diet for six weeks, or even six months, you can live like that. But this has been year upon year upon year. The aggregate effect is to leave an enfeebled population which can scarcely stand up straight.
I thought Alexander Cockburn, son of the great Claud Cockburn, in The Independent, summed it up beautifully. He said that the Tigris in 1265, when Baghdad was sacked by Genghis Khan and the Mongols, turned colour twice in one day. It first turned red from the butchery of the Mongol hordes and then turned black from the ink of the books as they tipped into the river the largest and greatest library in the world at that stage.
It has now turned colour for the third time -- from the filthy sewage now going into the river.
AB: But the morale of the people remains high.
GG: Well I think that's true up to a point. There's two levels to this. The politicised people -- which are quite widespread; the mass organisations and the Baath Party which is extremely well-organised and deeply rooted now in Iraq; the militarised section of the population which is not just the standing professional anny, which is quite a formidable one but also a very large number of conscripts -- on that level I would say you're right. High morale. High levels of motivation and mobilisation. A high spirit of resistance. Certainly an acute consciousness of who the real villains of the piece are.
Underneath that though, especially in the countryside and especially amongst the non-Sunni [orthodox Muslim] Arabs, there's basically a collapse of civic consciousness and a retreat into private life. A retreat into the house, the home, the search everyday just to get the means of staying alive.
I don't think that imperialism can take comfort from either of those two phenomena. The first they obviously can't as it's an indication of the total failure of their strategy to encourage and force the politicised masses to rise up and overthrow their government.
They can't take any comfort from the second either because the very last thing on the minds of that section of the population is political action, conspiracy or revolution. They are people entirely dedicated to finding a meal for dinner that evening.
AB: The Gulf crisis this year ended in setback for Britain and America. The campaign in this country within, the labour and peace movement was able for the first time to raise the question of ending sanctions in a forceful way. The controversy around your own position seems to represent a shift in opinion within the labour movement and the public as a whole...
GG: It's my experience over the past few weeks but I would take issue with how you see what happened in the last crisis. I was really surprised, disappointed by the failure of even the traditionally militant and conscious sections of the labour movement to rise to the occasion in February when it looked like we were going to war.
In fact I would say that only the Fire Brigades Union rose to the occasion. Cameron was the only union leader who responded to our invitation to join the Emergency Committee on Iraq. His union, the FBU, was the only one to put resources into the campaign. Other left general secretaries did not respond, did not come forward.
Of course, progressive elelments in other unions like Unison, where Jean Geldart joined our committee, were to the fore. But they failed to breakthrough in their unions as they might have done on similar issues in other parts of the world. This indicates two things.
First, the degeneration of the international consciousness of organised labour over the last period. The second is the vicious effect of elements of the Iraqi opposition, who should know better. They've so poisoned the well of potential good-will to the Iraqi people in this country by the enormous failures in their work. It's made even left elements in the trade unions wary of supporting this campaign.
We have a situation where sections of the Iraqi Communist Party, for entirely understandable reasons -- they've been subject to massive repression -- have allowed themselves to be put into a pro-imperialist position. I know they have been exiled, criminaliscd and their cadres are hunted in Iraq today so I'm not making light of the problems that they have. But the Iraqi Communist Party and CARDRI (Campaign Against Repression and for Demococratic Rights in Iraq) have ended up defending imperialism.
Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) is a case in point I had a fierce polemic with their magazine Liberation -- though they never published it. They have effectively now lined up with American imperialism. It's quite extraordinary. How they imagine they can build support in Iraq when they are supporting a policy of starving the people of Iraq is to me almost unbelievable.
Now if any element in a society ought to understand all the forces at work and therefore where they should place themselves in any crisis you would have thought it would be the communists. The failure of sections of the Iraqi left to properly evaluate all the forces and where they should stand has led to a weakening of the British labour movement's ability to intervene and function on this question.
Now I do think there are some changes. I do think we have made a breakthrough in the last couple of weeks, largely on a humanitarian basis, largely around the Mariam issue. We must try and drive home that advantage.
We have this meeting on 11th May and I'm very much hoping that we have a better trade union turn-out to it than we had during the crisis in February.
AB: George, you are member of the ruling party in this country, albeit very much to the left of it. The British government has never, as far as I know, ever declared what its objectives are towards Iraq.
We know the American position which is basically an end to the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. They want a pliant regime in Iraq. The British position is sometimes characterised, wrongly in my view, as simply a mirror of that of the White House. It masks the fact the British imperialism has a very big interest in the Middle East itself.
The Blair government's position seems to be simply a continuation of the old Conservative policy towards the Middle East. Have you seen any indication of any shift -- particularly as the Labour government is keen to draw closer to it's European partners?
GG: I think you're right to identify the weakness of the analysis which simply equates the British and American position. It's a mistake that's easily made.
I used to say that if we got any closer to Bill Clinton he'd be inviting us up to his hotel room for a chin-wag. The truth is that there are differenccs and they are daily more indentifiable. First of all I think you have to recognise that there is more than one view in the British government itself. We're seeing the development of the kind of dichotomy which existed between Downing Street and the Foreign Office in Thatcher's days with Downing Street seeking to make foreign policy rather than the Foreign Office.
I think inside the Foreign Office there are people who know the Middle East very well. It's possibly the repository of the finest collective experience of the Arab world outside the region itself. Naturally, it's not for the benefit of the Arabs. Mr Sykes (who drew up the post-1918 Anglo-French share-out of Arabia) wasn't an altruist. He was a classic imperialist.
But none the less you would not expect a Foreign Office which knows the Middle East to want to, when in a hole, keep on digging. That's what is currently happening but there's an argument about it.
I had a session with two of Robin Cook's top advisors in the Foreign Office last week. They definitely formed the view that they know this policy is wrong. They might not agree with me that's its immoral but they certainly agree with me that it's not working.
They don't have a better policy to put forward at this stage so I appealed to them in that case to stop digging. If you're in a hole it's best to stop digging while you work out how you get out of it.
Alas, they're still digging but I think they're digging with less gusto than before and less gusto than the Americans would like them to dig.
They clearly have, I think, a view that if they were starting all over again they would not have imposed sanctions of such an all-encompassing and open-ended nature.
There are a number of straws in the wind. I had an adjournment debate in the Commons on 27 March. It's interesting not for what I had to say, which is predictable enough, but for what the Minister had to say in reply.
It was a very much more moderate British government position compared to what had been trumpeted just a few weeks earlier. Then there was Robin Cook's wholehearted co-operation in getting this child Mariam out of Iraq -lifting the sanctions to permit the airlift to bring her to Britain. Then there's fact that we've got hundreds, if not thousands, of postcards flowing into Downing Street. And the Foreign Office will be strengthened in their argument with Downing Street if we can show more evidence of public disquiet over the sanctions policy.
Then there's the US admission yesterday that it's no longer possible to pretend that Iraq has not complied or made big efforts to co-operate with the international regime which has its hands around Iraq's throat.
I said from the very beginning that Iraq should recognise these hands and do what they are asked to do sooner rather than later because I was sure that they would be forced to do so later. All that would happen is that more people would suffer between sooner and later.
I think the Iraqis have grasped that point. So if you hear any propaganda to the contrary claiming that Iraq is being disruptive, obstructive and not complying I think you can take that as propaganda.
I'm convinced the Iraqi leadership has made a strategic decision to say "uncle" in order to get out from under this terrible vice-like pressure they are in.
AB: Finally, none of us can directly influence events in the Middle East but we can attempt to put pressure on our govemment. How do you see this going forth in the future and do you think we can succeed?
GG: This year is the key. We have to bring an end to sanctions this year because I cannot vouch for what will happen next year if the sanctions are still in place. I think probably something very destructive indeed will happen if the sanctions carry on next year.
I do not believe that the Iraqi government will simply sit and go quietly go into the good night of mass starvation with people fighting for food in the streets. I don't think they're going to tolerate that. So time is short.
I think the trade union conferences, TUC and Labour Party Conference have got to be the scene of debates on this. I hope the left will organise fringe meetings or at least an anti-sanctions speaker to the fringe meetings they are holding. I hope the unions will take bulk orders of these campaign postcards and get their activists to fill them in. I hope they'll financially support the campaign.
It kicks off on 11 May. I want the biggest turn-out at the Grand Committee Room at Westminster Hall at 7.30 pm. So, in short, I hope the trade unions can rise to the occasion. In the Past the campaign against sanctions has relied on the peace movement and radical groups outside the labour movement. I want to see people from my own movement -- the trade union movement -- turning out and showing thee flag and recognising and understanding the campaign to end sanctions for what it is.