The South Bay Republican congressman who hopes to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in November is leading a campaign to soften U.S. policy toward Iraq. Among those standing in his way are another South Bay congressman and a prominent pro-Israel organization.
Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Campbell), who won the Republican nomination for the Senate in last month's California primary, has recently stepped up efforts to terminate the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after the Gulf War in 1991.
"Our argument is a purely humanitarian one," said Joel Starr, an aide in Campbell's Washington office. If the sanctions were lifted, he said, Iraqi President "Saddam Hussein would not have an excuse any more to starve his people."
Campbell, citing reports from UNICEF and other U.N. agencies, claimed in a Jan. 31 letter to President Clinton that "over 1 million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo."
Sixty-nine other House members, including most of the Bay Area delegation, signed Campbell's letter, which urged Clinton to lift the economic sanctions but retain an embargo on military equipment and materials. Among the signers were Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), Anna Eshoo (D-Atherton), Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Fremont).
Those opting to retain the sanctions, including Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), maintain Iraq already has sufficient funds to feed its citizens — a point Campbell and his allies do not dispute. In 1995, the United Nations approved an "oil-for-food" program that allows Iraq to sell oil and buy food and other humanitarian needs with the proceeds, through a U.N.-controlled escrow account. Since late 1999, the amount of oil Iraq can sell under the program has been unlimited.
"The greatest problem the people of Iraq face today is that Baghdad systematically limits the distribution of humanitarian goods to preserve the suffering of its own people as a diplomatic asset," Clinton wrote in a March 28 reply to Campbell.
Lantos and three other House members make similar statements in a letter to Clinton that they are circulating for signatures. The letter — which 94 House members have agreed to sign, according to a Lantos aide — urges the president to "stand firm in continuing to support the U.N. sanctions…until Iraq abides by all relevant Security Council resolutions" and demonstrates that it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.
The military threat from Iraq is a major concern of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which favors retaining economic sanctions.
"Lifting sanctions wouldn't benefit the Iraqi people," said Amy Friedkin, an AIPAC national vice president who lives in San Francisco. Rather, it would enable Saddam to obtain more oil money, and use it to amass more weapons. That would constitute a danger to the rest of the Middle East and the world, she added.
The current sanctions help prevent Saddam from building weapons of mass destruction, said Bob King, an aide in Lantos' Washington office. However, he conceded he was "not sure" the sanctions would help to achieve the U.S. objective of removing Saddam from power.
Campbell, said Starr, "wants to focus on the humanitarian consequences for Iraqi children" and sees removal of the sanctions as a positive step. Asked about Israel's security concerns, Starr said Campbell does not believe lifting the sanctions will threaten Israel's existence.
Starr conceded that Saddam is responsible for the starvation and malnutrition among his people, citing reports that much of the food Iraq buys under the oil-for-food program sits in warehouses instead of being distributed. "Saddam Hussein is a brutal man," Starr said. "He's a Satan on this earth."
But Campbell, Starr said, believes lifting the sanctions would deprive Saddam of his excuse that the shortages are caused by the United States, forcing him to release more food.
"If that saves one more child, then our action has been worth it," Starr said.
Emphasizing that "the human concerns are obviously very serious," Lantos' aide King said the Democratic congressman doesn't believe lifting sanctions will resolve the humanitarian problem.
Campbell and his allies are now rallying behind H.R. 3825, legislation by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) that would allow U.S. companies to export food and medicine to Iraq outside of the U.N. oil-for-food program. Campbell and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) are among the bill's co-sponsors.
Friedkin said AIPAC opposes the bill, although the organization recognizes the sponsors' "very compassionate reasons" for proposing it.
Elliot Brandt, AIPAC's Pacific Northwest regional director, said: "AIPAC has no desire to hurt the people of Iraq, but we have a vested interest in hurting Saddam Hussein's ability to build weapons of mass destruction. Rather than blaming the sanctions for hurting the people of Iraq, we should be putting the blame on Saddam Hussein, who is cynically and cruelly using his people as a political card to generate sympathy and support."
King said Lantos has not yet taken a position on H.R. 3825.