Global Policy Forum

Congressional Staffers To Visit Iraq


By Jonathan Wright

August 26, 1999

State Department Briefing

Washington - A delegation of U.S. congressional aides will visit Iraq despite State Department warnings it might be dangerous, partly because of the risk from attacks by U.S. warplanes, a member of the delegation said Thursday. The group will leave Friday, enter Iraq from Jordan and stay about five days to investigate the effect of U.N. sanctions on Iraq, Phyllis Bennis, a member of the group said. They canceled the trip last week after the State Department refused to validate their passports for Iraq. But in later discussions the department conceded they could make the visit legally if they did not enter Iraq on U.S. passports.

``They just didn't have a legal basis to prohibit representatives from the Congress from conducting an investigation,'' said Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. ``They don't have a leg to stand on and they know it.'' ``So despite their efforts, the Congress members and their aides realized they had the obligation and the right to go,'' she told Reuters.

State Department spokesman James Foley said of the trip: ''We think it's unsafe. We don't think it's a good idea.'' Another State Department official said the dangers included U.S. planes which regularly attack Iraqi air defenses and stray rounds from Iraq's anti-aircraft guns. ``We don't have an embassy so if anything happens, they're on their own,'' the official said.

U.S. officials say its attacks are in response to Iraq activating its radars and ``illuminating'' the planes. They say they expect an escalation in the confrontation over Iraqi skies, because Iraq is allegedly determined to shoot down a Western plane when the sanctions against Baghdad come up for debate in the U.N. Security Council. The State Department has said that the parts of Iraq controlled by the Baghdad government are not safe enough for U.S. citizens.``Safety is the only consideration in our determination whether to validate travel to Iraq. The increasing Iraqi provocations in the no-fly zones indicate that the areas of Iraq which (President) Saddam Hussein controls have become much too dangerous for American travelers,'' an official said.

The delegation of staffers in the U.S. House of Representatives includes aides to Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and three Democrats -- Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Danny Davis of Illinois and Earl Hilliard of Alabama. In a request sent to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on Aug. 12, the members of Congress said the aim of the trip was to ``examine the effect of economic sanctions in Iraq on the civilian population, governmental policy, and U.S. economic and strategic interests''.

Iraq blames the sanctions for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and the collapse of medical services. A recent survey issued by UNICEF (the U.N. Children's Fund) found that child mortality rates have more than doubled in south and central Iraq since the sanctions began in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. But the United States says the Iraqi government is responsible because for years it refused to export oil under U.N. supervision, has not ordered the nutritional supplements the country needs and has stockpiled medicines in warehouses. Spokesman James Foley said this week that visiting Iraq on a U.S. passport which has not been validated ``may constitute a violation'' of U.S. law and may be punishable.

State Department Briefing

August 29, 1999

Question: Do you remember those congressional staffers who were going to Iraq? Well, they've now decided that they are going. Do you take a position on that? Do you think they're foolish or anything? And can you - I know it came up last week, but there's still a lot of confusion about the legal position on this. Is it legal for them to go to Iraq without validated passports?

Mr Foley: The law covers use of the US passport. If you are going to use your passport, it has to be validated. To go back to your first question, do we think it's a good idea for Americans to go to Iraq? No, we don't. We think it's unsafe; we have felt that way since 1991. The law anticipates there are several categories of exceptions, including journalists, whose passports we do validate to go there. But we don't think it's a good idea or a safe thing for Americans to go to Iraq and we normally don't validate their passports to do so. But the law speaks to the issue of traveling with or without a validation in a US passport; it doesn't speak to the issue of whether Americans manage to travel to Iraq without using a non-validated passport.

Question: What does the use of a passport entail? I mean, if you show it to an Iraqi are you using it? I don't know; it's very confusing, the whole thing.

Mr. Foley: The restriction is on the use of the US passport for travel into or through Iraq. There is no restriction on an individual's right to travel abroad.

Question: Does showing a passport to an Iraqi border official constitute use of a passport -- showing it to someone?

Mr. Foley: You can't travel to Iraq and use your passport. I think if it's validated by an Iraqi immigration official that would come to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which would have an issue when you arrived back in the United States.

Question: But if he puts the stamp in your passport, then has it been used?

Mr. Foley: You would have to ask the - we went through this last week and I refer you to the Justice Department and the INS on that.

Question: Briefly, because I know you are running out of time, can you -- you keep saying it's unsafe, it's unsafe. Can you spell out what is the danger? Where does it come from; what is the source of this unsafety?

Mr. Foley: I will refer you to my transcript from the other day because --

Question: (Inaudible.)

Mr. Foley: No, I spoke to that at length.

More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


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