On Jan. 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ninth anniversary of the Gulf war, 10 people will begin a month-long fast on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. They're members of Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago-based group that has been trying to marshal public opinion here against the sanctions (instigated by the United States through the United Nations) against Iraq. The group won't eat, and will spend each day lobbing politicians, human rights groups, government officials and the press.

There are plenty of awful U.S. policies that have survived the turnover into this new millennium, but few of them can be as malignant as the sanctions that have been killing Iraqis at a steady rate since they were imposed in 1990. The United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other U.N. agencies in Iraq reckon that more than 1 million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo. Despite the United Nations oil-for-food program, UNICEF estimates that more than 4,000 children under the age of 5 die each month as a consequence of this same embargo.

The embargo, we must not forget, is demonically designed to prompt gnawing, endless suffering throughout Iraq's social economy. The water's filthy and dangerous because chlorine pencils and larger cleansing mechanisms are forbidden. Every illness is magnified and protracted, often fatally, because the simplest medicines and pieces of equipment are similarly embargoed. The pretext is "dual use" -- meaning that the United Nations will forbid a compressor for a dentist's drill that might perhaps be used for some military purpose in Iraq -- but the strategy is to drive Iraq into the basement of Third World nations. No one believes for a moment the embargo will prompt the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam Hussein.

U.S. policy is clearly to keep the embargo going indefinitely. The latest adjustment -- U.N. Resolution 1284, passed on Dec. 17, with three of the five permanent Security Council members, China, Russia and France, abstaining -- inaugurates a new schedule of inspections, but if anything, the prognosis is actually worse. Under the old schedule, when the inspectors declared Iraq cleansed of weapons of mass destructions, the embargo would supposedly end. Under the new one, it will merely be suspended. As France's foreign minister, M. Vedrine, put it, "We think it may give rise to an interpretation allowing some countries to keep on forever saying that the cooperation hasn't taken place and that, consequently, the embargo can't be suspended."

As he prepared for the fast in Washington, I talked to Nicholas Arons, one of the Voices in the Wilderness. A month ago, he was in Iraq. In the course of his trip, he'd visited a public primary school in Mosul. "When they heard Americans were coming, three children began shaking and screaming. Their mothers had to be fetched to pick them up. We found out that they were traumatized because a cement bomb from an American place patrolling the northern no-fly zone had just hit the school. Some children were severely wounded." (An Agence France Presse report on Nov. 28 reported the attack.) Arons went on to describe how a teacher had respectfully but angrily explained why bombs and shattering glass don't cultivate a new generation of leaders, nor protect minorities, nor change the regime in Iraq.

The fast, Arons said, addresses a moral question, "the imposition of humanitarian deprivation towards a political end. More children have died in Iraq as a result of this embargo than died in Hiroshima or the Bosnian war. The Iraqi economy has been devastated. Take education. The budget has gone from $2 billion to $17 million. Nearly every Iraqi child has been forced to watch a relative die of violence or a preventable disease. So, by forsaking food for one month, we intended to dramatize the issue of the sanctions, demonstrate to congresspersons and State Department officials (as well as the Iraqi Mission in D.C. and New York, who share culpability for this disaster) our sincerity, and tell our friends in the anti-sanctions movement that people need to make literal and major sacrifices for sanctions to near their end."

Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican from Los Altos, Calif., and John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit, Mich., have circulated a letter calling for a change in U.S. sanctions policy. So far, it's been signed by about 35 members of the House. There have been million-man marches and rallies of hundreds of thousands in Washington. We needn't aim so high. But a few score, a few hundred, perhaps even a few thousand every day, pledging to fast till Feb. 14, either on the Capitol steps or at a federal building in your local town, would back these brave people, and assist in denunciation of the malevolent inhumanity of the embargo, forever a blot upon the Clinton administration and its predecessor. And yes, there's not one of the major candidates for the presidential nomination that does not deem sanctions a splendid idea. Bradley, the liberals' darling, thinks they should be toughened. Close your eyes, throw a dart at the ballot sheet, and you'd be sure to hit a mass murderer.

Voices in the Wilderness can be reached at 1460 W. Carmen Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60640. The phone number is 1-773-784-8065.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.