Two on Iraq

As the 10th anniversary of the devastating UN economic sanctions against Iraq approaches (6th August), it is clear that even the ‘liberal’ and ‘independent’ press is sweeping the matter under the carpet. If the government propaganda merchants in Washington and London don’t even mention the dreadful suffering of the Iraqi people, then ‘news’ journalists can convince themselves that (a) it’s not happening; (b) even if it is happening, it can’t be important.

Recently, there was a brouhaha about Norman Finkelstein’s book ‘The Holocaust Industry’ concerning the profits made out of the sufferings of the Jews – and the other many victims – of the Nazi period. Columnist Natasha Walter, writing in the London-based Independent newspaper, broadened the discussion somewhat, but still within rigid parameters appropriate to the ‘free press’. She wrote accurately ‘that Americans – and the British are the same – would rather wring their hands over the Holocaust than over their own crimes against humanity’. The implication was that such crimes – negro slavery and colonialism, for example – all belonged to the distant past. Today, goes the argument, the United States – with Britain in a loyal supporting role – is the defender of freedom against tyrants the world over.

But not only is there an ongoing US-driven holocaust which is denied or ignored by western elites, it is rarely even remarked upon in respectable society. We are talking here of the hidden holocaust that extends beyond the historical genocide of native American peoples and the enslavement of black people, dreadful as those events were. Millions of people have died, and many more millions condemned to lives of misery and torture, as a result of US interventions in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere. Take the following example. The US (and British) actively supported Suharto’s bloody coup in Indonesia in 1965-66 when over a million were killed, followed by Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, which resulted in around 200,000 deaths.

But these are inconvenient facts which obscure the west’s self-image as the ‘good guys’. (And, let’s face it, since World War II ‘the west’ has increasingly become synonymous with powerful US political and business interests). The very question of how benign are the great western powers with their proud notions of ‘democracy’, ‘fair play’ and ‘respect for law and order’ just does not arise. It is what therapists refer to as ‘the elephant in the room’. Everyone sees it, but in polite company social etiquette dictates that nobody mentions it. It just isn’t the done thing.

Let’s do our damnedest to make it the done thing. Consider the Gulf War desert massacre in 1990-1991. General Norman ‘Stormin’ ‘ Schwarzkopf admitted that at least 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed. Many of them died not on the battlefield, but while fleeing in retreat. This was the infamous Basra road ‘turkey shoot’ of Saddam’s coerced and demoralised conscript army of mostly Kurds and Shia – the same oppressed minorities for which western leaders professed concern. And then there is the dreadful toll of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intense bombing campaign. According to American and French intelligence reports, over 200,000 died. All of this was barely mentioned in the ‘quality’ press at the time and is now all but forgotten.

The Iraqi holocaust continues today in the guise of ‘economic sanctions’. Over half a million children under the age of five, and over one million Iraqis in all, have died for want of adequate medication, food or safe water supplies. But Bill Clinton and Tony Blair tell us confidently that it’s all Saddam’s fault and so our investigative journalists and hard-bitten editors back off, appeased. When the media is challenged to pursue the matter further – these are huge crimes against humanity, after all – they react angrily: ‘We’ve already covered the issue. We did an article a few months ago’. This was the response I received when I attempted to interest several British broadsheets in a well-attended public meeting in London protesting the Iraqi sanctions. David Edwards, who was similarly rebuffed by The Guardian when trying to place an article on the 10th anniversary of the sanctions, wrote recently about the media: ‘The main extraordinary unwritten rule is: THOU SHALT NOT QUESTION WHAT WE DO! Because, perhaps even unconsciously, they know that they are so totally open to criticism, so compromised, self-deceived and deceiving, that they cannot risk any probing or examination.’

And yet… here is a massive ‘story’ should anyone brave enough in the mainstream media wish to pursue it. Denis Halliday, former coordinator of the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme in Baghdad, resigned in 1998, accusing the west of ‘genocide’. Hans von Sponeck, his successor, resigned earlier this year, stating that an entire generation of Iraqi people was being ‘destroyed’. Somehow, none of this raises more than a brief murmur amongst broadcasters and journalists. Why is this?

There is, of course, no conspiracy. It’s more subtle, powerful and pervasive than that, as Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Edwards and others have demonstrated. At one level it’s market forces at work – the requirement to satisfy the constraints and priorities of advertisers and corporate owners, for example. But there is also a reluctance in the media, bordering on fear, to confront political and business elites. Stir in, too, lashings of lustful journalistic longings to belong to the higher circles of power. ‘Mr President, Foreign Secretary, Defence Minister – speak to me, please. Me, me, me!’ Most journalists love having direct access to the corridors of power. ‘According to sources inside the Cabinet…’, ‘It is understood that the Prime Minister feels that…’, etc., etc. No wonder journalist John Pilger, a distinguished exception, describes the majority of his professional colleagues as ‘the essential foot soldiers in any network devoted to power and propaganda’.

But powerful interests do not rely solely on a network of complacent journalists. These days the military establishment have their own spin doctors. Martin Howard, the intriguingly titled ‘director of news’ at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), has been diligent in waging a bizarre propaganda war in support of the continued illegal British and American bombing of Iraq. His remit is ostensibly to scour the letters pages of the British press for anti-Nato sentiments and to respond with the full force of his position. His responses are exemplars of obfuscation and duplicity. A recent contribution in The Independent defended the US and the UK patrols of the ‘no-fly’ zones which were set up, he said, to protect northern Kurds and southern Shiites. However, while UN resolutions call for the protection of Iraqi minorities there is no stipulation for military enforcement of the zones, as claimed by Howard.

However, as even the establishment New York Times reported on 25 February 1998, ‘no United Nations resolutions created the restricted zones’. This has not stopped the zones growing in size over the years. When President Clinton ordered missile attacks against Iraq on September 3 and 4, 1996, he admitted during his weekly radio address, ‘I ordered the attacks in order to extend the no-fly zone’. This was done unilaterally, without authorisation from the UN. But when has the US ever sought authorisation from the UN to pursue its own agenda?

In his letter to The Independent, MoD spin doctor Martin Howard claims that British or American aeroplanes were not responsible for the deaths, reported in the same newspaper, of several Iraqis on 17 May this year. ‘Nato planes weren’t flying that day’, he claimed, as the reporter could have determined if only ‘he had bothered to check’ with Howard. Of the 300 Iraqis that have been killed, and another 800 injured, in the 18 months of intense bombings since December 1998, Howard had nothing to say. He goes on to proclaim support for UN security council resolutions. Yet there is no mention of UN resolution 687, paragraph 14, which calls for regional disarmament as the basis for reducing Iraq’s arsenal of weapons.

The truth is that by arming Iraq’s neighbours in the Middle East, the west is contravening the same UN resolution which it uses to maintain arguments for sustaining economic sanctions against Iraq. Peter Hinchcliffe, former British ambassador to Kuwait, and like Howard an enthusiastic revisionist, recently regurgitated in the British press the US and UK government line that courtesy of the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme, Saddam ‘could have chosen to feed the Iraqi people (and treat them)’. Never mind that once UN expenses and reparations to Kuwait and big business have been creamed off, just $190 is left per head of population per year. Denis Halliday, who has actually seen at first hand the devastating effects on the Iraqi people, politely described this sum as ‘pitifully inadequate’. According to the UN Children’s Fund, the sanctions are killing of up to 200 children under the age of five every day. Even on a ‘slow news day’, the US and British public are left uninformed of what their governments are doing in their name. Journalists call this surreal and deadly state of affairs ‘maintaining professionalism’.

How can we reconcile these ghastly facts with the widespread belief in the essential goodness of our ‘liberal-democratic west’? We cannot. ‘Our boasted civilisation’, said the writer Jack London, ‘is based upon blood, soaked in blood, and neither you nor I nor any of us can escape the scarlet stains.’ Far from living in a benign society, we are actually living under a monstrous system that promotes power and profit above concern for justice and life. We must suspect that those elite few who benefit most from the present arrangement are fully aware of this fact.

As for the rest of society, the depiction of reality presented here is such a disturbing notion that many would rather reject it outright than question the lies they are fed daily by the media. But then, as George Orwell once wrote, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Only then can we prevent another Vietnam. Another East Timor. Another Iraq.




In a recent article in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting asked: "Let’s be honest, who cares much about politics beyond a small elite of professional politicians? When did you last have a raging row – or even brief conversation – with anyone about politics?"

The short answer to Bunting’s first question – "Who cares?" – is simple: people like Jo Baker, Bristol mother-of-three, who, on August 11, will join four other women ranging between 30 and 76 years of age, in flying out to Iraq to mark the tenth anniversary of sanctions. For them politics is not merely of interest, it is a matter of life and death.

According to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, 4,000 more children under five are dying every month in Iraq than would have died had Western sanctions not been imposed. Over the ten years that these US and British-led sanctions have been in place, 500,000 extra children under five have died.

The team have decided to go as an all-women delegation, as an act of solidarity with Iraqi women, and to bear witness to the devastating ways in which British foreign policy is impacting on their lives through sanctions and the bombing which goes on almost daily. It will focus on women’s issues like childbirth and the death of children.

The women will be visiting Iraq’s second city, Basra, in the south of the country, scene of the worst poverty: "There are terrible problems with birth defects and leukaemia, which have been linked to the use of around 350 tons of depleted uranium munitions during the war," Baker says. "They don’t have enough drugs for chemotherapy; they don’t have enough blood, enough oxygen, and anaesthetics. Women are having caesarean operations without anaesthetics; it’s just horrendous. There are no proper pain killers."

The women are also hoping to examine levels of environmental damage and to interview Dr. Huda Ammash an environmental biologist and professor at Baghdad University. Dr. Ammash has described "an unprecedented catastrophe" in Iraq, with much of the country "turned into a polluted and radioactive environment".

Alongside Jo will be the equally remarkable Peggy Preston, 76, an ex-WAAF servicewoman. Peggy served on a bomber station at Coningsby during the Second World War. The experience of seeing her friends in the RAF being killed and learning of the firestorms inflicted on Hamburg and other cities in Germany taught her an invaluable lesson: "I learned that it is not enough to just toe the line. I began my service believing that I really was fighting a war to end all wars. Since then I have tried as hard as I can to spread peace around the world. From 1968 to 1973, at the height of the war, I lived in Vietnam. I’ve always wanted to understand what people in other countries are experiencing and suffering. We Westerners can always get out of these terrible situations, the least we can do is share in their experience and show solidarity."

Preston will be returning to Iraq for the first time since visiting the country as part of the Gulf Peace Team in January 1991: "We know that the situation has deteriorated dramatically since 1991," she told me. "Then, the loss of electricity, lack of clean water, spread of disease and bomb damage were laying the foundations for disaster. Today, malnutrition, cancer, typhoid and diarrhoea have reached truly epidemic proportions as the country is routinely denied food and medical supplies by sanctions."

In response to this horror, Denis Halliday, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator resigned from the UN in 1998, describing Western policy as "genocidal". His successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned on February 13 of this year, asking, "How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?" Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, saying privately that what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.

Steadfastly ignoring these authoritative and credible dissident voices, the British and US governments continue to claim that Iraq’s holocaust is the sole responsibility of Saddam Hussein. Peter Hain, Minister of State, for example, has written: "The ‘oil for food’ programme has been in place for three years and could have been operating since 1991 if Saddam had not blocked it. The Iraqi people have never seen the benefits they should have."

Denis Halliday rejects this claim out of hand: "There is no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients – there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever ever in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.

Halliday argues that shortage of food and medical supplies is the direct responsibility of Washington and London: "They have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, is just nonsense. That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide ‘, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage."

Halliday and many other peace campaigners are concerned at the possibility of massive bombing ahead of the upcoming U.S. presidential election:

"One great fear I think many of us have is that Richard Butler (former Unscom director) is talking publicly on his concern that something is going on within Iraq; that they are possibly rebuilding their weapons of mass destruction. These are extremely dangerous comments, for which there is no basis in fact that I’m aware of. This scaremongering, in my view, is preparing the possibility for Clinton and the Pentagon and others to bomb Iraq again in another December ’98-style attack."

Justification for such an attack might be provided by plans for Hans Blix to return to Iraq with his Unmovic (UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission) inspectors at the end of August. Baghdad has not changed its position on UN Resolution 1284 and has not indicated that it will allow Blix ‘s team to enter the country. Halliday warns that this rejection could provide the pretext for another military aggression: "The fear is that this will be a clear excuse for Clinton to say, ‘Well, there you are; Butler must be right. We’d better go in and bomb the country.’"

Iraq’s refusal to accept 1284 is understandable enough, given that it refers only of a temporary suspension of sanctions if inspectors are allowed back into the country: an offer, which after the death of half a million children, is to say the least, too little too late. Resolution 1284 should also be viewed within the context of the American position, which insists that economic sanctions will +never+ be lifted while Saddam Hussein is in power: "That needs to be retracted," Halliday says. "If that happened we might see a breakthrough. Right now, as far as I know, the U.S. is encouraging and financing opposition based on that premise, and I think Al Gore has been saying just that recently: that removing Saddam Hussein will be one of his goals. In fact I believe that both presidential candidates are signed up to that idea".

Halliday fears that a major bombing campaign would have political appeal for Clinton in support of Al Gore: "He can say ‘Al asked me to do it; Al’s a tough guy. Al will take care of this Saddam,’ as they call him. ‘You can trust Al, he knows how to handle these ‘rogue states’. This is not another Bush, the guy who failed in ’91, this is someone new’. This would be a beautiful opportunity to bolster his image."

There are a few small signs of hope for the people of Iraq. Several large private corporations are now opposed to economic sanctions. The chief executives of Mobil Oil and Caterpillar tractors have both called for an end to the economic embargo. It has now become respectable to oppose economic sanctions whereas a few years ago it was deemed unthinkable. More and more people are becoming deeply concerned about the fate of the Iraqi people. "It ‘s a dramatic change," Halliday says. "It’s like people are seeing the writing on the wall and they’re preparing themselves to change sides, which is very encouraging. I think many governments are like that, but not, unfortunately, that I can see, the decision makers in Washington and London.

Jo Baker asks people in the South West to support her and Peggy Preston’s action in any way they can: "We’re asking people to fax or email Tony Blair and ask him to lift economic sanctions, and tell him that more bombing is totally unacceptable."


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