â€œSenior British military officers on the ground are making it clear they are dismayed by the failure of US troops to try to fight the battle for hearts and minds,â€ The Guardian proclaimed [April 1, 2003], exposing details of how the noble British â€œRaid and Aidâ€ approach to Iraqi civilians contrasts sharply with the â€œbrutalâ€ American tactics executed by â€œnervous and trigger-happyâ€ â€œcowboys,â€ showing little or no regard to innocent Iraqi lives.
On the face of it, this comparison sounds reasonably accurate. Unlike the American soldiers, indoctrinated in hate and bigotry, the more worldly Brits have yet to commit their first â€œrealâ€ massacre, whatever that means. They have approached this whole affair with a stiff upper lip in a business-like attitude: get the job done, grab whatever leftover war spoils the Americans are gracious enough to leave behind when theyâ€™re done with their pillage, and go. No need for military occupation, prolonged repression or hated colonial officers, which are disturbingly reminiscent of an atrocious colonial heritage.
However, taking a closer look will reveal that the British troops and their commanders are, by any fair assessment, just as liable to end up in the Hague as their American comrades-in-arm, or in-crime, I should say.
According to the respectable and meticulously reliable Basra-based al-Jazeera reporters (some of whom witnessed some of the events described below), British forces have intentionally shelled and burnt to ashes a huge warehouse full of food supplies (intended to last the entire population of Basra for many weeks), bombed and rendered inoperable a number of purely civilian facilities, including a water purification plant supplying potable water to more than 1.5 million Iraqis in Southern Iraq, as well as the main electricity generation facility providing all of Basra with electric power.
Needless to say, the simultaneous denial of fresh water and electric current is always a recipe for humanitarian catastrophes, as relief agencies and human rights organizations have warned. The British militaryâ€™s keen focus on destroying the vital civilian infrastructure is an unmistakable indicator of a premeditated attempt to make life close to impossible for the already battered civilian population, compelling many to abandon Basra, or become fully dependent on the generous British donations of food and water, the â€œaidâ€ part of the noble approach. This, the argument goes, is the British military genius at work in winning the crucial hearts and minds battle.
What do they take us, Arabs, for? Have they fossilized in their minds an old image of the servile natives that we once were? Do they really think that an Iraqi father or mother who has lost his/her baby to diarrhea or cancer because of their sanctions, their bombs or their depleted uranium, can be bought with a sack of flour and a case of mineral water?
Typical colonial cynicism? But of course. That much is expected of the war moralists, par excellence. What is unexpected of them, at least in the 21st century, is the war crime that this Basra charade has amounted to.
Other than direct perpetration of such crimes with their gloves still on, the British forces are partially accountable for the increasing incidence of planned civilian murders. Killing with virtually bare hands, that is. Baseless and outrageous slander, you might think. Well, think again.
Allow me to examine but one dimension of the Anglo-American aerial bombardment of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul to corroborate the above claim. In the most discriminate, or best case scenario, British and American forces have used â€œprecisionâ€ munitions to attack selected Iraqi â€œtargets,â€ ranging–according to official declarations–from military trenches to civilian telecommunications facilities, governmental buildings (providing services to the public at large) and other infrastructure entities, which predominantly benefit civilians. Some of those publicly announced targets raise serious questions of legality and morality. But what does not raise any questions whatsoever is the fact that, regardless what the intended targets are, there is an â€œacceptableâ€ margin of error recorded for all these precision bombs.
According to the most conservative assessments of the inaccuracy rate of those weapons, â€œHuman and mechanical errors send 10 percent or more astray, Pentagon and civilian experts say.â€ [Guardian, April1, 2003] Yes, a staggering 10%, even by Pentagon estimates, and we all know by now how accurate and honest the Pentagon has been. (Remember this is the same Pentagon that during the First Gulf War gave the highly acclaimed, missile-intercepting Patriot system close to full marks in hitting incoming Iraqi Scuds. Months after that war had ended, however, we found out–through testimonies of independent experts in grilling Congressional hearings on the subject–that the actual success rate was close to zero in Israel, and not much higher in Saudi Arabia). But, for the sake of argument, letâ€™s give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt. In other words, out of the more than 8,000 â€œsmartâ€ missiles and bombs that have already been dropped over Iraq, 800 (yes eight hundred) were indeed expected to go–and in all likelihood must have gone–astray hitting what were bound to be civilian population centers, since the intended targets were for the most part located in civilian neighborhoods. Hence the gruesome massacres weâ€™ve seen so far.
So even if we believe that the targets were legitimate–if such a term is applicable in an utterly illegal war–and that the official margin of error is accurate, we shall still end up with hundreds of devastatingly destructive weapons cutting, killing, maiming, or else ruining the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians. And all this â€œacceptable collateral damageâ€ is indeed by design. If this is not a war crime, what is?
The invading forces argue that the Iraqi government has intentionally placed those â€œtargetableâ€ facilities amidst population centers precisely to attract death and destruction to them, in order to win the PR war. No matter what you or I might think of the Iraqi rulers, let us not forget that we are talking here about government ministries, public telephone switches, television and radio stations, police stations, â€¦etc. Arenâ€™t those found in London and Washington in the middle of civilian centers as well? Where else were the Iraqis supposed to have placed them? In a secluded chunk of desert, away from the public they are intended to serve, just for the sake of providing the aggressors with the nice and clean targets they had â€œwar-gamedâ€ with? Is there a bottom to this deep well of repugnant sophistry?
Imagine eight hundred bombs–of various explosive charges–hitting homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, marketplaces, pedestrian malls, soccer fields â€¦etc. Unfortunately, samples of all the above were actually hit all over Iraq during the past 13 days of this illegal, immoral and criminal Anglo-American war.
Since the certified error rate (of those â€œsmartâ€ bombs) is accepted by their users, and since they have intentionally used them to hit â€œtargetsâ€ in crowded population centers, one must conclude that the British and American war planners have premeditatedly targeted civilian populations, knowing all too well the ghastly consequences ahead.
If the British war planners envision winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis by a new version of the white-manâ€™s burden, raiding their very sources of livelihood, starving them, blasting away their brains and guts, and then aiding them with their magnanimous charities, convincing them in the process of what is really good for them, they ought to revise their expectations. Such racist dehumanization, coupled with denial of self-determination, and incessant suffocation of hopes, dreams and dignified aspirations cannot but provoke a wild and unruly storm of revenge that few would dare to imagine.
I personally cannot–and never did–condone revenge, as I categorically believe in justice as the moral alternative. But, unless this bloody war is stopped, the invaders withdrawn and justice administered to all (in accordance with the tenets of international law and the basic principles of morality), I regrettably cannot but expect unbridled revenge to come. And experience has taught us to predict that will be no charade.
* Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian political analyst. His article â€œ9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Termsâ€ was chosen among the â€œBest of 2002â€ by the Guardian. His articles have appeared in the Hartford Courant, Al-Ahram (Cairo), among others.
He can be reached at [email protected]