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Thanks to Sukumar Muralidharan for the original post ... === http://www.thestatesman.net/page.editorial.php3?id=1071&theme=A THE STATESMAN (CALCUTTA AND NEW DELHI) 6 April 2000 Heart-wrenching, shaming stuff By WILLIAM RADICE I DON'T usually write about politics in this column, or about things I only know from television or the newspapers. I prefer to write from experience. But sometimes a newspaper article or a television report makes such an impact that it feels like first-hand experience. I dare say every committed reporter hopes to have that effect, and one such reporter is John Pilger. His articles and films are so impassioned, so driven by moral outrage that they risk being seen as biased. To the politicians whose unctuous self-interest and squirming hypocrisy he brilliantly exposes, he is probably a dangerous over-simplifier. During the years of the cold war, he was, if I remember rightly, labelled a Communist sympathiser by those in the opposite camp. But now that left/right labels are well-nigh meaningless, he commands widespread respect as someone who cares. His craggy Australian face looks wearied by too much direct observation of barbarism, but not at all hardened to it. He makes us look at things we prefer to forget; his deadpan voice goes straight to the point - challenges us face the simple, moral core of seemingly complex issues. Ever since the Gulf War of 1991, I've taken an interest in Iraq - to the extent that I always read any newspaper article I see about the country, about Saddam, and the effects of the UN sanctions that have been imposed for the last nine years. But more than anything else on the subject that I've seen or read, John Pilger's Channel Four documentary on 6 March, Paying the Price: the Killing of the Children of Iraq, jolted it to the surface of my mind. Many other people who saw the programme must have been similarly appalled, and it may be that it will ultimately be seen as a turning point, a moment when public opinion began to come out strongly against the sanctions policy and influence our leaders to abandon it. I sincerely hope so. Pilger's documentary focused, quite rightly, on the plight of the children of Iraq, on the dreadful effect that the sanctions have had on their health and nutrition, on the lack of medicines to treat leukemia and other cancers whose sharply increased incidence obviously derives from the radioactive pollution left behind by the Gulf War. Dr Jinan Ghalib Hassen, a pediatrician, was interviewed at length, with her listless young patients in the background; and Denis Halliday, a former assistant secretary-general in the UN who resigned over the sanctions issue, introduced viewers to a beautiful young girl who had been cured of leukemia, but only because he was personally and illegally able to supply her with the right medicines. Another memorable contributor to the programme was Anu-pama Rao Singh, Unicef's representative in Iraq, who spoke about mental health problems among Iraqi children. Speak-ing in front of a school that lacked the most basic amenities, she said that "one out of two" schools in Iraq were in that state, and that a whole generation was growing up with "a total sense of isolation, a lack of any hope in the future". Pilger was merciless with the spokesmen for the sanctions policy who agreed to talk. James Rubin, of the US State Department, was forced to concede that the effect on the general population had been "worse than we had anticipated", but said that steps were being taken to mitigate this (he didn't say which steps). Ambassador Peter van Wal-sun, chairman of the UN Sanc-tions Committee, astonished Pilger by saying, "You've got to understand, a sanctions regime is not a form of development aid." It was "one of the coercive measures that the Security Council has at its disposal"; it stopped short of military action, but like military action was bound to cause some "collateral damage". "Tens of thousands of people have died," said Pilger. "Do you call this collateral damage? If the sanctions policy was designed to prevent Saddam developing weapons of mass destruction, why were there no sanctions against Israel? And if they were supposed to stop him terrorising the Kurds, why were there no sanctions against Turkey?" At this the ambassador weakly said, "Well, many countries do things that we're not happy with, but this is the situation that has arisen through the invasion of Kuwait, and that is the explanation of it." For anyone like me who has strong artistic interests, two sections of the film were especially haunting. One was the interview with Mohammed Amin Ezzet, conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra, and the footage of him conducting a dispirited rendering of Tchai-kovsky played on painfully out-of-tune instruments. The players have been unable to get new instruments or even new strings during the years of the embargo; nor have they been able to travel abroad. Mr Ezzet conducts with horribly burned hands, the result of a kitchen fire in which his wife was burnt to death - a direct consequence of a lack of safe cooking fuel. Equally moving was Pilger's encounter with Mohammad Ghani, Iraq's greatest living sculptor. Speaking eloquently in English, he explained that his studio was near a hospital, hence the small figures he had made of women with children in their arms, waiting for the hospital to open. "It's very evo-cative," said Pilger, "because the door is closed." Another sculpture showed a woman with no milk in her breasts, her child at her feet, trying in vain to reach up to them. And finally there was a series of tiny bowed figures carrying enormous blocks of stone - the burden of their lives. "My idea," said Ghani simply, "no one asked me to do it." It was harrowing, heart-wrenching, shaming stuff. To get a more nuanced, more academic view, I went to a colleague of mine at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Dr Charles Tripp, head of the Department of Political Stu-dies, and au-thor of a history of Iraq shortly to be published by Cambridge University Press. I began by asking Charles if he had approved of "Operation Desert Storm", the war in 1991 that liberated Kuwait. He replied that he did approve, given that the UN couldn't countenance the annexation of an entire state. It was a tactical blunder on Saddam's part to have taken the whole of Kuwait: if he had merely grabbed part of it, he might have got away with it. With hindsight, could anything else have been done, after sanctions - imposed four days after the invasion - failed to get him out? It's possible, said Charles, that if the allies had done nothing, Saudi Arabia and maybe the other oil-rich Gulf states would have bought Saddam out - and that indeed was probably his hope, rather than any permanent expansion of territory. There was an economic motive behind the invasion that I don't remember being discussed or explained at the time, and to understand it one needs to know about the earlier Gulf War - the war between Iraq and Iran. Charles lucidly filled in the background for me. Saddam started the war against Iran in September 1980, expecting it to last three months. His objectives were limited in terms of territory, and were mainly concerned with overthrowing the Shatt Al-Arab waterway concessions that had been made to Iran in the Treaty of Algiers in 1975. Saddam had been involved in negotiating the treaty before he became President, and ever since had felt vulnerable to a charge of having bartered away Iraqi territory (in return for a promise from the Shah of Iran not to help Kurdish rebels). Like other Arab leaders, he was alarmed by the Iranian re-volution, feared that its fundamentalist fervour could spread, and wanted to check it. Moreover, the Iranian army was in chaos, so the opportunity to seize some cities along the east bank of the Shatt Al-Arab was tempting. Charles said he remembered the journalist Edward Morti-mer saying at the time, "Never attack a revolution." Saddam didn't reckon on the fanatical resistance of Iranians, the "human waves" that were poured into beating the Iraqis back. As is well known, Western powers - first France, then the USA and Britain - were happy to supply Saddam with arms to meet the Iranian attacks. This greatly extended the war, and enabled Saddam to build up a gigantic army. The USSR supplied arms too, when the Iranians appeared to be threatening Iraq itself. Charles spoke of Saddam's "philosophy of military excess" - the staggering number of field guns, for example, that were placed wheel to wheel round Basra; the vast network of underground bunkers that were much described at the time of the 1991 war. There was indeed megalomania in this build-up (including the development of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons) - but more than that there was paranoia. The "human wave" tactics terrified the Iraqis; the memory of them terrifies them still. Arguably, the sheer existence of this vast military machine influenced its use against Kuwait. But the essential point to grasp is that it put Iraq massively in debt to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. They had been prepared to bankroll Saddam's arms build-up because they too were paranoid about Iran. Saddam thought he had fought Iran on their behalf: he therefore expected them to write off the debt. It was mainly because of the debt that Iraq invaded Kuwait. Was it true, what we were told at the time and have been told many times since, that Iraq's military might posed a threat to Israel and the entire region? Charles discounted this. He said that Saddam actually understood "the language of deterrence" very well. He used chemical weapons brutally against the Kurds and also against the utterly defenceless Marsh Arabs in the south of Iraq. (The destruction by Saddam of their unique culture, and their expulsion to miserable refugee camps in Iran, has been one of the worst acts of his regime, and has been insufficiently publicised.) But he had not and would not use them against Israel, because Israel had them too. The same applied to his other weapons of mass destruction. Were Margaret Thatcher and other armchair warriors right to say that the allies should have "finished the job" - gone on to Baghdad, overthrown Saddam, and tried to set up a democratic state? Charles was very sceptical about that. Thatcher's view was "just rhetoric", and stemmed from her pique at being ousted as Prime Minister before the Gulf War ended, to be replaced by the wimpish John Major - when it was she who had "put backbone" into President George Bush and encouraged him to fight the war. "The notion of foreign-imposed democracy is very tricky," he said. The allies would have faced a chaotic power vacuum, as in Lebanon when the Americans intervened there. It was not like the Bangladesh Liberation War, for example, when the Indian army was able to go the whole way, because there was already a fledgling government in waiting. Finally we talked about the sanctions themselves. Charles said they had been a failure, in both their explicit and implicit objectives. They had not secured and would not secure the total disarmament of Iraq: the capability - the knowhow - for weapons of mass destruction remained, even if the means had been temporarily removed. Saddam (whose overthrow may not be the official purpose of the sanctions, but is certainly the unofficial one) was still in power - possibly more firmly in power than he would have been if sanctions had never been imposed. The only thing they had achieved was reparations for Kuwait, which have been paid by subtracting a percentage of Iraq's permitted oil revenue. So Charles Tripp agreed with John Pilger that sanctions were wrong and should cease; but he diverged from Pilger's view in one important respect. Pilger implied that Iraq has indeed been emasculated in military terms, and there is therefore no political justification for the sanctions, quite apart from their cruelty. (Another of his interviewees was a former UN weapons inspector, who said that Saddam's capability in the chemical, biological and nuclear fields was now "zero" and the sanctions should therefore be stopped.) But Charles believed that deterrence would have to be used to contain the threat in the short term. In the long term, a new "security framework" for the region was required - much more difficult to organise than a sanctions regime, which is why America and other powers hold back from it. Charles also emphasised how the destruction of Iraqi civil society - so movingly portrayed in Pilger's film - had actually reinforced Saddam's "shadow state", the "500,000" whose loyalty he needs to remain in power: how the privileges of that shadow state are not confined to the rich, but are claimed by those who belong to favoured tribes or clans. To me, this seems ultimately the most dangerous consequence of the sanctions. It's rather like the effect of war reparations on Germany after World War I. From the wounds inflicted by the sanctions, something even more monstrous than Saddam could emerge. And many more people could then pay the price, not just the children of Iraq. -- ----------------------------------------------------------------------- This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq For removal from list, email firstname.lastname@example.org Full details of CASI's various lists can be found on the CASI website: http://welcome.to/casi