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Moved by Pilger: "Heart-wrenching, shaming stuff"

Thanks to Sukumar Muralidharan for the original post ...

Heart-wrenching, shaming stuff


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

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

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

"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

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.

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