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[casi] Pilger: "Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us"

Worth remembering, I think.

(I tried to post this yesterday, but it bounced.)


--------START FWD--------
The New Statesman (UK)

Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us

John Pilger Monday 20th March 2000

The Foreign Office repeatedly hides the truth from the
public: on Cambodia, on East Timor, on arms sales and now
on sanctions.

By John Pilger

Mark Higson was the Iraq desk officer at the Foreign
Office in 1989 when the British government was still
giving Saddam Hussein almost anything he wanted, secretly
and illegally, a year before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Higson,
who resigned in protest, was one of the few British
officials commended by the Scott inquiry into the arms-to-
Iraq scandal. He described "a culture of lying" at the
Foreign Office.

"The draft letters I wrote for various ministers," he
later told me, "were saying that nothing had changed, the
embargo on the sale of arms to Iraq was the same."

"Was that true?" I asked.

"No, it wasn't true..."

"And your superiors knew it wasn't true?"

"Yes. If I was writing a draft reply for a minister,
replying to a letter from an MP, I wrote the agreed line.
I also wrote replies to go to members of the public. The
letters were awfully polite. But we were all quite well
aware that nothing had changed: that Jordan was being used
[to get arms to Iraq]."

"So how much truth did the public get?"

"The public got as much truth as we could squeeze out,
given that we told downright lies..."

I went to the Foreign Office that same year, 1989, to
interview Lord Brabazon, a junior minister. The subject
was Cambodia. The Thatcher government was then supporting
the Khmer Rouge-led coalition and the SAS was secretly
providing training in mine-laying. Like its part in the
arms-to-Iraq scandal, the Foreign Office was lying about
it. (Two years later, the Major government owned up.)

I was met by a minder from the news department, Ian
Whitehead, who took me aside, as he was no doubt used to
doing with journalists, and told me to "go easy" on the
minister. With the interview under way, he began shouting
that I had departed from the "agreed line of questioning".
No "line" had been agreed. These days, the style is less
obtuse, but the aim is the same.

Senior broadcasters and commentators pop in to the Foreign
Office without any material favours expected; for them,
the flattery and "access" are enough. Thus, much of the
world is represented in terms of its usefulness to western

Over the years, I have been able to observe how the
Foreign Office, the last true citadel of the British
imperium, treats the public. From time to time,
documentary films that I have made have caused people to
write to the government and their MPs, seeking answers to
serious questions about the effects of British policies on
large numbers of human beings all over the world. East
Timor was a prime example. For years, British officials
denied any British complicity in the genocide there and
sought to devalue the scale of suffering. One official, J
L Wilkins of the South East Asia department, was the
prolific author of replies to the public. "No one really
knows the truth" about the death toll, was his message,
because some estimates "are sometimes so dramatically
different" from the British government's that they "cannot
help but suspect them to be exaggerated." The same
devotion to historical accuracy was shown by another
official who, when asked about the huge death toll,
replied, "Yes, but it didn't happen in one year."

In 1993, a letter sent to the Labour MP Greg Pope, and
signed by a senior official in the Indonesia section,
claimed: "We are currently pressing the Indonesians to
allow resumed [Red Cross] access to Xanana Gusmao." This
was entirely bogus. An internal Foreign Office memorandum,
which accompanied the letter, read: "Attached for
infn/edification. The letter is for stonewalling."

The sale of British Aerospace Hawk aircraft to Indonesia,
and their use in East Timor, is a famous case in point. In
1978, when David Owen, the Labour foreign secretary,
approved the export of the first Hawks to Indonesia, a
young MP called Robin Cook described the sale as
"particularly disturbing" because the Jakarta regime was
"at war in East Timor".

Sixteen years later, Cook, now a member of Labour's front
bench, lambasted the Tories for selling more Hawks to
Indonesia. The minister, said Cook, "will be aware that
Hawk aircraft have been seen on bombing runs in East Timor
in most years since 1984". He was right. Indeed, Mark
Higson told me that the Foreign Office had known all along
exactly where and how the Hawks were being used in East

Five years later, with Labour in office and Cook the
Foreign Secretary, Foreign Office officials continued to
lie in off-the-record briefings to prominent journalists
that Hawks were not being used in East Timor. There was
plenty of evidence to the contrary; but it was only last
year, when the world's press finally discovered East
Timor, and a Hawk swept menacingly over Dili, the capital,
that the Foreign Office came clean - with Robin Cook
expressing indignation that the Indonesians could do such
a thing, his expose from the opposition benches long

This brings us to the great suffering in Iraq, where 200
children die every day under the most ruthless embargo in
the modern era, enforced principally by the United States
and Britain and sustained by arguably the biggest lie of
all. "We must nail the absurd claim," said Cook, "that
sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi
people." Again, the evidence to the contrary has been
overwhelming. According to Unicef, half a million children
have died in eight years, having borne "the brunt of the
economic hardship" caused by sanctions.

Because few journalists bother to go to Iraq and the
propaganda of an entire society's guilt by association
with a tyrant has been seldom questioned, the suffering
and its principal cause are not news. Iraqis are media
"unpeople". So Cook can say, unchallenged: "Food and
medicines have never been covered by sanctions." In fact,
while food, medicines and "supplies for essential civilian
needs" are technically exempt from sanctions, the truth is
very different: Iraq is prevented from obtaining foreign
currency and therefore from funding the minimum needs of
the population. Shortly before he resigned in protest
against sanctions, Hans von Sponeck, the UN humanitarian
co-ordinator in Baghdad, explained: "We are allowed just
$180 [over six months] for every Iraqi. Everything must
come out of that: food, water, health, power. How can
people live a proper life on that? It is not possible."
Currently, approval for $1.5 billions'-worth of vital
humanitarian-delayed shipments is "on hold" at the UN
Sanctions Committee in New York, which Washington and
London dominate. This includes food and $150 million worth
of medical supplies.

Then there is the $10-billion lie. Cook told parliament
that Iraq "can now sell over $10 billion of oil per annum
to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods."
Under the oil-for-food programme, the UN controls all the
revenue from sales of Iraqi oil and allocates only 66 per
cent for humanitarian supplies.

The balance, more than a third of the revenue, pays
compensation to the multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royal family
and western oil companies and "expenses" to the UN. The
oil-for-food programme, said the Economist, was "a
meaningless gesture", because the Iraqi oil industry had
been so devastated by allied bombing that it could not
pump the quantity of oil permitted by the Security
Council. And less oil means less food and medicine, and
more dying children.

Last month, the UN executive in charge of the sanctions
office in New York attacked the Security Council (that is,
the US and Britain) for holding up shipments of oil
industry parts, which the Security Council had already
approved. This followed an extraordinary attack by Kofi
Annan, the UN secretary-general, on the US and by
implication on Britain, for "using its muscle to put
indefinite 'holds' on more than $500 million in
humanitarian goods that Iraq would like to buy". A senior
US official told the Washington Post: "The longer we can
fool around in the [Security] Council and keep things
static, the better."

Then there is the lie that the Baghdad regime is culpably
hoarding food and medicine while the population goes
without. Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, offered
this in recent letters to the New Statesman and the
Guardian. "The goods that come into this country are
distributed to where they belong," said von Sponeck, the
senior UN official in charge. "Our most recent stock
analysis shows that 88.8 per cent of all humanitarian
supplies have been distributed." Unicef and the World Food
Programme confirm this. The medicines which, says Hain,
"lie in warehouses" are there because, as UN officials
tirelessly explain, the World Health Organisation has
instructed Iraq to maintain emergency buffer stocks and
actually wants these increased. Because of the delays in
New York, they say, supplies arrive erratically: for
example, IV fluids frequently turn up ahead of equipment,
without which they are useless.

Much of the latest Foreign Office propaganda has come
almost word-for-word from a US State Department briefing
document, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, distributed last
September. Denis Halliday, the former UN assistant
secretary-general who also resigned in protest rather than
continue to administer the oil-for-food programme, has
analysed this report, describing it as "garbage from
beginning to end". Saddam Hussein's palaces are said to
cover "an area greater than Paris". In fact, UN weapons
inspectors found his palaces to be nearer the size of

Such desperation is evident in the government's response
to the ITV documentary on Iraq that I made with Alan
Lowery, Paying the Price, which, on 6 March, drew a
powerful response from the public. Peter Hain, having
metamorphosed in the depressingly time-honoured way from a
principled political activist to yet another Foreign
Office mouthpiece, wrote in the Guardian that Saddam
Hussein "makes sure there are plenty of malnourished
children to film". Those of us who, unlike him, have
watched Iraqi children dying in front of us, reserve a
particular contempt for such an obscenity, and wilful
ignorance. Tens of thousands of malnourished children need
no setting up; they are everywhere. And they are dying
because this government bans vaccines and blocks standard
equipment like blood platelet machines, and refuses to
allow the restoration of clean drinking-water: a universal
child saver. Hain might like to see a cancer patient dying
in pain, denied morphine by this government, as I did.

Having brought a born-again zeal to his new career, Hain
indulges in smear. "The friends of the Iraqi regime," he
told parliament, are "all those who in one way or another
lend their weight" to Iraq's opposition to sanctions.
Dupes, in other words. As for the parallels that he draws
with the sanctions against South Africa, these are absurd.
Unlike Iraq, which imported 70 per cent of its essentials,
South Africa was largely self-sufficient in food, and the
majority of people and the ANC supported the disinvestment
and cultural and sporting isolation that hit the white
elite. In Iraq, there has been an opposite effect; instead
of weakening the regime, the resistance has been weakened,
and the majority made more powerless than ever. That is
why both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have publicly
opposed sanctions against Iraq. To Hain, they must be
dupes, too.

Both Richard Butler and Scott Ritter, late of Unscom, the
weapons inspections agency, have said that Saddam Hussein
has been disarmed of his weapons of mass destruction. With
all non-military sanctions lifted, Baghdad has indicated
that the inspectors can return. What alarms the US and
Britain is a section of the original Resolution 687 on
Iraq, which they never mention. This calls for the
downgrading of weapons of mass destruction throughout the
region, meaning the nuclear-armed Israeli invaders of
Lebanon and the Turkish invaders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It
would also mean the scaling down of the west's arming of
countries like Saudi Arabia, upon which much of Britain's
weapons trade depends.

The truth is that the policy of sanctions is
disintegrating, with US oil companies already making
secret peace with Baghdad. In the US State Department,
sanctions are dismissed as "Albright's vendetta", and
those officials and diplomats with an instinct for career
survival are keeping their distance and their silence
during the presidential campaign.

At the Foreign Office, there is sub-imperial confusion.
Jon Davies, the head of the Iraq desk - who has never been
to Iraq - stood up at a conference and blamed the
Americans, then told his listeners that his remarks were
"off the record". It seems that the FO wants Britain to be
a bridge between the US and Europe, and if the government
opposed sanctions, the Americans would be displeased and
the great strategy would suffer.

That this obsequious bit of realpolitik has nothing to do
with Iraq, let alone its dying children, is by the by.
Davies has said privately that last December's Security
Council Resolution 1284, which Hain promotes as a
breakthrough, changes nothing. Publicly, the Foreign
Office says the opposite, of course.

It was understandable that no member of the government
would be interviewed by me for Paying the Price without
Millbank conditions of control. In parliament, Robin Cook
entirely misrepresented his refusal to appear, claiming he
was denied a "right of reply". For two months, I offered
him a major interview, with the bulk of the questions
supplied beforehand so he could prepare his responses to
longstanding criticisism. Unlike the secretary-general of
the UN and the US State Department spokesman, he demanded
special "as live" treatment. Our fearless Foreign
Secretary, an FO man explained, did not want to be
"skewered" nor appear in a film "with dying babies". I
asked for Peter Hain, who in last week's NS described me
as his old friend. But he too was available only on spin-
doctors' terms.

I offer him this old friend's advice: sanctions against
the Iraqi people breach a multitude of international laws,
including the Nuremberg Charter and the Convenant against
Genocide. Even Margaret Thatcher is careful where she
travels these days, lest she be indicted. So take care,
Peter, that you are not assigned the last watch as others
scuttle overboard, leaving a murderous policy that is
already regarded, judicially not rhetorically, as an epic
crime against humanity. Think of the company you keep, and
the words of Denis Halliday: "History will slaughter those

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