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[casi] Blair's crumbling case

As my monthly rant for Labour Left Briefing contains a section about
Blair's argument about sanctions, I thought I'd post it onto this list.
Comments, insults etc gladly appreciated.

Past articles are archived at:

Print copies of the March edition, in which an edited version of this
article appears, are available on request.


Blair's crumbling case for war

Dr Glen Rangwala of Newnham College, Cambridge, assesses the new argument
for an invasion of Iraq

The appearance of the Prime Minister's new "moral case" for war from his
Glasgow conference speech of 15 February derives from the failure of his
prior justifications for invading Iraq. The claims about chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons facilities inside Iraq that formed the heart
of his September 2002 dossier have been discredited through the inspections
of those facilities by United Nations teams, who have found no evidence for
the production of these weapons. As for the later dossier on an
"infrastructure of concealment" inside Iraq, the government's case was
subject to public humiliation when a certain contributor to the Briefing
spotted that large chunks of it were plagiarised from a Californian
doctoral student's thesis that used documents which were at least 12 years
old as its primary source.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council
on 5 February was more substantive. He attempted to make the case that
inspectors would not be able to find any illicit weapons that Iraq might
hold: Iraq, Powell argued, would always be able to hide its weapons
facilities. Therefore, as the subtext of the argument went, the only way to
achieve Iraq's disarmament was to pull the inspectors out and to invade.

The only problem was the inspectors themselves had a very different
perspective. Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei presented to the Security
Council an overview of the work of their inspections agencies on 14
February. They took issue with no less than 16 of Powell's claims about
Iraq. Powell had argued that Iraq was covertly receiving information about
imminent inspections, and was using this information to move its weapons
before the inspectors arrived, thus defeating the entire purpose of the
inspections regime. Blix took this claim head-on. "Since we arrived in
Iraq, we have conducted more than 400 inspections covering more than 300
sites. All inspections were performed without notice, and access was almost
always provided promptly," said Blix. "In no case have we seen convincing
evidence that the Iraqi side knew in advance that the inspectors were

With the inspectors arguing for the success of their work, and
acknowledging Iraq's substantive cooperation, the argument for pulling the
inspectors out could scarcely look weaker. The day after the inspectors
presented their findings, two million people were on the streets of London
to protest against the war. That morning, in anticipation of the
demonstration, Blair changed his argument. Now the goal was not to remove
the threat of non-conventional weapons; it was to liberate the people of
Iraq from their government. Blair had already chosen his corner; now he
managed to box himself into it. Leaving Saddam Hussein in place, Blair
argued, would be "inhumane".

This was not so much a shifting of the goal posts, but the start of a whole
new ball game. Blair's new argument has three strands to it: the economic
sanctions, the human rights violations and the purported urgings of Iraqi
groups and exiled individuals. All these themes had been mentioned before
by the British government, but they now took centre stage in the
justification for war.

The justification about economic sanctions was first aired by Blair on 12
February in the Commons: "The only alternative to disarmament by the United
Nations is that we keep sanctions in place year on year, and I am simply
saying that that is also a moral choice with bad and devastating
consequences for the Iraqi people." Given that the Prime Minister was
claiming that Iraq was not disarming, he was presenting the policy
alternatives as either war or sanctions. Blair described the effects of

"let us look at the morality of the present policy that we have towards
Iraq and the policy that we have had for the past 12 years—a policy
of sanctions that, because of the way that Saddam has implemented those
sanctions, leaves Iraq in this state: with 130 deaths per 1,000 children
under the age of 5, with 60 per cent. of the population on food aid, with
half the Iraqis in rural areas having no access to safe water".

The new attention to the dire poverty that Iraqis have been in for the past
12 years is surely welcome. It marks a sea change from when former Foreign
Office minister Peter Hain dismissed campaigners' concerns about sanctions
in November 2000 by claiming (inaccurately) that there were no reliable
figures on child malnutrition in Iraq. What is still absent in the Prime
Minister's statement is an acknowledgement of responsibility for the
effects of sanctions. He continues to blame "the way that Saddam has
implemented those sanctions", an assessment not borne out by the facts or
shared by the United Nations agencies in Iraq.

One of the most striking features about sanctions is not only the level of
deprivation inside Iraq, but also the change that has taken place since
1990. The findings of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) are that
there has been a surge in the childhood mortality in Iraq from one in
eighteen children not reaching their fifth birthday in the 1984-1989 period
to over one in eight children in the period 1994-1999. The regime has
remained the same, but there have been some 500,000 deaths of children by
this analysis that would not have taken place if the developments of the
1980s had continued.

The argument of the Foreign Office has been that Saddam Hussein has abused
the sanctions regime for propaganda purposes. Clearly, the Iraqi government
has on occasion wasted the revenues that it has been allowed to earn
through oil exports, as part of the "oil-for-food" programme. But this has
been a drop in an ocean of economic despair. During twelve years of
sanctions, Iraq has generated about as much oil revenue in total as it did
in the single peak year prior to the implementation of sanctions, when the
Iraqi population was half of what it is today. Through the oil sales,
Iraqis have earned the equivalent of 50-60 cents per day for the past six
years, a sum that has to provide for all their needs. The petty frivolities
of the Iraqi government are relatively insignificant when compared to the
enormous drop in the earnings of Iraqis caused by the sanctions system.

In addition, the Foreign Office has claimed that Iraq has not properly
distributed the supplies it has received through the oil-for-food
programme. This claim receives no support from the United Nations in Iraq,
responsible for overseeing the distribution of supplies. In 2000, the UN
Food and Agriculture Organisation called the Iraqi rationing system
"effective", and said that famine had been averted in Iraq because of this
effectiveness. In February 2002, Unicef described the distribution of food
rations by the Iraqi government as "a massive logistic operation that
appears to work flawlessly". All other UN reports commenting on the issue
give similar pictures.

The Prime Minister asserts that the alternative to war is continued
sanctions. However, with weapons inspectors in place in Iraq, the previous
excuse for sanctions - that Iraq could import prohibited weapons in their
absence - falls away. By not considering the lifting of sanctions without
war, Blair is refusing to substantively improve the humanitarian condition
of the people inside Iraq, his purported goal.

To justify war in the name of human rights - Blair's second strand - is to
ignore the very real destruction that would be caused by war itself. The
people of Iraq are in a highly vulnerable position, dependent upon a
government ration for all their basic food supplies, and upon a fragile
infrastructure for their water and sanitation. The lack of attention to the
humanitarian consequences of war was shown in the Prime Minister's press
conference of 18 February. Blair was quizzed about a confidential report
from the United Nations dated 7 January that was leaked to the Campaign
Against Sanctions on Iraq, which on the basis of the extensive experience
of the UN agencies in Iraq, assessed that in a "medium" scenario of
conflict "30 percent of children under 5 would be at risk of death from
malnutrition". As there are 4.2 million children under 5, this makes a
total of 1.26 million children at risk of death - by the UN's own estimate
- in the event of war. Blair did not even address the problem in his
flustered reply, reverting instead to his theme of the deaths caused by the
human rights abuses of the Iraqi regime. Why the UK should kill in the
space of a projected two months of conflict potentially as many people as
the Saddam Hussein regime has taken 23 years to murder was left

His silence on this theme was understandable, given that the UK has yet to
commit a single penny for humanitarian work to alleviate the consequences
of war. The US has committed $15 million, which is the same amount it
spends on its military every 21 minutes. If the Prime Minister had explored
this theme, it would have been made apparent just how low the humanitarian
situation of the Iraqi people is on the scale of UK and US priorities.

Blair's trump card has been to invoke the support that certain Iraqi
opposition groups and individuals have given to war. He published a series
of letters from exiles to this effect. One of the letters Blair brandished
was from Hamid al-Bayati, the London-based spokesman of the Supreme Council
for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI is suspected of having
organised the armed attack on the US embassy in Kuwait in December 1983 and
attempting the assassination of the amir of Kuwait in April 1985, in
response to both those countries' support for Iraq during the war with
Iran. The distance from those acts to being called upon by the UK Prime
Minister to justify his foreign policy stance is clearly not so long.

The US likewise has been able to call upon the Iraqi National Congress
(INC) since its creation in 1992 to support its military adventures. The
INC is the manufactured boy band of Iraqi politics, with its song sheet and
stage management coming straight from the Pentagon. Even their name was
reputedly chosen by the Rendon group, a public relations firm that has
worked closely with successive US administrations to sell their policy

Unsurprisingly, these groups have little support inside Iraq. Surveys in
the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq, and by the International Crisis Group
in Baghdad-controlled Iraq, have shown widespread distrust for them. The
historic Iraqi opposition, which is viewed more positively - the Iraqi
Communist Party, the Islamic Call party and groupings of Arab nationalists
- have all voiced their opposition to a US invasion.

Given the lack of support inside Iraq, the difficulties in establishing a
pro-US democracy after an invasion are apparent. Marc Grossman, the US
undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate foreign
relations committee on 11 February that a military occupation could last
"two years" and would involve an American military governor, control over
civilian ministries and the Iraqi oil industry. He played down any hope for
the Iraqi opposition playing a major role in the governance of the country.
SCIRI's response was to send up to 2000 members of its armed forces into
northern Iraq to display its potential to fracture the anti-Saddam

"While we are listening to what the Iraqis are telling us, the United
States Government will make its decisions based on what is in the national
interest of the United States," said Grossman. That interest, for a stable
Iraq, appears to involve keeping the bureaucracy and army structures of the
current regime in place. In these circumstances, whether exchanging
President Saddam Hussein for General Tommy Franks or Premier Chalabi will
make a substantive difference to human rights inside Iraq, even in the
long-term, is very much an open question.

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