Returning from a visit to Baghdad in late January, Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit described how he was “shocked and discouraged” by what he had seen:
“I was overwhelmed with sadness over what is happening to the people of Iraq, and also to the US troops there.” With unemployment approaching 60 percent and food supplies dwindling, Gumbleton reported, ordinary Iraqis “are humiliated and feel degraded” as they try to cope without electricity, telephones and – in some places – running water: “Without exception, people said things were worse now than before the war.”
Gumbleton noted that US officials live and work in the Coalition Provisional Authority’s compound, nicknamed the “Dream Zone”:
“Inside the Dream Zone, they don’t know what is going on in the city… They don’t know the deprivations the people are putting up with. They don’t have jobs. Right now, people are getting the same amount of basic food as they have been getting through the oil-for-food program, but there is the fear that could be running out. The city is just very depressing.” (‘Iraqis still suffering, says Bishop Gumbleton after visiting Iraq’, Robert Delaney, Catholic News Service, January 29, 2004)
Also in late January, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported an increase in cases of encephalitis in Baghdad over the preceding two weeks, “raising concerns about the state of children’s healthcare in the country”. This followed a recent report by a leading health organisation which found that youngsters remained vulnerable to malnutrition. The UN reported the despairing views of one doctor, Rada, at the Children’s Teaching Hospital:
“You can see the children here. There is much suffering among them. No one seems to be helping them. We have been to the ministry of heath for assistance and to the Americans. We have received nothing so far.” (‘IRAQ: Encephalitis affecting children’, IRIN, January 26, 2004, www.reliefweb.int)
Qasim Ali Abid, chief resident doctor at the same hospital, explained that the leading cause of death among his patients was from secondary infections caught while undergoing in-patient treatment. Hospital statistics put the secondary infection rate at 80 percent – a staggering rate for a Middle Eastern country like Iraq.
A prime cause, Dr. Abid said, is open sewage on the premises mixing with drinking water:
“There is sewage blocking the pipes. It is now in the water supply.” (‘Some hospitals become breeding ground for disease’, IRIN, January 28, 2004, www.relief.int)
Rubble from pre-war maintenance also remains inside the building and there are only two toilets per floor of the four floor building for all patients, nurses, doctors and family members. Iraqi hospitals have been chronically short of medical supplies, trained doctors and money since the toppling of Saddam on April 9 last year.
All of this is reflexively blamed on Saddam’s regime. Unbeknownst to the public, in 1996 the Centre for Economic and Social Rights reported of pre-Gulf War Iraq:
“Over 90% of the population had access to primary health-care, including laboratory diagnosis and immunisations for childhood diseases such as polio and diphtheria. During the 1970s and 80s, British and Japanese companies built scores of large, modern hospitals throughout Iraq, with advanced technologies for diagnosis, operations and treatment. Secondary and tertiary services, including surgical care and laboratory investigative support, were available to most of the Iraqi population at nominal charges. Iraqi medical and nursing schools emphasised education of women and attracted students from throughout the Middle East. A majority of Iraqi physicians were trained in Europe or the United States, and one-quarter were board-certified specialists.” (UN Sanctioned Suffering, May 1996, http://www.cesr.org)
These are small glimpses, almost never reported in the media, of the cataclysm inflicted on Iraq by the West. Desperately short of even the most basic medicines and facilities since the invasion, no questions have been asked on TV news, there have been no calls for emergency donations of medical supplies from the US or UK.
The war has so far claimed some 55,000 Iraqi lives, including 9,600 civilians, with 1,000 Iraqi children killed or injured by unexploded cluster bombs every month.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Iraqis are the only victims of this tragedy. Writing from the media’s own “Dream Zone” in today’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee notes:
“Wars either make or break prime ministers, according to the pollsters – and this war is all but breaking Tony Blair… It is turning into a classical tragedy because it is one of his own making, wrought by his own fatal flaw.” (‘Revenge or victory’, Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, February 6, 2004)
“Blair’s personal tragedy is the squandering of his political capital over Iraq.”
In her article, Toynbee has not one word to say about the “personal tragedy” suffered by literally hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Iraqis.
On the other hand, all of these grisly means are surely justified by the uniquely moral nature of the ends, at least if the post-Hutton BBC is to be believed. On its February 3 lunchtime news, the BBC featured a clip of Sir Harold Walker, former ambassador to Baghdad, saying of Saddam Hussein’s regime:
“It was the most brutal tyranny, I think, in human history.”
This recalls a comment made by Digby Jones, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, on the BBC’s Question Time programme. Jones claimed that Saddam had killed 3 million people (BBC1, April 10, 2003). No one blinked an eye.
The Independent’s Johann Hari puts the BBC’s performance in proper perspective, suggesting that “much of the BBC’s crisis derives from an attempt by the corporation to mimic the attack-dog culture of the British tabloids”, with Andrew Gilligan having “the single mission to dig up dirt on the Government”. This “anti-politics” has undermined the whole purpose of the BBC: “to provide a more sober, less hysterical, more informed forum for debate.” (Hari, ‘Why the BBC-bashers must not be allowed to destroy public service broadcasting’, The Independent, January 30, 2004)
To be clear, the BBC ceases to be a “sober, less hysterical” forum when it “digs up dirt” on the government”. When it shovels dirt +for+ the government by ranking Saddam above Hitler and Stalin in the league of tyrants, by failing for ten years to expose the genocidal impact of Western sanctions, by failing to make even the most obvious challenges to the government’s pre-war lies on WMD, and when the BBC’s Andrew Marr emotes that Tony Blair “stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result” of invading Iraq, there is no problem.
As ever, the only tragedy that matters is the suffering and damage inflicted on powerful interests – the vast horrors inflicted by them on others barely register. Anyone who tries to buck the trend is reviled, slandered and sentenced to career death.
As we know, the human catastrophe inflicted on Iraq went ahead against huge domestic and international opposition. Tony Blair’s support, in particular, was crucial in affording George Bush the required fig leaf of international legitimacy. Without Blair on board, it is conceivable that Bush might not have been able to wage his war.
On Channel 4 News (February 4, 2004), former senior US intelligence officer, Greg Thielmann, said:
“I believe, and again not based on first-hand experience but conclusions that I was reaching then and since, that the decision to go to war was made in the fall of 2001 – we were oblivious to that decision having been reached at the time. And I have to conclude that that decision was shared with prime minister Blair in August of 2002.” (Channel 4 News, February 4, 2004)
This fits quite well with what we known about when Blair began focusing on the idea that Iraq’s non-existent WMDs were a threat.
In 1998, according to the Guardian/Observer website, Blair had next to nothing to say about the threat posed by Iraq. In December 1998, for example, Blair branded the Iraqi president as merely a “serial breaker of promises” as he justified the launch of a joint US-British strike to “degrade” Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. (‘Missile blitz on Iraq’, Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, December 17, 1998)
Then, just three days of air strikes were deemed sufficient to keep Saddam ‘in his box’. No invasion was needed to avert a “serious and current threat”.
Throughout 1999 and 2000, the Guardian/Observer record next to no mention of fears of Iraq’s alleged WMD (understandable, as we now know they didn’t exist) or of its supposed links to terrorism (also understandable, as there were none).
The Guardian/Observer record the following number of articles containing the words ‘Blair and Iraq and weapons of mass destruction’ for the following years:
‘Blair and Iraq and chemical weapons’:
‘Blair and Iraq and biological weapons’:
‘Blair and Iraq and nuclear weapons’:
In February 2001, just two years before the invasion, the UK Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, justified a further series of bombing raids against Baghdad. No mention was made of WMD. Instead, the Observer reported, “the strikes were necessary to eliminate a threat to the planes patrolling the ‘no-fly zones’ in the north and south of Iraq.” (‘Bush signals a deadly intent, Jason Burke and Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, February 18, 2001)
Blair described the raids against air defence systems as a “limited operation with the sole purpose of defending… pilots”. They would stop, he said, “if Saddam stopped attacking us”. (‘Blair and Bush defy world fury’, Jason Burke, Kamal Ahmed and Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, February 18, 2001)
Again, a few raids were deemed sufficient.
Blair has claimed that September 11 changed everything, that he agreed with Bush that the risk of Iraqi WMD falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or similar groups was just too great. And yet in October 2001, Blair’s official spokesman rejected the idea that military action should be extended from Afghanistan to Iraq, saying:
“Such an extension was being proposed only by ‘fringe voices’ in the US.” (‘Blair: we know the game you are playing’, Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, October 11, 2001)
Later that month, when asked if there would be a “wider war” against Iraq after the attack on Afghanistan, Blair answered that this would depend on proof of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks:
“I think what people need before we take action against anyone is evidence.” (‘Blair on the war: the Observer interview in full’, The Observer, October 14, 2001)
That same month Blair talked of the need for “absolute evidence” of Iraqi complicity in the attacks. (Michael White, ‘Blair goes public to quell Arab fears of wider war’, The Guardian, October 11, 2001)
In late November, the Guardian reported Tony Blair literally standing shoulder to shoulder with President Jacques Chirac of France as they “reaffirmed their demand for ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of Iraqi complicity in the attacks on America before they could endorse US threats to extend the anti-terrorist campaign to Baghdad”. (‘Blair and Chirac cool on taking war to Iraq,’ Hugo Young and Michael White, The Guardian, November 30, 2001)
In other words, fully two and a half months after September 11, Blair demanded, not just evidence, but “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi involvement in the attacks as a pretext for war. Clearly, at this time, he did not deem Iraq’s alleged WMD, Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaeda, or Saddam’s human rights record, sufficient grounds for war.
Significantly, a few days after the press reported, “Blair and Chirac cool on taking war to Iraq”, an article appeared in the Observer titled, ‘Secret US plan for Iraq war’. Peter Beaumont, Ed Vulliamy and Paul Beaver wrote:
“America intends to depose Saddam Hussein… The plan, opposed by Tony Blair and other European Union leaders, threatens to blow apart the increasingly shaky international consensus behind the US-led ‘war on terrorism’.” (The Observer, December 2, 2001)
This was December 2. By February 28 the following year all talk of “incontrovertible evidence” had vanished. Instead, Blair had this to say of Saddam Hussein:
“Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.
“The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, a threat not just to the region but to the wider world, and I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it. Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion…” (‘Blair edges closer to Iraqi strike’, Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, February 28, 2002)
The interesting question then arises: what stunning new evidence emerged of the threat from Iraq’s non-existent WMD to change Blair’s mind between November 30, 2001 and February 28, 2002? Clearly, it should be a simple task for an inquiry to focus on these few weeks to see what amazing new erroneous evidence emerged to bamboozle Blair.
What we will find, of course, is that there was no new evidence. Instead there was a decision made in Washington to go to war, and a decision made in London to initiate a propaganda campaign to fool the public and so facilitate an illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq.
The focus on WMD is itself a red herring. It is clear that peaceful means of resolving the disarmament issue had not remotely been exhausted by March 17, 2003. The UNMOVIC weapons inspectors had found nothing in three and a half months of unrestricted searching, and they had requested just a few more months to complete their task. The Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VI, Article 33 declares:
“The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”
The media are currently professing their shock that no WMD were found. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR: www.fair.org) reported that some UNMOVIC inspectors believed that Iraq might indeed have been free of all banned weapons:
“We haven’t found an iota of concealed material yet,” one unnamed UNMOVIC official told a Los Angeles Times reporter on December 31, 2002. The reporter added:
“The inspector said his colleagues think it possible that Iraq really has eliminated its banned materials.” (Fair, Media Advisory: ‘Iraq’s Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact’, February 4, 2003 http://www.fair.org/press-releases/iraq-weapons.html)
Former head of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, said in June 2003:
“If anyone had cared … to study what UNSCOM was saying for quite a number of years, and what we [UNMOVIC] were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons.” (Miles Pomper and Paul Kerr, ‘An Interview With Hans Blix’, Arms Control Today, June 16 2003)
Blix also said in September 2003:
“I don’t think anything will come to light in Iraq that will justify the invasion.” (http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=535&ncid=535&e=4&u=/ap/20030921/ap_on_re_eu/greece_iraq_blix)
Given international law, 100% UNMOVIC access to suspect sites, vast global popular opposition to war, the US’s possession of an overwhelming deterrence in the form of 6,144 nuclear warheads, the decision to go to war on March 17 requires real explanation. Were we living in genuine democracies, it would also require that Bush and Blair face a war crimes tribunal.
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The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Gavin Hewitt:
Copy your email to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News:
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The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger:
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