A multitude of sins
Bush and his cabal, and behind them Blair and his increasingly disgruntled bunch, committed many sins in their war on Iraq. The same happened in Afghanistan but the public impact was not as pronounced. First and foremost, was the miscalculation of the threat posed by the Saddam regime to world and regional peace. The now infamous British government dossier published in February 2003 was nothing short of a fiasco for Blair. There was persistent condemnation of the dossier well before the war had started; including disparaging remarks by the security services!
The US administration was equally blatant. Bush and his aides were in a panic in the lead up to the Blix report to the UN Security Council scheduled for 14 February 2003 (see Smoking Gun published on this website at that time). All efforts were directed at securing a second resolution that would legitimise the war on Iraq.
The US and British camps were intent on presenting evidence, of whatever veracity, to influence both the Blix report scheduled and the negotiations expected to follow immediately thereafter. The primary aim was self-evident: to obtain a new resolution at the Security Council that would give the war legal and international cover. As part of public relations war the US Secretary of State, Colin Powel, informed a Congressional hearing that a statement by Osama bin Laden proved that a link existed between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. It did not take long for the full contents of the message to be broadcast which revealed no such link. Bin Laden informed the Iraqi people that “it is not important if Saddam and his government disappear,”
In the months that followed the war, mounting evidence emerged to show beyond reasonable doubt that the Saddam regime was incapable of posing any credible threat to anyone outside Iraq’s borders. Exaggeration, if not outright lying, became commonplace in the Iraq war episode. In response to persistent and widespread disquiet, the US, British, and now Australian governments have decided to pin the blame on their intelligence services. Public and closed sessions are planned to consider the issues, but the end result is confidently expected to be the usual whitewash.
The other sin was the thorny question of the legal justification for the war. This is something that has kept the media busy for many months. It was resurrected more recently, in late-February 2004, by Clare Short, an ex-minister in the Blair cabinet. The storm started when an employee in the British intelligence claimed that UN Security Council members were bugged. The court case against her collapsed, it is said, because her lawyers demanded to see the legal advice given to the government on the legality of the war on Iraq. Clare Short then claimed she had seen transcripts of conversations of the UN Secretary General. Blix subsequently informed the media that he had always known that his phone was tapped. All these revelations, most unwelcome to Bush and Blair, had strong linkage to the legal issue which refuses to go away. Whenever he is faced with an embarrassing situation, Blair routinely demands that ‘a line should be drawn under’ the topic in question. However, in this as in several other issue areas his pleas are falling on deaf ears. The latest twist was provided by The Observer on 29 February 2004 with a claim that “Britain’s Army chiefs refused to go to war in Iraq amid fears over its legality just days before the British and American bombing campaign was launched.”
The next in a long list of sins is the cost of the war in terms of human casualties and financial resources. It is not unreasonable to suggest that people in the USA, Britain and Australia are not generally too concerned about Iraqi losses. In any case the coalition authorities declared more than once that they do not keep statistics on this topic. Clearly, Iraqi deaths and injuries are thought to be unimportant. Nonetheless, The Independent of 8 February 2004 reported a figure of 10,000 for civilians, many of them women and children, who have perished so far in Iraq, “making the continuing conflict the most deadly war for non-combatants waged by the West since the Vietnam war more than 30 years ago.”
(Note added in May 2005: Deaths are recorded by Iraq Body Count, the most authoritative organisation monitoring the human cost of the war, only when reported by at least two media outlets. Iraqi military casualties are unknown. They estimate civilian casualties resulting from military action to be between 21,684 and 24,603 so far.)
Coalition losses, on the other hand, could not be dismissed as easily. To date (early-March 2004), over 500 American personnel have been killed in action. This is the tip of the iceberg. Channel 4, a British TV station, suggested on 10 February 2004, “the true extent of US casualties in Iraq are still unknown. This has fuelled suspicion that the administration may be hiding the true human cost of the war and its aftermath.” Channel Four News reported that America’s war-wounded come home in “a dark corner of Andrews Air Force base on the outskirts of Washington DC” with “no ceremony, no big welcome.” It added that more “than 11,000 medical evacuees have come through Andrews in the past nine months, the Air Force says.” Increased suicide rates and rapes have also been reported. These non-fatal casualties will remain for decades as a living testimony to the sins committed against the American, British and Australian public. The financial cost, amounting to several billions each and every month, is of course another burden on the taxpayers in these countries.
(Note added in May 2005: coalition casualties are known more definitely. To date 1801 persons have been killed of which 1622 were American.)
The other significant sin concerns the corruption of the process in awarding contracts to certain well-connected US companies to undertake reconstruction work in Iraq. Interestingly the New York Times of 29 December 2003 reported that the “contract to fix Iraq’s oil industry was granted to KBR by a secret Bush administration task force formed in September 2002 to plan for Iraq’s oil industry in the event of war.” Kellogg Brown & Root is a Halliburton subsidiary (in which Vice President Dick Cheney served as chief executive officer up to 2000). In the same article of the New York Times the reconstruction of Iraq was said to have taken on “a Wild West atmosphere.” Inflated and escalating costs of contracts awarded in secrecy and without bidding have attracted widespread criticism from official and unofficial sources. Put plainly, it is looking as though corporate and personal profits for some companies and individuals were another incentive for the war on Iraq after all.
Their most unpardonable sin
The above sins, and others not mentioned such as abuses of human rights, are most grievous. They have inflicted, and will continue to inflict, substantial harm not only to the reputations of Bush, Blair and their cohorts, but also to the standing of the USA, Britain, and Australia. The image of these countries has been tarnished and the damage will remain even when the current leaders have left and been forgotten.
(Note added in May 2005: the recent general elections in Britain revealed starkly the depth to which Blair’s reputation has sunk. In political terms he is a tarnished commodity come what may in future.)
However, the most inexcusable sin committed by the leaders who dragged their nations (and the so called “Coalition of the Willing”) into an unpopular, punishing and costly war is their inability to demonstrate that positive and sustainable results have been achieved. Let us take the most obvious example: Iraq is now free form Saddam and his loathsome regime. In the months since ‘major operations ended’ the coalition authorities have managed to alienate most strata of society in Iraq. This is quite an achievement. I know at first hand people who went out in the street to offer tea and cakes to American soldiers when they first entered Baghdad. Astonishingly, the same people, who could not be counted as Saddam supporters by any stretch of the imagination, are now saying that conditions were better when he was in power. When one recalls what his regime was like the full enormity of what the Americans and their allies have managed to do in the intervening months becomes all too obvious.
The security situation remains bleak for the Iraqi population. (This is still the case in May 2005, only somewhat worse than before!) The occupying forces have now retreated behind high walls and extensive fortifications, but ordinary people are left to fend for themselves. This is the real situation as opposed to the rosy and incorrect picture put about by the coalition. I know of individuals who have not dared use their cars since April 2003. Most people are at home by six in the evening behind locked doors. Even a simple visit by a concerned relative from abroad is now unwelcome. When he or she crosses the border, it is widely believed that a message is relayed by criminal elements to their colleagues in Baghdad to pay a call on those being visited with a demand to hand over the dollars the relative is assumed to have brought in. Selling property is equally dangerous. Such sales are thought to be monitored and the vendors again come under the unwelcome attention of criminals. With little work and unusually high unemployment, crime has become an obvious means to earn a living.
Possibly the most devastating description of the conditions facing the ‘free’ Iraqis was published in the Asia Times Online on 30 December 2003. Water supply has improved, it is now almost back to what it was when Saddam was in power. Electricity supply is still patchy. Iraqis are dreading the coming sweltering summer months. Most people are unemployed and pensions and salaries are yet to be paid. The inflation in food prices has now become little short of criminal. These conditions are often contrasted by Iraqis with the luxurious life led by the American ‘Viceroy’ and other members of the coalition authority. Disbanding the Iraqi army, which was mainly passive or even acquiescent during the war, was a major strategic error, but the use of Saddam palaces by the occupying forces (with even wider security zones than he had imposed) was an equally inept and provocative act that has not endeared the new rulers of Iraq to most sections of the community.
The worst nightmare for the Iraqis is that there is no end in sight. The people I have most contact with now accept it will take decades of agony to go back to what Iraq was like in 1990 (prior to the UN sanctions) let alone back to the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s. This not unreasonable gloomy expectation has had a radical effect on the social structure of the country. There are no formal studies of the subject, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Iraqi society is undergoing a major, and harmful, transformation. During Saddam’s rule, Iraq, through immigration, lost a great number of educated Iraqis. Sadly, this process has continued and possibly intensified after the occupation because of diminishing economic opportunities, insecurity, and doubtful prospects. Those with money or qualifications have already left or are trying to leave to make a new life for themselves in any country that would allow them in. The very talents and resources that could make a sustainable impact on the rebuilding of the Iraqi nation have already disappeared or are disappearing fast. A few have been enticed back to help foreign companies now working in Iraq, but one has to be desperate to take such a risk. Most insist on brief in-and-out visits.
In short, the US administration and its allies have worsened conditions in Iraq. As it appears now to ordinary Iraqis this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. This is Bush’s unforgivable sin. If the USA and its allies had managed to effect a radical improvement no one would have been interested in the ins and outs of the legal and moral justification for the war. The sacrifices made by those killed and injured by the war on both sides would have been seen as ‘a reasonable price to pay’. Events have demonstrated that the ousting of Saddam and his entourage was far from enough. In the absence of any other clear benefits, the costs in human lives and in taxpayer’s hard earned money, are now seen as cruel tricks played on trusting people for suspect ends.
This was a most painful article to write. At the end of the day Iraqis and their leaders since the coup of 1958 are themselves not blameless. On the other hand, it is no use hitting people when they are down. The evidence I presented is based in part on personal contact with those still living in Iraq. I might have drawn the wrong conclusions. If so, I would welcome comments to the contrary. I, and most importantly Iraqis in general, are clutching at straws to find a modicum of comfort and optimism. The search at the moment appears to be fruitless.
Agreement on a temporary constitution is a step in the right direction. Early and free elections (and not the installation of a puppet dictator as is fashionable in these circumstances) would be a further step on the way. A change in style by the Americans and early departure soon after the installation of an elected Iraqi government would be a sensible act. Fears of civil war, mostly exaggerated, and instability are matters for the Iraqis to tackle themselves. That is the only way for a nation to learn and mature. On present form, the occupiers are not ready to profit from past mistakes. Will the Iraqi leadership, of whatever shape and colour, help them to see sense? Let us hope so but the omens are not promising.