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from issue no. 03 - 2003

ANALYSIS. The new rulers of the world of John Pilger

Slaughterhouse Iraq

In his new book the Australian reporter documents the sufferings of the Iraqi people under the dictatorship of Saddam, during the Gulf war and during the long economic embargo

by Davide Malacaria

American soldiers looking at  the carbonized body of an Iraqi soldier during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

American soldiers looking at the carbonized body of an Iraqi soldier during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“History is a great slaughterhouse”, noted Hegel. Reading the book by the Australian reporter John Pilger entitled The new Rulers of the world (Verso), gives the German philosopher’s phrase a weight of dramatic relevance. The book consists of four different reports that range from the massacres committed in Indonesia (those after the fall of Sukarno and the more recent one in East Timor), to racial discrimination against Australian aborigines, and to the recent Gulf War, and successive embargo, down to military intervention in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly the writer, who describes himself as a man of the “neo-idealist left”, comes across as extreme and sweeping in his conclusions. However the weight of documentation to back his views is truly impressive. That will be one of the reasons why Corriere della Sera, by no means an extremist newspaper, printed a review in its praise. So we offer our readers some extremely relevant comments from it on the Gulf War and the economic sanctions against Iraq.
The fact that during the war between Iran and Iraq Saddam Hussein enjoyed the backing of the West, including arms sales, is certainly no mystery. Nor that such backing continued even after the end of the conflict. All the same one is left disconcerted when the reporter describes his visit to the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad, where a clerk, lamenting “the good old days”, shows the author his collection of the Baghdad Observer, in which “there is Saddam Hussein on the cover, as always. The only thing that changes in the photos is the minister from the British government, smiling or concerned, sitting with him on the presidential couch”. Among these “souvenir” photos, connected, according to Pilger, to the sale of war material, are those of David Mellor, from the Foreign Office, and of Tony Newton, Margaret Thatcher’s Under-secretary for Trade. Both taken next to Saddam in 1988: the first while the dictator “was ordering the death by gas of five thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja”, the second a month after the massacre. The fact that the United States also supplied the dictator, as was brought out by a US Congress enquiry in 1992, is also no secret to anyone. And in past months a photo of Saddam Hussein shaking the hand of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld, the current super hawk of the Pentagon, on a visit to Baghdad has gone round the world. But a report of the US Senate from 1994, quoted in the book, reveals a little-known detail, “the delivery to Iraq of ingredients for biological weapons: botulin developed by a Maryland company under license to the Department of Trade and with the approval of the State Department”. So, by a strange irony of fate, the squad of UN inspectors who were in Iraq were checking whether the weapons supplied to the dictator by the United States were still active or, as the Iraqis said, destroyed.
The book also dwells on lesser-known details of the Gulf War. Certainly, the conflict was decided within the ambit of the United Nations following the invasion of Kuwait. Nevertheless the war of “liberation” of Kuwait, despite everything, was a war like other wars, with its accompanying massacres and lies. An unpleasant truth recognized, among others, by such an outstanding witness as Peter Arnett, CNN television correspondent in Baghdad, in a public statement printed in mid February by the Guardian. In his book, Pilger reveals that during the conflict there was massive use of shells containing depleted uranium. The Australian reporter comments: “In 1991 the English Atomic Energy Commission calculated that if only 8% of the depleted uranium exploded in the Gulf War had been inhaled it could have caused “500,000 potential deaths””. Disturbing information when you consider that the radioactive pollution certainly didn’t end with the war: the dizzying increase in malformations and of sicknesses like cancer and leukemia, of which the book produces numerous testimonies, is hard to explain without the persistence of radiation.
The book also demolishes the myth built up about other special weapons, the so-called “smart bombs”. The Gulf War, it was said, would mark the beginning of a new era, in which it was possible to fight a “surgical war” which, through the use of “smart” (tele-commanded) bombs, would reduce the number of innocent victims to the minimum. The Australian reporter writes: “In fact, less than 7% of the weapons used in operation Desert Storm were “smart”, as the Pentagon itself acknowledged much after the end of the war. 70% of the 88,500 bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait, the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas, completely missed their target, and many fell in inhabited areas”. Little is known of the Iraqis who died in those days. The book recalls the episode linked to the photograph by Ken Jareke (published only by the Observer) which showed “an Iraqi reduced to dust, petrified at the wheel of his vehicle on the Basra road where, along with hundreds of other, he had been burned by American pilots engaged in a “turkey shoot” on the retreating Iraqis and foreign citizens, mainly “guest workers”, trapped in Kuwait”. But, the Australian reporter goes on, “that on the Basra roads, photographed by Ken Jareke, was only one of many massacres. The others weren’t reported, since they were conducted well away from the eyes of the “consortium of reporters””. Of course the news, given in the book, according to which “without the reporters knowing, in the last two days before the cease-fire, armored American bulldozers were used ceaselessly, at night especially, to bury the Iraqis alive in their trenches, wounded included”. A situation revealed only six months after the end of the war by the New York Newsday of 12 September 1991, which stated that three American brigades from the First Division of the Motorized Infantry “had used snowplows mounted on tanks and armored bulldozers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some still alive, along more than a hundred and twenty kilometers of trench”. The doubt remains, however, that the exact number of war victims is well over the already considerable figure of 100,000 given by the official sources, which in any case say nothing about civilian victims. On this issue the writer cites a report from the Medical Educational Trust of London in 1991, according to which “at least 250,000 men, women and children were killed or died as a direct result of the attack […]. This confirms the estimates of the American and French information services of “more than 200,000 dead””.
A great deal has been written on the phase following the war, in particular on the consequences of the embargo that has afflicted the Iraqi people. Pilger’s book details particularly odious features such as the embargo on medicines, among which vaccines again diphtheria and yellow fever (a disease that killed Iraqi children like flies), because they were considered elements suitable for the manufacture of biological weapons. Or like the ban preventing the sending of clothes and toys by London Iraqis to their families at home. Leaving it to a reading of the book for more details on these issues, I limit myself to giving the results from a Unicef report according to which “between 1991 and 1998 there have been 500,000 more deaths than the figure forecast for Iraqi children under five. On average, that means 5,200 under-five deaths per month that could have been avoided”. But the economic blockade has slaughtered not just children. The American researchers John and Karl Mueller, working on statistics produced by various scientific institutes, concluded in an article printed in The Journal of strategic studies in 2000, that “economic sanction have probably caused the death in Iraq of more people than all the weapons of mass destruction ever killed in history”. An nth futile massacre that, according to the Australian reporter (but not him alone), has had the opposite effect: forcing the worn-out population to survive only by means of state aid has enabled the dictator of Baghdad to consolidate his power even further.
Apart from the embargo, Iraq has been tormented in the post-war period by the steady bombing by the Anglo-American airforces of the so-called “no-fly zone” in the south of the country, forbidden to the Iraqi airforce. On the basis of various sources the writer notes that in eighteen months “the American air and naval forces have carried out 36,000 missions over Iraq, of which 24,000 were fighting sorties [up to January 1999, ed.]. During 1999, Allied planes dropped more than 1,800 bombs and hit 450 targets”. Military targets? Pilger himself tells of a visit to a village near Mosul, and of his conversation with the shepherds who had seen their loved ones torn apart by “smart bombs”. How many victims from these incursions? And how much sustenance and aid for the worn-out population was destroyed? The book quotes the contents of a report for the UN that Pilger looked at during a discussion with Hans Von Sponeck, the highest United Nations official in Iraq. In the report, relating to the period 28 December 1998-31 May 1999, Pilger notes that dozens of similar attacks were detailed “on villages, on a fishermen’s wharf, close to a food program storehouse”. So much so that Von Sponeck himself, the writer tells us, had ordered “the suspension of distribution [of UN aid] for several hours in the afternoon, when many of these attacks took place”.
The situation is analogous in the northern “no-fly zone”, the one, to make things clear, set up to protect the Kurdish minority from Saddam’s threats. The writer details the various military incursions of the Turkish armed forces (under the previous Turkish regime, before the electoral victory of the moderate Islamic party) into the territory occupied by Iraqi Kurds. Thus in the book: “In 1995 and in 1997, about 50,000 Turkish soldiers backed by tanks, fighter-bombers and armed helicopters, occupied whole strips of the Kurds “safe haven” on the pretext of attacking PKK bases (the Kurdish independence party). They came back again in December 2000, spreading terror through Kurdish villages”. The Turkish incursions have enjoyed the tacit backing of the Allied airforces which, Pilger writes, suspended patrol flights during attacks on the area. But what really happened in that area we’re not able to say, given the silence that has surrounded the incursions. The fact remains, however, that in March 2001, “the RAF pilots who were patrolling the northern “no-fly zone” protested publicly for the first time about the ““humanitarian tasks of vital importance” described by Tony Blair: they complained of continually receiving the order to return to base so as to allow the Turkish airforce to bomb the Kurds in Iraq”.
It’s for others to check out the above. Just as the existence of the weapons of mass destruction currently in the possession of the Iraqi tyrant needs to be verified. Nevertheless this document gives one the hope that now, with more effectiveness than before, all the diplomatic ways will be tried so as to resolve the present crisis peacefully. Because if, as is likely, the word gives way to the guns, beyond any propaganda, it will a slaughterhouse again for the Iraqi people. And not a very “smart” one either.

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