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Casualties and culpability

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

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At the tomb of her son at the al-Baratha children's cemetery in Iraq. According to UNICEF, 500,000 Iraqi children died between 1991 and 1998 on account of sanctions.-KARIM SAHIB/AFP

At the tomb of her son at the al-Baratha children's cemetery in Iraq. According to UNICEF, 500,000 Iraqi children died between 1991 and 1998 on account of sanctions.-KARIM SAHIB/AFP

THE streets in Britain were seething with a new ferment, hundreds of thousands turning up to articulate their utter disbelief at the illogic and inhumanity of the United States' war plans against Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his assumed role as principal propagandist for the U.S., was meanwhile addressing a conference of his ruling Labour Party in Glasgow.

Wilting under the stress and fumbling for words, he reflected out loud about the loneliness of the visionary leader: "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour. But I realise that it is sometimes the price of leadership and the cost of conviction."

However many were marching on the streets of Britain that day, argued Blair, they were still fewer than the number that had been killed in the wars begun by Iraq under Saddam Hussein. "These victims will never be seen," he said: "They will never feature on our TV screens to inspire millions to take to the streets. But they exist nonetheless." And if "peace" meant that Saddam Hussein would stay in power and retain his weapons of mass destruction, "then I tell you that there are consequences paid in blood for that decision too".

It is not clear what sources of information Blair relied upon in making the moral case for war, though his aversion to authenticity is well known. A dossier produced by the United Kingdom government last September on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was proven fiction more than fact by subsequent inspections. A November 2002 dossier on human rights in Iraq was denounced by global advocacy groups for its sheer duplicity and opportunism. And a February dossier on Iraq's apparatus of concealment and deception was quickly found to have been plagiarised from academic studies pertaining to the late 1980s.

Were it not for his obvious aversion to authenticity, Blair would not have to look far for an assessment of the potential costs of conflict in Iraq.

IN January, the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) prepared a classified document entitled "Integrated Humanitarian Contingency Plan for Iraq and Neighbouring Countries". A partial, though adequate, transcript was obtained by the U.K.-based Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq (www.casi.org.uk) in February, by its own admission, through concerted leaks by U.N. staff who believed that the impact of war was a matter of "global public concern" that needed to be "discussed fully and openly".

On the basis of inputs from field staff in Iraq, the OCHA has concluded that 30 per cent of children under five in Iraq, or 1.26 million, "would be at risk of death from malnutrition" in the event of war. Pointing out that "12 years of sanctions preceded by war have considerably increased the vulnerability of the population", the report warns that "the collapse of essential services in Iraq... could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of U.N. agencies and other aid organisations". The dimensions of the task of humanitarian relief would be truly stupendous: over 3 million within the overall population would be at acute nutritional risk, over 18 million might need access to treated water, and close to 9 million may need sanitation facilities.

Even if they were to engage with these appalling statistics, the champions of war would have their riposte ready. It is the Iraqi regime which has been on a course of aggressive self-aggrandisement and defiance of the international will for 12 years, that has brought this upon its people. In other words the coming war is, above all, an intervention for humanitarian ends. The conservative British columnist and Zionist champion David Pryce-Jones recently put the case in memorable terms: "Ignorance, fear and lack of respect for Arabs - these were the most obvious traits on display in (the February 15) demonstration against a war in Iraq. Could so many people really think that it is better to leave Iraqis under Saddam Hussein's vicious tyranny than to liberate them from it?" Among the slogans raised by crowds protesting against the U.S. war plans, several referred to the insensate toll in human life that had been taken by the 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent strangulation of Iraq's lifeline.

Immediately after the Gulf war ended, then Defence Secretary Dick Cheney ruled out any possibility of arriving at a reliable estimate of the casualties suffered by Iraq in the war. In June 1991, the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency put out the scientifically vapid finding that "military casualties" could have been 100,000, "plus or minus 50,000".

In 1992, Beth Osborne Daponte, a demographer in the U.S. Department of Commerce made an estimate that war and the subsequent dislocation of infrastructure had claimed 158,000 lives in Iraq. With admirable precision, she put the number of those killed at 86,200 men, 39,600 women and 32,200 children. Of these, the number of combatant casualties was no more than 40,000. Peer review within the academic community upheld Daponte's findings. Subsequent revisions put the figure somewhat higher, at 205,000.

Though the time frame of her study was confined to 1991, she made a rather acute observation in presenting her findings: "The effects of war continue long past the time of conflict. The lethality of indirect effects of warfare can be much greater than the direct lethality of the weapons themselves".

Daponte's academic rigour won her little appreciation from the U.S. administration. Her reward was an order of summary dismissal from her job, which was only rescinded after energetic legal intervention.

A SHROUD of conspiratorial silence soon descended over the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, as the U.S. and the U.K. arbitrarily transformed the U.N. mandate for the disarmament of Iraq into a diktat demanding "regime change". The conspiracy of silence was broken in October 1998 by Denis Halliday, shortly after he resigned as the U.N.'s Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq, in protest against the intransigence of the U.S. and the U.K. Confirming the horrific toll of human life in Iraq, he delivered a stinging indictment of the U.N. policy of silence: "Many people have questioned the propriety of sustaining Security Council sanctions in the full knowledge of their devastating impact on the children of Iraq... . We see a tragic incompatibility between sanctions which are harming innocent children and people of Iraq and the United Nations Charter ... (This) constitutes a tragedy for the U.N. itself, and severely threatens to undermine the U.N.'s credibility and legitimacy as a benign force for peace and human well-being throughout the world."

Subsequent efforts at estimating the number of Iraqis killed by sanctions have painted a horrific picture of a society unravelling. A 1999 study by the United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF) put the number of child deaths on account of sanctions at 500,000 between 1991 and 1998. More recent figures have indicated that the total number of deaths could be well over one million.

The war lobby in the U.S. and its acolytes across the Atlantic have obviously found few takers for their argument that the entire onus of responsibility for this suffering should be put on the Iraqi regime.

Indeed, most assessments by the Office of the Iraq Programme in the U.N., have concluded that without the system of provisioning maintained by the regime, the magnitude of suffering would be much greater.

FREQUENT media leaks since September have described alternative war-fighting doctrines that the U.S. could be applying in Iraq. Though partly intended to ratchet up the pressure on the Iraqi regime, these leaks indicate that the strategy applied in 1991 remains valid, though with an important new element of "urban operations". A September 2002 publication by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee spoke of casting operational tactics and strategy in terms of an "urban triad", comprising the physical terrain of an urban area, its population and its infrastructure. Combat commanders are given a range of options in planning operations, in terms of holding physical space and pacifying the population while minimising "collateral damage" to life and infrastructure.

More recent media leaks, which again need to be understood at least partly as psychological pressure tactics, speak of the tactics of "shock and awe".

On the first day of full-scale military operations, the U.S. plans to launch up to 400 cruise missiles against crucial targets in Baghdad. The purpose, a military spokesman said, was to ensure that there was no safe place in Baghdad. This would be followed by an equivalent barrage the following day and perhaps by aerial sorties. U.S. military doctrine identifies "population will" as an acceptable target of aerial bombing. The purpose of these initial bombing runs would be to break the Iraqi people's will as quickly as possible, so that invading armed columns would meet minimal resistance. Needless to say, essential infrastructure - such as power, communications, water supply and sanitation - would be a legitimate target within this doctrine, since the loss of these services normally ensures a rapid buckling of "population will".

IN January, a group of lawyers wrote to President George Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, warning of possible war crimes indictments if U.S. military strategy fell foul of international humanitarian law. Though the U.S. is not a signatory to the charter of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the principle of "Universal Jurisdiction", applied most recently in the case of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, could still be invoked by aggrieved parties.

In the case of the U.K., a group of lawyers have quite bluntly warned Prime Minister Tony Blair that he will enjoy little of the benefit of this ambiguity. The U.K. is a party to the ICC and as such, its senior politicians would be subject to all its legal liabilities. The so-called allies got away with the grossly disproportionate use of force in 1991. Twelve years on, the world has learnt to be more vigilant.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 14, 2003.)

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