The Iraq quagmire

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Najaf, a holy city of Shias in Iraq on July 20. - JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP PHOTO

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Najaf, a holy city of Shias in Iraq on July 20. - JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP PHOTO

For George Bush and Tony Blair, the burden of `triumph' is proving unbearable. A media turnaround has led to difficult questions being raised, the popular ratings are falling as never before and, in the occupied land, the people have begun to strike back.

HEADY on the triumph of hunting down Saddam Hussein's two sons, United States military spokesmen have been suggesting that it is only a matter of time before they secure their most ardently sought trophy. General Tommy Franks, who recently handed over charge of the U.S. Central Command and has since retired, spoke of a time-frame of 60 days before Saddam was located and eliminated. On a visit to Baghdad, the top U.S. military official, General Richard Myers, said that with the sons out of the way, many more informants had begun stepping up to help U.S. forces in their search. He declined to specify a time-frame, but dismissed the possibility that Saddam could be directing the guerilla resistance to the U.S. occupation. "He's trying so hard to save his own skin that he is not able to communicate effectively," he said.

Myers' remarks fitted in neatly with the ambience of illogic and incoherence that prevails today in U.S. pronouncements on the war in Iraq. They flew in the face of the finding by military analysts in early June, that the guerilla operations in Iraq were in all probability coordinated at a regional or national level by elements loyal to the deposed President. And it undermined the stated rationale of the U.S. forces' obsessive hunt for Saddam, which is to snuff out all resistance at its source.

The day after Uday and Qusay Hussain were cornered in an opulent mansion in the northern city of Mosul and killed in a devastating blaze of firepower, three U.S. servicemen were killed in hostile actions in Iraq. The following weekend another five were killed in grenade attacks. Characteristically, the U.S. responded with maximal force to this evidence of the resistance gaining a second wind. Search and seizure operations were stepped up and special operations personnel - their mandate for selective and discriminate action apart - were shooting to kill without clear motives or targets in mind.

On July 27, soldiers of Task Force 20, which has been entrusted with the mission of locating and eliminating Saddam, opened fire on two civilian vehicles in one of Baghdad's more affluent suburbs. The five Iraqis killed were, by all accounts, unarmed civilians, who happened to be in the way of a trigger-happy commando force that had set out for a search operation in a house in the city. The search itself turned up empty. The owner of the house, a prominent citizen of Baghdad by virtue of his tribal affiliations, spoke to the international media shortly afterwards and pronounced himself completely innocent of all knowledge of Saddam's whereabouts.

U.S. and British casualties have become a central media focus since major hostilities were pronounced closed on May 1. In the process, Iraqi deaths and civilian suffering - never a serious concern for the invading forces or the acquiescent Western media - have been further relegated to the background. But through the fog of war, some tentative figures have begun to emerge. A survey by the news agency Associated Press in a number of hospitals in Baghdad, revealed that civilian casualties during active hostilities, could have been at least 3,240. This count was admittedly incomplete, since it covered merely half of Iraq's hospitals and excluded all those where written records did not distinguish between civilian and military casualties. Many more remain unaccounted, either buried in the rubble of the U.S.' unprecedented air and artillery bombardment, or quickly disposed of in accordance with Islamic custom.

The U.S. administration displayed unseemly alacrity in releasing pictures of the battered corpses of Uday and Qusay. This ethically dubious move was supposedly calculated to extract maximum demonstration effect and dispel all residual fears and anxieties the people of Iraq may have about the old regime. Yet, what Iraq seems more keen on now is a full accounting for its war dead and its post-war suffering. Lurking just beneath is another concern: that accountability be fixed for the 12 years of punitive peace that was imposed on Iraq after 1991, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Shedding self-imposed restraints, media reports now speak of a catastrophic collapse of morale among U.S. servicemen and deep embitterment among the occupied people. The U.S. military command has responded quickly in one respect. In a decision that has been sourced to the White House, at least six soldiers serving in Iraq have been told that their careers are effectively over. That of course, was the easy part. The pacification of an occupied nation still remains an unaccomplished task.

A REPORT by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, commissioned by the U.S. Defence Department, has warned that the U.S. faces a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity in stabilising Iraq. After going over all the deficiencies of the planning phase, the report concludes on a chastening note: "The most likely case still seems to be a mixed and poorly coordinated U.S. nation-building effort that does just enough to put Iraq on a better political and economic path, but does so in a climate of constant low-level security threats and serious Iraqi ethnic and sectarian tensions."

On a damage assessment visit to Iraq, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz proffered the advice that Iraqis must learn to be "patient". His precise words while addressing a gathering in Mosul could well merit inclusion in the annals of diplomatic modesty: "Even though we can do many things, we're not gods." Arriving back in Washington, he admitted that the U.S. had made three key miscalculations in its war plans. It had expected a large-scale defection of Iraq's key military formations and their seamless integration into a post-war security dispensation. It had similarly believed that the existing police force would serve as a security bulwark for the new regime and would not require a "major overhaul". And most seriously, admitted Wolfowitz, the U.S. had grossly underestimated the tenacity of resistance.

Wolfowitz has fought shy of admitting that the resistance had popular roots. Though publicly stated official beliefs are known to change very rapidly in Washington today, he still reportedly clings to the theology that the attacks on occupying forces are the work of "no-hopers" and "dead-enders". Between them the three "miscalculations" would amount to a damning self-indictment on the part of one who was among the most ardent advocates of war. But Wolfowitz clearly is not given to excessive remorse. The fault rather lies with those who expected miracles from the U.S. "Sometimes it is nice to have the reputation for being almost godlike," he said, "but frankly, I think it produces this phenomenon that if something isn't happening, it must be because the Americans don't want it to happen... And the fact is - you know it - we often just make mistakes. We do stupid things."

The U.N. Security Council met on July 22 to deliberate on Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report on the situation in Iraq. It heard that daily living conditions had not improved since the war and may, in fact, have got worse. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General's special representative for Iraq, spoke of the "deep hurt" that had been caused to the pride of the Iraqi people, who had for a decade and more been equated with a "repressive regime" and a "pariah state". The reconstruction needs of the country were "immense" not only "as a consequence of the conflict, but maybe even more as a consequence of 13 years of sanctions and subsequent neglect and decay".

This of course was not the first time that the U.N. was being asked to grapple with the appalling human consequences of the sanctions that it maintained against the people of Iraq, long after the basis in law had ceased to exist. But the context this time compels the world body to come to terms with its responsibilities. The constant refrain of the U.S. and the U.K. - that the erstwhile Iraqi regime was singularly responsible for the sustenance of the sanctions - is now more than ever, known to be false. But the first reckoning will come as the beleaguered governments in the U.S. and the U.K. seek to convince their sceptical publics about the reasons for going to war. The desperate rearguard is now turning into tumultuous retreat. And once that battle has been declared lost, the fuller reckoning will begin.

Seeking temporary relief from the questions besetting him on the home front, British Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on a four-nation, seven-city tour on July 17. He received a medal of honour in Washington and later addressed the U.S. Congress. He lauded U.S. President George Bush for his decisive leadership, chided geopolitical strategists who spoke of alternative centres of world power as a desirable state of affairs, and reminded the U.S. that "destiny" had placed it in the unique position today of being the principal bulwark of freedom and democracy. At a brief interaction with the media in Bush's company, he said that "history" would forgive him even if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

Blair did not have much time to bask in the glow of history's forgiving judgment. As his aircraft was airborne over the Pacific en route to Japan, he received word of the suicide of David Kelly, the microbiologist who had participated in weapons inspections in Iraq and been "outed" as the source of a story on the manipulation of intelligence findings prior to the war. Landing in Tokyo, he dismissed suggestions that he may have "blood on his hands" and announced a judicial inquiry to ascertain the circumstances leading up to Kelly's death.

Back in London, loyalists in the cause of war were beginning the effort to pin the blame on the venerable media institution, the BBC, which had allegedly used Kelly's inputs in a grossly exaggerated fashion. The BBC fought back furiously in defence of its impugned credibility. And most objective commentators were convinced that the Blair government's cynical effort to go beyond the BBC's institutional responsibility and pin the blame on a vulnerable individual had - aside from causing the death of one man of conscience - deeply eroded healthy adversarial traditions between the media and politics.

Unconfirmed reports now indicate that the audio-recording of Kelly's meetings with two or more journalists of the BBC may be in the possession of the organisation. The battle, it would seem, now hinges on this rather mundane aid to journalistic practice. If the BBC were to establish that it had a credible basis for its story on the doctoring of intelligence findings, the Prime Minister who has carried the art of political spin to new frontiers, would have few places for refuge.

INSTITUTIONAL turmoil is stirring up the more placid political waters in Washington too. Sixteen words from Bush's last "State of the Union" speech to the U.S. Congress, which pertained to Iraq's alleged purchases of uranium from Africa, are now at the centre of furious controversy. The administration sought initially to put the blame on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with its director, George Tenet, being induced to issue an astonishing public mea culpa.

The record revealed that Tenet had, as far back as October, informed the White House that the intelligence on Iraq's purchase of uranium was dubious, prevailing on Bush to delete these references from a speech he was due to deliver as part of the initial campaign for the war. The blame game then shifted to Stephen Hadley, a senior adviser on the National Security Council. Another public act of contrition was staged, with Hadley admitting at a formal media briefing that he had "failed" in his responsibility of ensuring that the "high standards of truth" that the U.S. President sets were not met.

On July 18, the U.S. administration took the extraordinary measure of releasing the partial text of its "National Intelligence Estimate" prepared in October. A formal off-camera media briefing was set up by a senior administration official who declined to be named. The outcome was further confusion, since it emerged that the intelligence findings were ambiguous and confused, not meriting the definitive slant that was placed upon them in the Bush speech. The burden of blame was rapidly transferred upwards - from Hadley to his boss, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. A rather lame alibi was advanced on Rice's behalf, that officials in her position were not known to read every word of the intelligence inputs placed before them, particularly annexures and appendices.

It could just be a matter of time before accountability is fixed where it belongs - with the President himself. A group of retired intelligence operatives has already called for the resignation of Vice-President Dick Cheney, who formally kicked off the build-up to war in August last year. Senator Bob Graham, who heads the intelligence committee of the U.S. Senate, mused out aloud about impeachment, though in a markedly diffident tone. And the furious effort by those in authority to disown responsibility for what was promoted as an unequivocal triumph of U.S. arms and moral purpose, is a symptom of a polity in the throes of a terminal crisis of credibility.

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