Retribution in kind

Print edition : August 12, 2005

Prime Minister Tony Blair. - TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

The British people cannot ignore the fact that the London blasts were a result of the steps Tony Blair took in aiding the U.S. occupation of Iraq and in perpetrating war crimes against Iraqis.

THE ceremony beside the National Gallery at Princess Street at sundown on July 7 was simple and sombre. Thirty-seven candles were lit, marking the number of men and women who died in London earlier in the day, and the speeches that followed were brief and eloquent. The same theme was sounded by most of us: it was a horrible, inexcusable crime, and our hearts went out to the families of the dead and the wounded, but it would be wrong for Britain to follow the road of vengeance that the United States took after September 11 - a path that led to Afghanistan, Iraq, Madrid, and, now, London. It would be tragic if the result were the curtailment of civil liberties and repression directed at the country's Muslim minority. Now, more than ever, it was urgent to pursue the path of peace and justice in order to avoid future Londons and future Iraqs.

What British Prime Minister Tony Blair had almost successfully expelled from the G-8 meeting, the Live 8 Concerts, and the Make Poverty History March - the British participation in the occupation of Iraq - asserted itself savagely as the summit in Gleneagles began. But not in a way desired by any of us. When he made his statement at midday, with his line about the British people's determination to preserve their way of life outlasting the terrorists' determination to impose their extremist values on them, one could not help but marvel at the depths of the man's hypocrisy, at his seemingly effortless attempt to conceal the fact that his policies were, in great part, responsible for the carnage. This was about Iraq, about his leading a country to a war that the vast majority opposed. He had blood on his hands, not only that of innocent Iraqis but now also that of innocent British men and women.

But could he pull it off? Throughout the day, I talked to people, probing to see if Blair's Churchillian pose would somehow succeed in pulling the wool over their eyes. I ended the day with more confidence in the British people than I had in the morning. The receptionist of the hotel I was staying in told me, "This is about Tony Blair."

Yes, this was about Tony Blair. So even as we mourn the dead in London, even as we condemn the people that perpetrated the bombings, let us not forget the steps Blair took that helped lead to their tragic end. Let us review the record in detail, using the facts presented at the recent World Tribunal on Iraq held in Istanbul.

The recently revealed Downing Street Memos show that as early as April 2002, the Labour leadership was aware that 1) the Bush administration was keen to invade Iraq; 2) that it was determined to do this on the issue of Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); and 3) that the evidence of Saddam's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction was tenuous. One Foreign Office memo dated March 22, 2002, addressed to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, put it, "The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September." It continued: "But even the best survey of WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile, or CW/BW (chemical or biological weapons) fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up."

Despite the fragility of the evidence for the existence of WMD, however, Tony Blair beat the drums of war on the WMD argument. At around the same time that the Downing Street Memos were questioning the WMD evidence, Blair told the House of Commons on April 10, 2002: "Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked."

On September 24, 2002, again contradicting the lack of evidence, he declared: "It [the intelligence service] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated in 45 minutes, including his own Shia population; and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability."

On February 25, 2003, in the lead-up to the invasion, he said: "The intelligence is clear: (Saddam) continues to believe his WMD programme is essential both for internal repression and for external aggression." In the same speech, he asserted: "The biological agents we believe Iraq can produce include anthrax, botolium, toxin, aflatoxin, and ricin. All eventually result in excruciatingly painful death."

Then on the very day of the invasion, March 20, 2003, Blair said: "If the only means of achieving the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is the removal of the regime, then the removal of the regime has to be our objective."

It now appears that concerted effort by the Blair government to produce evidence of Iraq's possession of WMD led to the doctoring or, as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report put it, the "sexing up" of the British intelligence services' 50-page dossier on Saddam's alleged WMD programme released in September 2002. This dossier served as one of the key British government documents to make the case for war. Caught in the crossfire between pressure from the government and the slimness of the evidence, senior government scientist Dr. David Kelley, a former WMD inspector in Iraq, revealed to the press his strong doubts about the dossier's allegations, particularly the claim that Iraq could activate WMDs within 45 minutes. This apparently triggered government pressure on him that led to his suicide in July 2003.

The Downing Street Memos also indicate that even as the WMD evidence was thin or non-existent, the Blair government was strongly for invading Iraq to institute "regime change", though that was not something it could trumpet publicly for that would come across as advocating a clear breach of international law. Indeed, as early as March or April 2002, a time that the Blair government and the Bush administration say they were not engaged in war planning, they were already at an advance stage in the process. While the British government was not convinced of the threat of WMD, the memos reveal that it shared the Bush administration's desire for regime change through military means.

One memo in mid-March 2002 details a letter from Christopher Meyer, then British Ambassador to the United Nations, on a lunch discussion he had with the then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz. "We backed regime change," he wrote, "but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. It would be a tough sell for us domestically, and probably tougher elsewhere in Europe."

A picture released by a British Court Martial in Osnabrueck, Germany, showing Lance Corporal Mark Cooley simulating a punch to an Iraqi detainee.-AP

At the same time, British officials knew that regime change per se could not be invoked as an objective for an invasion. As a March 8, 2002, memo sketching out options for dealing with Iraq noted, "an invasion for the purpose of regime change has no basis under international law." The dilemma and the solution to it was stated over two weeks later by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw: "Regime change per se is no justification for military action; it could form part of any strategy, but not a goal," he said. "Elimination of Iraq's WMD capacity has to be the goal." Not surprisingly, the Blair government embarked on a course of manufacturing a non-existent threat, culminating in the infamous September 25, 2002, dossier that became the key document propagated by Washington and London to justify the impending invasion of Iraq.

In addition to its role in planning the war, the British government's conduct of the war in Iraq clearly reveals its disregard for international law and universally recognised human rights. As commander-in-chief, Blair must take full responsibility for these acts.

The invasion of the country was preceded by a bombing campaign that began approximately 10 months earlier, in May 2002. Jets of the Royal Air Force joined United States Air Force jets in what were called "spikes of activity" designed to goad the Saddam Hussein regime into retaliating and thus providing the pretext for war. These actions, which were justified by U.S. officials such as Allied Commander General Tommy Franks as necessary to "degrade" Iraq's air defences, were not authorised by any U.N. resolution. Indeed, as the leaked Downing Street Memos reveal, the British Foreign Office provided legal opinion in March 2002 - two months before the intensification of the bombing - that asserted that allied aircraft were legally entitled to patrol the no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq only to deter attacks by Saddam's forces on the Kurdish and Shia populations and had no authority to put pressure of any kind on the regime. This illegal activity was further intensified at the end of August 2002, following a meeting of the U.S. National Security Council where its purpose was revealed to be that of making Iraq's air defences as weak as possible for a possible invasion.

Since the invasion took place, Britain has sent some 65,000 of its troops, or almost a third of the armed forces, to participate in an illegal war, one that is not authorised by the U.N. About 8,761 troops were stationed there as of March 2005.

The main assignment for the British troops was to secure the southern sector, notably the city of Basra. That campaign was marked by the death of scores of Iraqi civilians. Some of the deaths were caused by the use of cluster bombs, known to have a deadly impact on civilian populations. Although officials at the British Ministry of Defence initially pledged not to use the weapons "in and around Basra", Human Rights Watch documented several strikes using cluster munitions in the neighbourhoods of that city. At the height of the military operations in March and April 2003, British forces used 70 air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions, containing 1,13,190 submunitions. U.S. and British forces used a total of 13,000 cluster munitions and two million submunitions in that period.

Human Rights Watch also accused the British military authorities of failing to secure large caches of abandoned Iraqi Army weapons, resulting in civilians being killed or wounded. Basra's al-Jumhuriyya Hospital was receiving five victims of unsecured ordnance a day, which made Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth to declare: "Britain failed in its duty as an occupying power to provide security to local civilians. Its inability or unwillingness to secure abandoned weapons made a dangerous situation even more dangerous."

Foreign occupation invites systematic abuses of human rights. This has been the case of the U.S. occupation in central and northern Iraq. The Abu Ghraib prison has become a synonym for violations of the Geneva Convention, torture as a policy, and systematic sexual abuse, while the American retaking of Falluja in November-December 2004 has become a contemporary version of the implementation of the harsh Roman order "Carthago delenda est" ("Carthage must be destroyed").

The British occupation of Basra and southern Iraq, while being less in the glare of publicity than the U.S. occupation, has also been marked by violations of basic human rights. One year of occupation yielded numerous cases of killing and wounding of civilians by British troops. Amnesty International reports that as of early March 2004, British authorities admitted that U.K. forces were involved in the killing of 37 civilians. They acknowledged, however, that the figure was not comprehensive. In a number of cases investigated by Amnesty, "U.K. soldiers opened fire and killed Iraqi civilians in circumstances where [there] was apparently no threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others." Amnesty found that the British Royal Military Police (RMP) was "highly secretive and... provided families with little or no information about the progress or conclusions of investigations." Moreover, the process of gaining reparations by families of victims was grossly inadequate, plagued by inconsistencies, over-bureaucratic, and practically inaccessible to poor Iraqis.

Torture and sexual abuse of prisoners have been another black mark on the British occupation. In January 2005, photos were released in the national press depicting torture and systematic abuse of Iraqis by soldiers belonging to the lst battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. One report said, "One of the photographs showed a grimacing Iraqi civilian bound tightly in an army cargo net being suspended from a forklift truck driven by a British soldier. A second depicted a soldier dressed in shorts and a T-shirt standing on the bound and tied body of an Iraqi civilian. Other pictures showed two naked Iraqi men being forced to simulate anal sex and two Iraqis forced to simulate oral sex."

The soldiers were court-martialled, leading to a jail sentence and expulsion from the Army of some of them. There was a grave miscarriage of justice at the trial, however, since evidence from the victims was not allowed in court, which could have led to harsher sentences or the implication of many more soldiers, including higher-ups. The evidence included that of the Iraqi in the forklift incident, Hassan Abdul-Hussein, who said that he was tied and strung up when he refused to sever another Iraqi's finger with a knife. Why was the evidence inadmissible? The aim was, as in the case of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, damage limitation. Phil Shiner, a lawyer who has followed the case, has asserted, "Here there is the clearest evidence that the military are incapable of prosecuting and investigating themselves. If they are allowed to, all we get is a whitewash and a few bad apples thrown to the dogs. Clearly, here something has gone badly wrong, officers were involved and a whole lot of people were abused."

With British soldiers themselves participating in the abuse of civilians, it is not surprising that they failed to provide security, as they were required to by international law. Like other parts of the country, Basra and other sites in southern Iraq have witnessed "scores, possibly hundreds, of people... deliberately killed by individuals or armed groups for political reasons, including for perceived moral infractions such as selling or buying alcohol." However, virtually no investigation or prosecution of these killings had occurred as of early 2004. Thus Amnesty considered military authorities in the United Kingdom of breaching international obligations under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which mandates that as an occupying power, the U.K. should provide protection to Iraqis, especially from threats and acts of violence.

With the occupation provoking the rise of an armed resistance in 2003 and 2004, British troops were dragged in to support U.S. military operations in central Iraq. The most notorious instance of indirect British support for U.S. efforts to crush the Iraqi people's resistance took place in November 2004, when the 850-strong Black Watch Regiment was moved from southern Iraq to the Babil Province, south of Baghdad. The redeployment followed a request from U.S. military authorities who wanted to use the U.S. military units freed up for the assault on the city of Falluja that was to be launched after the U.S. elections.

The move provoked former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook to speak about "the suspicion that we sent a third of the British Army to Iraq not in pursuit of our own national interest but in support of the White House's political agenda. This latest twist to the tale confirms the perception that it is Washington that calls the shots and Britain that jumps to attention. It is equally obvious that the request was the product of U.S. politics." The U.S. assault on Falluja that followed was marked by hundreds of civilian deaths, injuries to thousands of people, routine violations of human rights by U.S. soldiers such as the killing of wounded prisoners, and massive destruction of property. Blair, who redeployed British troops to release U.S. soldiers for the savage attack, must take some responsibility for the ensuing war crimes.

WHEN all is said and done, it is clear that it was Blair who brought the U.K. to the war, against the wishes of the vast majority of the British people and a significant section of his party. Why? Some commentators say that he really did believe in the morality of externally imposed regime change, which makes him, like Bush, a very dangerous man indeed. Others would discount morality and say that Blair was in fact motivated by cold realpolitik. My sense is that, along with a warped morality, this is a likely motivation: that is, the desire to put the British government at the centre of global power alongside the U.S. Blair once asserted, "It's my job to protect and project British power." It is on the altar of British imperial power that Blair has sacrificed the lives of thousands of Iraqis and now those of ordinary Britons.

Walden Bello is Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines.

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