The nightmare of `liberators'

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The United Nations, already tainted by its association with the U.S.' sanctions policy in Iraq, bears the brunt of Iraqi ire against the occupation forces in the form a murderous bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad.

BY all accounts, Sergio Vieira de Mello was a diplomat with that vital human quality of empathy, an attribute that made him the perfect choice for the most difficult missions of the United Nations. He began his career with the world body as a minor official and was drafted into field duties in Bangladesh shortly after that nation's tortured birth. He worked with refugees in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974 and was a part of U.N. relief contingents on the ground during the worst three years of the civil war in Mozambique. As one of the U.N.'s most senior civil servants in the 1990s, he was the designated flag-bearer in all the most aggravated trouble spots - Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and, finally, Iraq.

Seconded temporarily from his appointment as U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, de Mello arrived in Iraq as special representative of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June. He announced on arrival that his foremost endeavour was to ensure that "freedom, dignity and security" could in future be "taken for granted by all Iraqis". At his first briefing to the U.N. Security Council on July 22, he pleaded for the early restoration of political sovereignty to Iraq, with the people being given the dignity of running their own affairs.

The bomb that ripped through the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 respected none of these intentions and paid little regard to the motivations of its victims. Trapped under the rubble of the Canal Hotel, which had served as U.N. operational headquarters for over a decade of effective mandatory control of Iraq, de Mello died even as frantic efforts to extricate him were being made. Along with the 55-year-old Brazilian diplomat, the U.N. lost a number of its personnel handling pivotal tasks in war-ravaged Iraq. A full day after the bombing, the death toll was put at 17, with over a hundred injured.

The Baghdad bombing was among the worst atrocities that a U.N. operation has ever suffered. Kofi Annan described the attack as an "act of unprovoked and murderous violence" and mourned the death of de Mello and his colleagues as a "bitter blow" for the U.N. In a part of the world that has never been an easy terrain for the peacemaker, the Canal Hotel carnage is comparable to other reckless crimes, such as the murder of the peace mediator Count Folke Bernadotte by Zionist thugs in 1948 and the Israeli Army's massacre of over 100 Arab women and children at a refugee camp under U.N. protection at Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996.

Despite the ambiguous mandate conferred by Security Council Resolution 1483, U.N. agencies have since April played a significant role in bringing vital supplies and services to the Iraqi people. By early July, the World Food Programme had brought in one million tonnes of food and stockpiled enough to meet the country's needs for two months. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had made a preliminary survey of Iraq's health infrastructure and put together an ambitious, if modestly funded plan, to kickstart the faltering system. It had also managed to import sufficient supplies of essential drugs, antiseptics and anaesthetics to meet the country's needs for several weeks. Working on the premise that an important technique of minimising the trauma of war and dislocation was to restore the normal cycle of curricular activities for schoolchildren, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) had, by the end of June, managed to mobilise Iraq's vast network of schools into conducting year-ending exams for over 5 million children.

De Mello had a leading and responsible role in most of these initiatives. He travelled widely during his few weeks in Iraq, often meeting prominent personalities who were averse to any form of contact with U.S. occupying forces. The U.N. in Iraq has acquired a rather mixed image during the last 12 years when it has been in effective control of the country's resources. At the field level, U.N. agencies administering the "oil-for-food" programme were scrupulously fair and sensitive in responding to widespread evidence of deprivation and malnutrition. The growing evidence that the system was being hobbled by conditions imposed by the U.S. and the United Kingdom was diligently recorded and reported back to the U.N. headquarters in New York. But with the U.S. and the U.K. manipulating the terms of the debate at will, U.N. headquarters proved thoroughly unresponsive to the suffering in Iraq.

Concurrently, the U.N. also acquired the image of an intrusive and cynical body, ever willing to stage provocations that would provide the justification for punitive military actions by U.S. forces. This role was played to perfection by the conniving Australian diplomat, Richard Butler, who was chief of weapons inspections in Iraq from 1995 to 1999.

In the wake of the Canal Hotel carnage, there was a surprising degree of willingness among expert observers to accept that the U.N. may have been tainted by its association with the U.S.' sanctions policy. And when all the expressions of outrage had been exhausted, the hard questions began. Resolution 1483 is unequivocal in assigning responsibility for Iraqi security to the occupying powers. There was U.S. troop presence outside the gates of the U.N. compound. And while U.S. soldiers have been acutely vulnerable to harassment and attack when they have been travelling in convoys or patrols, they have generally been able to maintain fixed fortifications with reasonable ease. The U.N. compound, in this sense, was evidently a lightly defended sector and the U.S. would have to answer charges of culpable neglect to begin with.

Fred Eckhart, the official spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, put the matter with considerable delicacy in his first reactions to the Canal Hotel carnage. "Our relationship with the occupying power is a bit ambiguous," he said. Resolution 1483 describes the U.N. role in anodyne terms such as "facilitating", "promoting" and "encouraging" various outcomes. It is unequivocal in retaining the final power to determine the future of Iraq with the "occupying powers under unified command", which are jointly designated as the "Authority". With the daily toll of attacks on its servicemen continuing, observers had by mid-August begun to question whether the U.S. had been over-ambitious in reserving all powers for itself. But with the Canal Hotel bombing, the option of transferring a part of the burden to the world body is effectively closed. The U.S. would now have not merely to show the intent and capacity to bring a semblance of security to the streets of Iraq, but also demonstrate a greater degree of public and political sensitivity to the occupied people. Neither task is going to be easy.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently ran a series of stories about the rapid erosion in public perceptions of the U.S. in Iraq. A Turkish official with intimate knowledge of ground realities saw a problem not in "strategy" but in "tactics". "The responses in the neighbourhoods in Baghdad and Basra to the daily indignities caused by U.S. soldiers, to the vulgarity and humiliation, are liable to damage the most enlightened, prudent strategy," he said. "Mutual hatred between the Americans and Iraqis is starting to develop in an almost natural fashion."

Incidents that are fuelling the growing mutual animosity are reported almost everyday. On August 10, during one of Baghdad's routine night-time power outages, a car that drove up and halted at a U.S. Army checkpoint was fired upon by panic-stricken soldiers who imagined that they were under attack. A father and his three children, the youngest aged eight, died in the attack. According to the account given by Caoimhe Butterfly, an Irish human rights activist working in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, an international campaign group, the shooting went on for 20 minutes with bystanders seeking to leave the scene also being targeted and injured.

On August 14, a U.S. Army helicopter on patrol over Baghdad plucked a Shiite religious flag off a communications tower. U.S. military spokesmen later claimed that the flag had fallen off because of the gust of the passing helicopter, but the 3,000 irate Shia Muslims who came out on the streets of Baghdad were convinced that the gesture was a deliberate insult to their faith. Nerves gave way in an emotionally fraught crowd situation. Shots were fired, and at least one demonstrator was killed. The U.S. later claimed that its forces had come under attack by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"Crazy" was the characterisation of U.S. military conduct by eyewitnesses to the shooting of a photojournalist on August 17. Mazen Dana, a highly decorated Palestinian photojournalist with the news agency Reuters, was shot dead at point blank range by U.S. troops while he was filming in the vicinity of Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison. The prison had come under mortar attack by Iraqi guerillas the previous day and U.S. troop concentration was heavy. Colleagues of the slain journalist insist that their non-combatant identities had been clearly established when they arrived at the site. A member of a French television crew said: "They (the soldiers) knew that we were journalists. After they shot Mazen, they aimed their guns at us. I don't think it was an accident. They are very tense. They are crazy."

Journalist watchdog bodies are in a state of considerable agitation over the recent incident, which comes just days after an official military inquiry exonerated all the soldiers involved in the artillery attack on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel in April, which killed two journalists and injured several. Mazen's funeral in his hometown of Hebron took place the day following a suicide bombing by the Islamic Jehad in Jerusalem, which claimed 20 Israeli lives. It was a conjunction that powerfully highlighted how U.S. policy in the region is in deep crisis on two fronts.

Mazen had been conferred the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001, for his graphic coverage of the Palestinian uprising in Hebron. He had been shot at and injured on at least two occasions by Israeli occupation forces. Reuters had shifted him to Baghdad in the belief that it would be a safer posting. His wife has been quoted saying that his killing was a deliberate act by U.S. forces. The International Federation of Journalists, while condemning the inquiry into the Palestine Hotel killings as a "cynical whitewash", has called for a diligent and impartial investigation of his death. But as Patrick Naylor, a Canadian journalist who has worked with Mazen on some of his most memorable projects, put it: "I suspect almost nothing will happen... There's always another story, more people are hurt. And that is one of the tragedies of these things, that there's always the next story and it is easy to get lost."

The Canal Hotel atrocity comes just a week ahead of the first anniversary of the speech by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney that formally kicked off the preparations for war. Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cheney extolled the virtues that the organisation and its members embodied: "Honesty, integrity, hard work, personal responsibility, and perseverance." He then proceeded to deliver a speech that showed a conspicuous deficit of all these virtues.

Retrospective assessments have focussed on Cheney's definitive statement that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction as the single-most dodgy element of his speech. "Simply stated," Cheney had said, "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbours - confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth."

Cheney is rightly being held to account today for the utter mendacity of this statement. However, equally worthy of attention would seem to be his rather self-regarding assessment about the reception that awaited U.S. invading forces in Iraq. Cheney said: "Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true. Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are (sic.) eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab `street', the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are `sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans'. Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jehad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991."

Missing in action since the beginning of the U.S. invasion, Cheney's cheering crowds have now turned "saboteurs" and "terrorists". But if personal responsibility is a virtue he sets much store by, Cheney has the alibis for his disastrously miscued forecast ready. The prediction that the streets of Iraq would erupt in joy was not his, but of an Arab emigre professor who has become an influential policy adviser to the U.S. government. A similarly pivotal role in the formulation of the war plans was played by Ahmad Chalabi, a refugee from the Iraqi revolution of 1958 who has been a resident of the U.S. for much of the time since. Nominated by the U.S. to serve as one of nine members who will hold the presidency of Iraq's governing council in rotation, Chalabi's extradition is now being sought by parliamentarians in Jordan, who are keen to see him serve out a 22-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement awarded in 1992.

It is not merely Cheney's overblown rhetoric that is being recalled with abundant irony. U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is also enjoying a similar honour. Speaking to the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on March 27, Wolfowitz portrayed the task of reconstruction in Iraq as a virtual cakewalk. "We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon," he said.

In recent appearances before committees of the U.S. Congress, officials of the George W. Bush administration have been rather more cagey, risking charges of incompetence and insincerity rather than put forward a concrete assessment of reconstruction costs. Paul Bremer, the U.S. Administrator of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, put out the best available estimate in a recent media interview, though his vagueness is eloquent testimony to the state of strategic confusion in the administration. Bremer said: "It's probably well above $50 billion, $60 billion, maybe $100 billion. It is a lot of money." Restoring the electricity grid alone would cost over $13 billion in Bremer's rough estimation, while the water and sewerage system would need $16 billion.

Mid-August, the oilfields in Iraq were managing a cumulative output of one million barrels a day, against the pre-war figure of 2.8 million barrels. Riots were breaking out in the city of Basra over fuel scarcities in a country that boasts the world's second largest reserves of petroleum. With temperatures soaring, the electricity grid has proven completely inadequate, generation being still below 60 per cent of the pre-war figure and the transmission system literally hanging by a thread.

The easy alibi for the U.S. and the U.K. today is to ascribe responsibility for this entire situation to the Saddam Hussein regime. This is increasingly seen as a rather lame ploy that does not quite succeed in diverting attention away from the malevolent legacy of 12 years of economic sanctions against the country. The fixing of responsibility for the promiscuous violence that Iraq suffered during the 1991 war is only now beginning. An illustration, drawn from the September 1991 survey conducted by an international study team, would amply demonstrate the linkages to the quandary the occupying forces find themselves in. The 17 power plants surveyed by the team had been bombed on an average three times each, with one - the Al Hartha thermal power station which accounted then for a large part of the generating capacity in the south of Iraq - suffering no fewer than 13 hits. All efforts at reconstruction since have been thwarted by U.S. sanctions policy, which in the picturesque description of a top U.N. official in charge of the Iraq programme, often cleared the import of the most sophisticated delivery vehicles into Iraq but blocked the purchase of the ignition keys. Now confronting the consequences of its own legacy of cynical and wanton destruction, the U.S. would have good reasons to look towards the U.N. for a bailout. That sustenance though, is unlikely to materialise now or any time in the near future.

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