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The imperial mess in Iraq

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

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The recent spate of bombings mark a strategic shift in the Iraqi resistance and add to the confusion in the Bush cabal over its imperialistic designs.

THEY left no calling cards and issued no blustery claims. Though the faceless authors of the October 27 serial bombings in Baghdad left an unambiguous message, little could be said about their identities. It was the bloodiest day in Iraq since United States forces ostensibly took the capital city early in April. The timing of the attacks on the first day of Ramadan, a month of Islamic piety and prayer, suggested a consolidation of religious militancy within Iraq and perhaps the larger Arab world. The choice of the International Committee of the Red Cross as a target, indicated a gross lack of respect for accepted rules of engagement. But the mere fact that the preceding day had witnessed a devastating attack on Baghdad's Hotel Al Rashid, which was then host to one of the principal theorists of the invasion of Iraq - U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - indicated a fairly purposive and discriminating choice of targets.

Immediately after the bomb attacks, intelligence agencies spoke of militant elements who had crossed into Iraq, possibly from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Augmenting their numbers were Palestinian fighters from refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. Though there had been no contact between the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda - except in the fevered imagination of the war lobby in Washington D.C. - fighters from Osama bin Laden's outfit were believed to be going to Iraq. Informed analysts put out the assessment that the resistance was amply stocked with small arms and ordnance, perhaps fully equipped to carry on the resistance into the indefinite future.

If accurate, these readings point to a manpower reservoir for the Iraqi resistance that is brimming over and being replenished by the day. As part of the same "war on terror" that the U.S. is waging in Iraq, Israel has in the month of October, laid waste to the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Eyewitnesses say that the devastation is even worse than seen in the West Bank town of Jenin last year. Generations of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon have seen their homes destroyed, once or perhaps twice, by Israeli expansionism. Refugees several times over, the Palestinians living in Gaza see the Israeli occupation and its U.S. benefactors as an intimate and ever-present threat. Their ardour for the fight had once to be confined within Israel and the occupied territories. They now have the option of joining the resistance in Iraq.

Roughly similar themes were underlined in the annual report of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, released mid-October. In line with its posture that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was potentially, if not in reality, an accessory of Islamic radicalism, the Institute affirms that the invasion and occupation of the country has "denied Al Qaeda a potential supplier of weapons of mass destruction and discouraged state sponsors of terrorism from continuing to support it". But alongside this positive outcome, it had to spell out a serious negative: that the war "has probably inflamed radical passions among Muslims and thus increased al Qaeda's recruiting power and morale and, at least marginally, its operating capability".

The formal rationale of the war in Iraq meanwhile, continued to take a pounding with every passing day. As the anti-war demonstrators in various cities on October 25 loudly proclaimed - and as the general public in the U.S. and the United Kingdom now believe - President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair lied flagrantly in making the case for war. Both are now facing increasingly assertive inquiries within their domestic constituencies. A committee of the U.S. Senate is in an advanced phase of hearings on the alleged doctoring of intelligence inputs in making the case for war. Members of Bush's Republican Party are manoeuvring to put the entire burden of blame on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). But in another indication that it has shed its quiescence of just a few months back, the CIA has responded to inspired media leaks with a rare public outburst. Till as late as July, the CIA director was prepared to accept meekly the blame for allowing a decidedly dubious finding about Iraq's purchases of uranium into the President's State of the Union speech. The newly discovered autonomy of the spy agency speaks of the depth of the institutional crisis in the imperialist capital and the rapidity with which the credibility of the Bush administration is collapsing.

Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are now acknowledged as an unimaginative fiction concocted by the authors of the war. The true purpose of the invasion, it is increasingly evident, was to shape the entire strategic environment of the region in a manner that would suit the U.S. and its proxy in the region, Israel. This was the theme of the 1996 paper entitled A Clean Break, that was authored by a group of neo-conservative ideologues - among them, Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Douglas Feith - who occupy influential positions in the Bush administration. Paul Wolfowitz, then the Dean of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, did not formally put his signature to the document, though two of his colleagues at the time did. Yet for all practical purposes, Wolfowitz is recognised to be a charter member of the Zionist cabal that determines policy in the Bush administration. In the months before the war, Wolfowitz was also prominently featured in the list of "chickenhawks" who were directing the war. In the characterisation of Steve Fowle, editor and publisher of the New Hampshire Gazette, a chickenhawk is "a highly vocal person, usually a white male, who advocates sending American soldiers in harm's way without ever having served in the military or experienced a shooting war first-hand". The basic premise of the database was simple: that "folks who have in the past supported wars (hence, hawks) in which they were unwilling to fight (hence, chicken), have no moral authority to order others to fight".

Having evaded military service during the Vietnam war, Wolfowitz obviously believed that his direct and influential role in theorising the Iraq operations meant that he had the obligation to be seen at the frontlines as often as possible. On October 24, he began his second visit to Iraq with the dual purpose of buoying up troop morale and demonstrating to the world that the situation was rapidly stabilising. His visit had instead, precisely the opposite effect. Shortly after he left Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter was downed by small arms fire. Arriving back in Baghdad, he was woken up on the final day of his visit by a barrage of rocket-fire that struck his hotel just one floor below his room, killing a colonel of the U.S. Army and injuring 16 others. Hustled out of his room by U.S. security forces, Wolfowitz seemed all aquiver as he faced the media to deliver his ritual vow of unrelenting resolve.

Most objective observers though, were persuaded of the opposite: that the Iraqi resistance had scored a major symbolic triumph by attacking one of the most central and well-guarded locations in the U.S. occupation regime. There are also justifiable concerns over the impact that Wolfowitz's ashen-faced retreat from Baghdad would have on U.S. troop morale. When the occupation was barely into its third month, the U.S. Army command had to issue an extraordinary directive to servicemen in Iraq, cautioning them against any comment on military strategy and tactics that went outside the chain of command. By early October though, observers on the ground were reporting a near-epidemic of indiscipline and loose talk among U.S. forces. Correspondingly, the U.S. media which is rather rapidly - and opportunistically - shedding its uncritical attitude towards the Bush cabal, began recording a rising tide of public criticism of military policy by close kin of soldiers on duty in Iraq.

Early October, the Gannet News Service discovered that 11 identical letters, purportedly written by servicemen in Iraq, had been published in as many local newspapers in the U.S. A little further inquiry revealed that the letters had been drafted by the commanding officer of the 503 Airborne Infantry Regiment and given to an undisclosed number of his subordinates to sign. Originating in a unit stationed in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the letters boasted that the "quality of life and security for (Iraqi) citizens has been largely restored" and U.S. troops were "a large part of why that has happened". "The fruits of our soldiers' efforts are clearly visible in the streets of Kirkuk today", the letters stated, with the purported writer professing himself "proud" of the work that he and his comrades in arms were doing in Iraq.

The shoddy scheme of mass mailing had been devised by the U.S. army to neutralise a tide of revelations in the media about the collapse of troop morale in Iraq. Matters have not been helped by the Bush administration's pretence that ground realities have been much more agreeable than the media portrayal. According to investigations by The Guardian of London, 478 personnel have had to be removed from the Iraq operations because of mental health concerns. Veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk has revealed in The Independent of London, that there have been a minimum of 13 suicides among U.S. soldiers in Iraq over the last six months. And Editor and Publisher, the standards watchdog in the U.S. print media, recently pointed out that readers in the U.S. had been "shortchanged in getting a sense of the number of troops injured, in and out of battle" in Iraq. The figures collated by the journal pointed to a grim reality. Since the war began, 1,927 soldiers had been wounded in Iraq, many of them quite severely. As many as 20 per cent of the total number of the injured had suffered "severe brain injuries" and another 70 per cent "had the potential for resulting in brain injury".

As the suffering mounts among Iraqi civilians and U.S. servicemen, the architects of the war sink deeper into moral and cultural obtuseness. Early October, the U.S. obtained its first major commitment of military assistance when the Turkish Cabinet - and then Parliament - voted in favour of sending troops to Iraq. The decision had been facilitated by an economic and military aid package of $8.5 billion assembled under U.S. sponsorship. In an incredible display of insensitivity, a senior U.S. diplomat was quoted in The Spectator, saying that the Turks being Sunni Muslims, would be welcomed into Iraq since they were on the "same cultural wavelength".

Even a resolution - unanimously voted on, though not formally adopted, by the normally pliant "Interim Governing Council" in Iraq, did not seem to dissuade the U.S. The hitch only arose when Turkey suffered a late awakening of scruple. The powerful military command in Turkey remains in favour of moving into Iraq, since that could potentially give it greater latitude in operations against a restive native Kurd population and also possible control over the rich oilfields in the Kirkuk region. But both the Turkish government and Parliament were quick to heed the signals from Iraq. The U.S. though, is yet to reconcile itself to the reality that Turkish troops would rather not be unwelcome guests in a neighbouring country.

The situation with regard to economic assistance is no less grim. Bush's request for an additional appropriation of $87 billion for the Iraq operations was conceded by the U.S. Senate, but with a crucial rider: half the $20 billion earmarked as the reconstruction budget will be in the form of loan rather than grant. Bush has vowed to exercise his presidential veto over the Bill, but the Senate is seen in many quarters as responding to constituency pressures. With budget deficits at record highs and States cutting back on several essential services, the Bush administration - and in particular Wolfowitz - is likely to be held to account for early prognoses that the reconstruction of Iraq would be a virtually cost-free enterprise. This would be difficult enough without the additional complications posed by the string of "no bid contracts" awarded to Halliburton Corporation, the firm that Vice-President Dick Cheney headed till 2000, which continues to pay him a substantial annual sum as part of a severance package.

In a recent open letter to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, senior U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman, wrote: "When inordinately expensive reconstruction projects are awarded to high-cost federal contractors with close ties to the White House, the administration can create a lose-lose situation; not only do U.S. taxpayers vastly overpay for reconstruction services, but Iraqis are denied urgently needed employment opportunities."

The British charity, Christian Aid subsequently prepared a briefing paper for an international donors' conference in Madrid, in which it suggested that there was an alarming degree of non-accountability in the disposition of Iraqi funds by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Some $3.5 billion had been transferred from the escrow account held by the United Nations, to the "Development Fund for Iraq", set up under a Security Council resolution in May. Another $2.5 billion of Iraqi funds lodged in overseas banks was expropriated for use by the CPA. Revenues from oil exports since the war concluded should in the charity's estimation, have amounted to at least $3 billion. There has so far been no public accounting of how this $9 billion in Iraq's money has been allocated or spent.

Christian Aid has pointed out that most contracts awarded out of these funds, have gone to U.S. firms after "limited competition procedures" conducted from Washington. This, it points out, has "meant that not only is there no competitive process to ensure the lowest cost for the job, but Iraqi companies are denied the opportunity to benefit from contracts to reconstruct their own country".

In the run-up to the Madrid conference, a public opinion poll taken in all 15 member nations of the European Union, revealed that two-thirds of all respondents believed the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjustified. A similar proportion tilted to the view that the Iraqi provisional government should manage the reconstruction, which was to be paid for entirely by the U.S. With public opinion being quite firm, the E.U. made few promises at the Madrid donor conference. Its contribution, when pooled with the offers made by individual member states, would amount to a rather modest $800 million. The oil-rich Arab states, from whom much was expected, also proved rather niggardly: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates between them would contribute under $2 billion over the reconstruction period, with the bulk of the sum going in loans or credit lines to finance their own exports. Finally, the Madrid conference was only salvaged by Japan, which raised its prior commitment of $1.5 billion to $5 billion over five years. Yet with all that, the total that the U.S. can count upon as reconstruction assistance for Iraq would be no more than $13 billion over five years, of which an uncomfortably large proportion would be in the form of loans.

It is debatable whether U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had some notion of these figures when he penned an ominous memorandum to his top four aides, warning that the "cost-benefit ratio" of the war on terror was against the U.S., simply because "our cost is in billions against the terrorist costs (sic) of millions". After months of triumphalism, the memo has Rumsfeld admitting rather chasteningly, that the U.S. lacks the "metrics" (or yardsticks) to judge whether it is "winning or losing the global war on terror". And while he estimated that victory in Afghanistan and Iraq "in one way or another" was inevitable, he feared that it would be "a long, hard slog".

Rumsfeld proceeded to pose a series of questions to his top aides on the possible need for reorganising the war effort, revamping the Department of Defence, and putting in place a "long-range plan". Whatever its motivations, the supposedly secret memo was swiftly picked up by the media and commented upon. Not many were fooled by the mysterious leak or by the underlying purposes. As The New York Times acidly commented, the points made by the Defence Secretary merited consideration, but any effort to expand his "budget or bureaucratic empire" was to be firmly put down. The Rumsfeld memo is the latest skirmish in a turf war that looks set to flare up in the near future. Early in October, the White House quietly leaked word to the media that policy matters connected to the Iraq operations would be centralised within the office of the President, with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice being the principal coordinator.

The leak was politically inspired, designed to project the image of a President intent on getting matters under control. It was also, to all knowledgeable observers, a symbolic gesture, since Rice heads an advisory body devoid of the resources for operational control of any complexity. Rumsfeld, whose image as the main ringmaster of the war on terror has in recent times taken a severe mauling, was unamused. Disinclined to allow even the symbolism of the White House leak to stand, he loudly proclaimed that the ostensible redelegation of powers would in fact change nothing. The peace was never really secured in Iraq and now the situation there resembles a full-blown insurgency. In the circumstances, the Bush administration's response seems to suggest a figurative turning inwards of the guns. As the senior Senator, Robert Byrd, recently pointed out in ironic reference to Bush's flashy May 1 appearance on an aircraft carrier deck in full flight-suit regalia: "The emperor has no clothes".

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 21, 2003.)

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