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W: First Blood

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Bombing the Iraqis should properly be listed as part of the Inaugural ceremonies, a man not being truly President of the United States till he drops high explosive on Baghdad or environs. The new team evidently felt that the Commander in Chief could not be allowed to leave the jurisdiction, even to Mexico, without unleashing planes and bombs against Saddam, for whom the bombardment produced the effect of widespread sympathy across the world for Iraq.

Bill Clinton delayed this portion of his inaugural ceremonies to June 27, 1993 when he was urged by vice president Al Gore to order a salvo of cruise missiles supposedly in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi plot to kill George Bush SR when he visited Kuwait in April of 1993. Both Clinton and Bush were somewhat reluctant about the sortie.

“Do we have to take this action?” Clinton muttered to his national security team, as the cruise missiles on two carriers in the Persian Gulf were being programmed. Gore advised a demonstrations of national resolve was of paramount importance. Clinton’s reservations were amply justified. Eight of the twenty-three missiles homed in with deadly imprecision on a residential suburb in Baghdad, one of them killing Iraq’s leading artist, Leila al-Attar.

Feasting on shrimp, cocktail canap?s and diet Coke, the White House group watched CNN’s Wolf Blitzer announce the strike; the misfortune of the errant missiles and al-Attar’s death were never mentioned. Clinton’s pollster Stan Greenberg, who did daily surveys on the popular sentiment, reported to the gratified Commander-in-Chief that bombardment of Iraq caused an uptick of eleven points. Since the Clinton Administration was at that time in the process of its first meltdown, this was a welcome ray, and one no doubt remembered by the new Bush team, possibly eager to shift the focus from the headline hogging former president. Bomb your way into favorableheadlines has been the policy of every president since the Second World War.

Of course, these bombardments all violate international law. There is no UN provision for such
assaults. UN Resolution 688, sometimes referred to as a
document legitimizing the no-fly zone bombardment makes no reference to a right to take over Iraqi airspace.

There was nothing new about the declared motive for last week’s bombing raids, described as “protective retaliation”. Just over a year ago, after similar raids, the British Defense Secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, invoked the sorties as being “in pursuit of legitimate self-defense”, a phrase hard to read without laughing out loud.

There’s nothing new about this particular bombing, which the Iraqis say killed some civilians. The US and Britain have been routinely bombing Iraq for much of the past decade, with no discernible effect beyond the slaughter of about 500 Iraqis overall, a death count which only looks scrawny in comparison to the million or so, mostly children, who have died as a consequence of sanctions since they were imposed a decade ago.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had barely settled into his new office before he was affirming this murderous sanctions policy, whereby a US-dominated UN committee in New York routinely plays God in decreeing what can and cannot be shipped to Iraq.

UN officials working in Baghdad have long agreed that the root cause of child mortality and other health problems is not simply lack of food and medicine but the lack of clean water (freely available in all parts of the country prior to the Gulf War) and of electrical power, now running at 30 percent of its pre-bombing level, with consequences for hospitals and water-pumping systems that can be all too readily imagined.

Of the 21.9 percent of contracts vetoed as of mid-1999 by the UN’s sanctions committee, a high proportion were integral to the efforts to repair the water and sewage systems. The Iraqis submitted contracts worth $236 million in this area, of which $54 million worth–roughly one-quarter of the total value–have been disapproved. “Basically, anything with chemicals or even pumps is liable to get thrown out”, one UN official revealed. The same trend has been apparent in the power supply sector.

The proportion of approved/disapproved contracts does not tell the full story. UN officials refer to the “complementarity issue”, meaning that items approved for purchase may be useless without other items that have been disapproved. For example, the Iraqi Ministry of Health once ordered $25 million worth of dentist chairs, said order being approved by the sanctions committee–except for the compressors, without which the chairs are useless and consequently gathering dust in a Baghdad warehouse.

In February of 2000 the US moved to prevent Iraq from importing fifteen bulls from France. The excuse was that the animals, ordered with the blessing of the UN’s humanitarian office in Baghdad to try to restock the Iraqi beef industry, would require certain vaccines which, who knows, might be diverted into a program to make biological weapons of mass destruction. For sheer bloody-mindedness, however, the interdiction of the bulls pales beside an initiative of the British government, which banned the export of vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and yellow fever on the grounds that they too might find their way into the hands of Saddam’s biological weaponeers.

It has been the self-exculpatory mantra of US and British officials that “food and medicine are exempt from sanctions”. This, like so many other Western policy pronouncements on Iraq, has turned out to be a lie.

So now the wheel turns full circle. Back in 1991 Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and top uniformed Pentagon man Colin Powell urged bombardment and President Bush I approved. In 2001 Powell and Cheney are at Bush II’s elbow as he approves his administration’s first military adventure. Is there a strategy, beyond Inaugural chest-thumping? Well, it changes the subject from what the Bush administration proposes to do about a man who would probably fare as ill in a UN Tribunal on War Crimes as Saddam, viz., Ariel Sharon, Israel’s new prime minister.

Beyond this “signal” to the world about priorities in Bush time, there could be the outlines of a new Iraq policy, whereby the new government is signalling its readiness to embark on a far tougher stance towards Iraq, beefing up aid to the main opposition group in exile, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), led by Ahmad Chalabi. In the late 1990s Chalabi’s cause was pressed by Republicans in Congress, most notably Jesse Helms and Trent Lott. A bizarre alliance, stretching from Helms to The New Republic to Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens, pressed Chalabi’s call for the US to guarantee “military exclusion zones” in northern Iraq and in the south near Basra and the oil fields, to be administered by the Iraqi National Congress.Such guarantees could set the stage for a new military assault on Saddam.

Against the continuation of sanctions and bombing sorties this is an unlikely prospect, but George W. Bush could at least be toying with the thought that at last the Clinton-Gore campaign’s slurs against his father for not finishing off Saddam will be avenged. CP


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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