By now the signs are familiar. A build up of rhetoric and demonisation of the ‘other’. Documents and dossiers on horrible threats. Newspapers fill their pages with battle plan graphics. War is looming.
At the same time as citizens in Baghdad wait for the bombs to start falling, and government spokesmen prepare to wrap their tongues around that poisonous phrase ‘collateral damage’, some in Britain are marching to a different beat.
One such campaigner is Milan Rai, founding member of the anti-war group ARROW, and joint founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, the British branch of the sanctions-breaking group. His book, ‘War Plan Iraq‘, has just been published, and he is now travelling the country telling whoever will listen why war must be avoided.
‘Regime change’ is the phrase of the moment. America wants it, international law prohibits it, others warn of the dangerous precedent it would set. Yet surely, some ask, getting rid of Saddam would benefit the Iraqi people, even if the motivations for doing so are suspect?
“You have to consider the objective of ‘regime change’,” Milan emphasises. “Since 1990 the issue has consistently been about leadership change, thus allowing for an iron ruler to remain in place, placating Saudi Arabia and Turkey.” Moreover, this is a policy still favoured. Milan drew attention to the recent comments made by the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer when he said that ‘regime change’ could be done by “one bullet”. “The talk about coups, fermenting dissent within army circles and parachuting in exiled Iraqi generals mean that a different face is all the Americans are concerned with.”
Many objections to the war on Iraq centre on the possible humanitarian disaster that such a conflict could spark. There is an echo in the warnings that preceded the attack on Afghanistan, caution some feel was misguided. Milan is keen to point out however that the number of Afghan dead is an unknown. “We don’t actually know the full extent of the human toll because nobody has thought it necessary to investigate it thoroughly. How many lives were lost because there was no pause in the bombing in October?” Estimates range from 3,000 to 8,000 civilian deaths due to US bombing, without taking into account those who died from the cut off of aid.
The Kurds, perennial victims of both the West’s post-colonial map-making and the repression of local regimes, have seen their persecution at the hands of Saddam raised like a Papal banner by Bush and Blair. Whether they would actually benefit from a war, however, is open to question, according to Milan.
“Their plight will worsen as a consequence of war. They will be subjected to an Iraqi assault and might then be incorporated by Turkey into a ‘security zone’.” Last week the Turkish Defence Minister specifically suggested this idea, promising “a show of force if necessary, or an intervention”. The northern no-fly zone illegally set up by USA and Britain ostensibly to protect the Kurds, has in fact witnessed numerous, and tolerated, Turkish attacks.
The retort of “well, what would you do” was frequently fired at critics of ‘the war on terrorism’ after September 11th, and sensible replies were mostly lost amongst the rubble and ‘anti-American’ smears. Milan gave a nuanced outline of his alternative. “What is our moral responsibility to the people of Iraq? I would say it is to take our boot off their necks, to lift the economic sanctions.” He points out the principal issues with Iraq; weapons of mass destruction and the humanitarian crisis. “There is in fact an international consensus over a sensible way to tackle these problems, with the exceptions of US and Britain.”
Milan does not pretend that the Iraqi government has a perfect record in cooperation, but he does raise an important point. “Why should the lives of innocents be conditional on the actions of their government?” It is also unlikely that any future Iraqi government could accept intrusive inspections without something similar in Israel and Iran. U.N. Resolution 687 talks of weapons of mass destruction in the context of establishing “a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East.”
Most of the media’s focus recently has been on the diplomatic manoeuvrings at the U.N., but Milan is under no illusions about this bartering. “The American strategy will be either to prevent them (the inspectors) from entering in the first place, or to provoke a crisis when they are there. At the moment they are trying to table a resolution designed to be unacceptable.”
If a U.N. fig leaf is forthcoming then Milan predicts some drop in opposition to the war. He will be personally involved in ARROW’s ‘Pledge of Resistance’, a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience, the participants of which, he says, come from a varied background.
Before we finish, Milan asks if he can add one more thing. “The mainstream debate is focussed on two options, containment or regime change. This is a choice between killing Iraqis through sanctions and killing them by bombs. It is a framework I completely reject.”
BEN WHITE is a student at Cambridge University in England. He can be reached at: email@example.com