Iraq as Prison State, a review of Milan Rai’s War Plan Iraq

Iraq isn’t a rogue state; it’s a captive nation, the world’s first prison state, kept under a level of microscopic control and surveillance that would have made Jeremy Bentham tremble with envy.

All the recent chatter in the media about a forthcoming war on Iraq conveniently ignores the fact that the US and Britain have been waging war against Saddam since 1990-although its been a decidedly one-sided affair, too one-sided to mention apparently. Since the accords that brought an end to the Gulf War Round One, Iraq has been remorselessly bombed about once every three days. Its feeble air defense system is shattered and its radars jammed; its air force is grounded, the runways cratered; its primitive Navy is destroyed. The nation’s northern and southern territories are occupied by hostile forces, armed, funded and overseen by the CIA.

Every bit of new construction in the country is scrutinized for any possible military function by satellite cameras capable of zooming down to a square meter. Truck and tank convoys are zealously monitored. Troop locations are pinpointed with a lethal certainty. Bunkers are mapped, the coordinates programmed into the targeting software for bunker-busting bombs.

This once wealthy and secular nation is bankrupt, its financial reserves crippled by the sadistic sanctions that have blocked not only the export of Iraqi oil but also the import of medical and food supplies, leading to the deaths of millions of Iraqi civilians. Clinton’s dreadful Secretary of State Madeleine Albright boasted that this horrific toll was “worth it” in order to keep Saddam penned in.

Now along comes mini-Bush to proclaim to the world that this emaciated nation, shackled in the political equivalent of an isolation tank inside a maximum security prison for these past 12 years, is the greatest threat to world peace on the planet. There is a freakish inevitability to the war cry, as if zeroing in on Iraq was a natural sequel to the decimation of Afghanistan.

Of course, the war on Afghanistan wasn’t a war in any strict historical sense-it was more like live-action target practice, with the country and its people serving as a high-altitude bombing range. From the Pentagon’s point-of-view, the campaign must have been vaguely dissatisfying. There wasn’t even anything really big to blow up, like those skyscrapers in Belgrade.

Still in the wake of 9/11, many were struck by the oddity of Bush’s vow to topple the “axis of evil,” since none of the three bogey-states (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) had much use for Osama bin Laden and his gang of murderers.

But we now know that the war plans for Iraq were more of a prequel than a sequel to Afghanistan. It was germinating long before al-Qaeda hit the New York City and the Pentagon. Hence, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s instruction to his coven of generals only hours after the attack to try to pin part of the blame on Saddam Hussein.

Over the next few months, Rumsfeld reiterated his request, asking the CIA on at least 10 separate occasions to excavate evidence of an Iraqi / al-Qaeda link. The CIA couldn’t find a thing. Still, when the Pentagon exhausted its bombing targets in Afghanistan, the administration’s sights turned to Iraq. And the mainstream press and the US Congress have played along, giving Bush a free pass to go after Saddam with few questions asked.

At this fraught moment comes a vital new book War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq by Milan Rai. This serves as a bracing antidote to the daily trawl of Pentagon-approved press releases that pass for war reporting in the US press. Indeed, Rai’s book, just published by Verso, is nothing less than a pre-emptive strike on the Pentagon’s rationale for war on Iraq, dismantling piece-by-piece the case for invasion.

The case against Saddam boils down to the following allegations: Iraq is in league with al-Qaeda; Iraq is re-building it’s chemical and biological weapons capability; Iraq is close to developing a nuclear bomb or radiological weapon; Iraq is exporting weapons of mass destruction to other nations or terrorist groups. Most of these allegations are accepted as fact by the US press, but Rai proves there’s precious little substance to the charges. Instead, he cleaves through the indictment of Iraq with a Chomsky-like precision.

The book is far from an exculpation of Saddam and his coterie of Baathist thugs. It is a defense of the Iraqi people and an evisceration of those, in Saddam’s regime and in the Bush cabinet, who would further victimize the people of Iraq for self-indulgent geo-political purposes.

Rai, a founder of the London-based anti-war group ARROW, doesn’t spare Tony Blair. It’s only natural. Bush has, of course, left Blair to do much of the heavy lifting-or at least the elocution. Blair serves as a kind of Minister of Rhetoric for the Bush crowd. He was assigned the task of assembling the dossier against bin Laden. And later he was given the task of presenting the case against Iraq.

Blair’s bin Laden indictment was frail on facts and speculative in the extreme. But his dossier against Saddam, his litany of “killer facts’, was vaporous by comparison. The Iraq dossier was written by John Scarlett, a former M-16 officer working with the Join Intelligence Committee, the British equivalent of the National Security Council.

Scarlett submitted his report in April. But it fell far short of what had been demanded by Blair and Bush. In fact, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was so infuriated by the lack of evidence that he sent the six-page document back to the Scarlett with instructions to amp up the allegations against Saddam.

In the end, the Blair dossier didn’t disclose much that was new. Indeed, all of the hard evidence regarding Iraq’s bio-weapons capacity stems largely from reports by UN inspectors prior to 1999. British intelligence concluded that there wasn’t any evidence that Saddam was any greater of a threat than he was in 1991 at the conclusion of the Gulf War.

Some of the new claims are tenuous at best. For example, the CIA is cited as saying that farm pesticides could be converted into chemical weapons. This is undoubtedly true; however, those same pesticides pose a much greater health risk to Americans in the fields of Iowa and Louisiana than whatever emerges from labs of Baghdad.

Other allegations are simply ludicrous. For example, Time magazine quoted a CIA source as saying that Swiss medical equipment used to “break-up kidney stones” could be converted by Saddam’s scientists into triggers for nuclear bombs.

Of course the lack of a factual basis only made Blair shout that much louder. Rai argues that Blair’s bellicosity, his attempts to paint Saddam in “bolder and more terrifying” terms, stems from the more skeptical British public and renegades within his own Labour Party. “An overwhelming Iraqi threat,” Rai writes, “is the only kind of justification that will ‘sell’ President Bush’s war.”

In an effort to add fiber to their charges, Blair and Bush have trotted out a number of Iraqi defectors. But this odd collection has demonstrated about as much credibility as the members of the Kuwaiti royal family who falsely claimed before congress back in 1990 that Saddam’s troops had dumped babies our of incubators in the hospitals of Kuwait City.

Take the peregrinations of Dr. Khidir Hamza, the self-professed former head of the Iraqi nuclear program, who defected in 1994. The US-educated Hamza retired from the Iraqi nuke program in 1987, but has been put forth to the media by US intelligence to make a number of wild claims, including: that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks in the US; that Iraq gave technical and financial aid to the al-Qaeda operatives behind the 9/11 attacks; that Iraq is developing a “dirty bomb” and is close to assembling a nuclear weapon capable of striking Israel.

Hamza hasn’t been in a position to know about any of these matters in over a decade and former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter labels him a “fraud”, who concocts information to curry favor with his backers in the CIA.

On the crucial issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (the top reason cited by the Bush-Blair tag team for overthrowing Saddam), Rai concludes that there’s been no new evidence produced since December 1998 and there’s no evidence at all that they’ve provided such weapons to other nations or to terrorist groups.

“The evidence produced so far is worrying,” says David Albright, former nuclear weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency. “It is an argument for getting the inspectors back in as fast as possible, but not for going to war.”

The second argument advanced for invading Iraq is that Saddam was somehow behind the attacks of 9/11. This conspiracy was first promoted by former CIA director James Woolsey, Al Gore’s tutor in intelligence matters. Recall that Woolsey helped script Gore’s craven speech on the floor of the senate justifying his vote for war against Iraq in 1990. Then in 1998 Woolsey helped peddle through congress the Clinton/Gore-crafted Iraq Liberation Bill, authorizing funds for the overthrow of Saddam. “Regime change” isn’t a new coinage.

Within days of 9/11, the ghastly Woolsey was front and center before the cameras asserting, with the knowing look of an Langley insider, that the attacks had been carried out by a “state-sponsored” group of terrorists. The culpable state? Iraq, naturally.

Woolsey’s main piece of evidence consisted of a rumor that Osama bin Laden had sent an emissary to Saddam’s birthday party in Baghdad in April of 1988. That’s right, 1988. At this soir?e, Saddam supposedly offered to finance and train al-Qaeda recruits.

Even Bush tried to make the case early on, but got tangled up in his own tortured syntax: “I see linkages between someone who is willing to murder his own people. I hold Saddam Hussein to account and we are going to do that.” Now it’s clear why Dick Cheney, the executive producer of the Bush Administration, insists that Tony Blair makes all the really big speeches.

Several former CIA agents were quick to dismiss the allegations of a Saddam/bin Laden partnership. One retired CIA officer with experience in the Middle East told the Daily Telegraph: “The reality is that Osama bin Laden doesn’t like Saddam Hussein. Saddam is a secularist who has killed more Islamic clergy than he has Americans. They share almost nothing in common except a hatred of the United States. Saddam Hussein is the ultimate control freak and for him terrorists are the ultimate loose cannon.”

The loathing is mutual. As Robert Fisk notes, bin Laden sees Saddam Hussein as a western-installed despot, a description that is not without foundation.

The list of known, captured and killed al-Qaeda members includes Saudis, Syrians, Yemeni, Jordanians, Egyptians and Americans, but to date no Iranians, Afghans, Libyans, North Koreans or Iraqis.

After the initial allegations promoted by Woolsey fell flat, a new charge surfaced. Supposedly, hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi agents in Prague a few months before the 9/11 attacks, the implication being that here Atta received his final instructions from Saddam. The evolution of the story is a textbook case of media inflation. Within days the allegation had mushroomed from Atta huddling with a “low-level” Iraqi agent, to a secret meeting with a “mid-level” Iraqi intelligence agent, to a session with a “senior” Iraqi official to, finally, a pow-wow with the “head of Iraq’s intelligence service.”

One report played up in the German press even had Atta “obtaining a flask of anthrax” as this assignation.

While the US press ran wild with speculation over Atta’s ties to Saddam, a Czech police investigation revealed that Atta had not visited Prague in 2001, although a Mohammed Atta (not necessarily “THE” M.A.) apparently had been to the city twice in the previous year. But this Atta didn’t meet with an Iraqi diplomat/intelligence operative. The man who met with the Iraqi agent (identified as the ambassador to the Czech Republic) was actually another Iraqi named Saleh, who is now a used car dealer living in Nuremberg, Germany.

At the time Atta was supposed to be getting his murderous instructions in Prague, he was actually living just down road from the FBI HQ in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The unraveling of this breathless story did not make the front page of the US newspapers and to this day references to Atta’s supposed Prague rendezvous are sallied forth as evidence of Iraq’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

Not only is there no evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam, there’s a rather thin record of Iraqi sponsorship of international terrorism of any kind since the end of the Gulf War.

“Iraq’s not a terrorist state,” says Gen. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to George Bush during the Gulf War. “Iraq is primarily a problem of a hostile military power. It’s a pretty traditional enemy.”

So much for Iraq as the leading edge in “asymmetrical” warfare.

But still the beat of the war drums goes on. The less sense the war makes, the louder the battle cries.

I get the feeling that Bush and Blair are going to have to attack quickly or stand down. The resistance to this war is strong already and mounting daily. Of course, the support of the French, Russian and German governments can be bought. That’s taken for granted. The real problem for both Bush and Blair is at home, where hundreds of thousands have already taken to the streets, with even bigger demonstrations in the works.

So Milan Rai’s book is sharply timed. It can serve as a much-needed gameplan for the anti-war movement, a tool to fight distortions and lies with facts and historical truth.

Woodblock prints by Emily Johns and photographs by Kim Weston-Arnold adorn and compliment Rai’s book. I am particularly struck by the beautiful and haunted faces of the Iraqi children in Weston-Arnold’s photos taken during her visit to Baghdad in May of this year. I go back to those faces again and again. These kids have already endured miseries and hardships that are unknown by anyone living in the United States or Britain. The unyielding goal of the anti-war movement must be to preserve those lives and in doing so resolve to make them better.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3