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Saga of an on-going crime

BOOK REVIEW: Secrets and Lies: The True Story of the Iraq War by Dilip Hiro (Politico’s, ?9.99 paperback)

The Spokesman, Issue 88, November 2005

In August 2003, the Bush administration published its “100 Days in Iraq” report, declaring confidently: “Most of Iraq is calm, and progress on the road to democracy and freedom not experienced in decades continues. Only in isolated areas are there still attacks.” More than two years later, they continue repeating the mantra, as if awkward realities could be spirited away by brusque verbiage.

But then, this was the mode they had successfully adopted in the run-up to the invasion, enabling them to pull-off what Dilip Hiro describes as a “monumental confidence trick.” The first third of his meticulous chronicle is dedicated to the Bush regime’s implacable march from the trauma of 9/11 to the full scale assault on Iraq in March 2003. In retrospect, what’s striking is the sheer determination among the Bush cabal to make this happen. They didn’t so much remove the obstacles in their path as step blithely over them. International law. The Arab states. Russia and China. France and Germany. Thirty million demonstrators. The absence of a second UN resolution. The repeated warnings from all quarters that the invasion would increase the terrorist threat to which it was ostensibly a response.

When their enemy seemed to be approaching the goalposts, they shifted them. Between November 27 2002 and 18 March 2003, Hiro reports, UNMOVIC and the IAEA carried out 713 inspections at 411 sites – and found not a scrap of evidence to sustain the US-UK charges about Saddam’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction. Meanwhile, US and UK forces were already engaged in “a secret war” preparatory to the planned full-scale invasion. Beginning in August 2002, they conducted near daily bombing raids and infiltrated troops across the border to engage in reconnaissance, sabotage and bribery.

The neo-cons felt empowered by 9/11, but they could not have got their way alone. Colin Powell may have been frozen out of the inner circle, he may have had his doubts, but in his speech to the UN on February 5 2003 he performed a major service for the war party. Hiro dissects the solemn claims Powell made to the world on that day and shows not only that all of them proved to be false, but also that Powell must have known that the evidence he was presenting was dubious. While he persuaded no one at the UN, Powell did bolster the credibility of the WMD claims among domestic and British audiences.

In retrospect, Hans Blix appears to have been too reluctant to make plain what he knew to be true – that Iraq did not pose anything like an imminent threat and that US-UK assertions did not stand up to scrutiny. Each time the US cavilled at his findings or lodged new charges he grumpily acquiesced and adjusted his timetable. Like Kofi Anna, and the French and German governments, he seemed to believe that the enraged American giant could be placated, that war could be averted by taking US-UK concerns about WMD at face value.

Far worse was the performance of the official domestic opposition in the USA. Having signed up for the war on terror, and fearful of the taint of “disloyalty”, the Democrats were easily defeated by Bush’s Republicans in the 2002 mid-term elections – at which point Iraq’s fate was sealed. As Hiro notes, the key for Bush was his ability to secure majority support for war at home. It was here that the catalogue of deception recounted by Hiro paid the biggest dividend, as US citizens groped in a fog in which 9/11, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, WMD and terrorism, actual and potential threats, individuals, governments and civilisations were indistinguishable.

The invasion itself is remembered in the US and UK as a relatively quick and painless exercise. Here Hiro’s book performs an important service by reminding us just how brutal and destructive it was, and how many lies were told to obscure that reality. During the four-week military campaign, US-UK forces flew 37,000 air sorties, dropped or fired 28,000 bombs or missiles, including 1500 Cruise or Tomahawk strikes. They deployed bunker busters, daisy cutters and the Massive Ordinance Air Blast bombs the size of a passenger bus, plus 20,000 cluster munitions. New technology meant that the violence was precision-guided to an extent never seen before, and indeed Iraqi military casualties outnumbered civilian many times over. But as the diaries of Thurya al Kaissi, a 17 year old Baghdadi girl, quoted extensively by Hiro, make clear, the unrelenting display of unanswerable firepower wreaked terror and havoc. “More bangs… I get back to sleep but have very bad dreams. In one, I run up the street and am chased by two American rockets.” The wreckage of homes, industries, infrastructure has still not been repaired.

Crucially, the war-makers kept graphic accounts of civilian suffering off the US and UK television screens. Here the BBC aped the US networks. It reported falsely that the Iraqis had fired Scuds at Kuwait. It claimed that Umm Qasr had been captured while fighting continued there for five more days (as Aljazeera viewers could see for themselves). Every hint that WMD had been located was headlined – though every rumour proved to be false. It reported that Basra had risen against Saddam. As it turned out, there was no rising and it took UK forces 14 days of shelling, bombardment and siege before they were able to occupy the city. The much anticipated Shia rising never materialised. The conquerors were not welcomed as liberators but regarded with the deepest suspicion.

The one-eyed determination to invade Iraq was coupled with an equally one-eyed failure to plan for the occupation that followed. The indifference became immediately apparent when looting on phenomenal scale broke out – ushering in a climate of lawlessness that still prevails in the country. Libraries, museums and archaeological sites were ransacked. In her diary Thurya al Kaissi posed the question so many continue to ask: “Why don’t the Americans stop them?” Part of the answer was suggested by the fact that as the abandoned irrigation ministry burned US soldiers stood guard over the nearby oil ministry.

Hiro depicts the neo-cons as infatuated with their own ideology and therefore incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions. “While obsessed about Iraq since September 11, 2001, they had failed to study its history and culture, a blunder made by their antecedents in the 1960s in the case of Vietnam.”

Initially, guerrilla attackers were dismissed as “remnants of the old regime”. But as Hiro makes clear, resistance to the occupation has been multi-faceted and persistent from day one. In July 2003, a hyper-confident Bush declared “Bring ‘em on!” – like the Commander in Chief in Dylan’s ‘Tombstone Blues’, pointing to the sky and shouting “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” In Karbala that summer, Shia chanted “La la Amreeka, la la Saddam” – no no to America, no no to Saddam. In Baghdad a bomb destroyed the UN headquarters and killed twenty-three. August saw five hundred guerrilla attacks on occupying forces.

Since Bush uttered the words “Mission Accomplished” on 1 May 2003, the calendar of occupation has been studded by “turning-points”. The capture of Saddam in December 2003. The “handover of sovereignty” in July 2004. The siege of Najaf in August 2004. The recapture of Fallujah in November 2004. The elections in January 2005. Yet violence in Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi population continue unabated.

Which is not to say that the political process as it’s unfolded in Iraq these last two and a half years has been what the occupiers planned or preferred. Hiro observes that “the guerrilla movement came to set the pace of political reconstruction” – forcing the US to seek more credible Iraqi allies and at least appear to respond to widespread demands for self-government. In doing so, they’ve had to deal with forces whose agendas are not determined in Washington (the Chalabi ruse having collapsed as quickly as the statue of Saddam in Firdaus Square). That Shia uprising that didn’t take place has proved to be significant. The US has found it necessary to placate Shia demands for political power, and in the process adopted divide-and-rule tactics that threaten the country with civil war.

Hiro’s principal sources are the mainstream US and UK media, and therefore much of the material will be familiar to those who followed the events as they occurred. Nonetheless, in assembling the material and constructing a coherent narrative from it, Hiro has produced a powerful indictment and a valuable resource. It’s salutary to be reminded of the extent of the dissimulation that has accompanied every phase of this catastrophe. From the “intelligence” used to justify the invasion (“a compendium of deliberate misinterpretation, misinformation, disinformation and outright lies”) through the Jessica Lynch fabrication, to stitching up the head wounds on the corpses of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Whenever the facts failed to correspond to the claims, the US-UK war-makers resorted to shooting the messenger, literally in the case of Aljazeera.

The book’s emphasis is on events and personalities, rather than analysis. Blair appears here as nothing but a factotum for Bush. Those seeking an explanation of how it was that a UK Labour government ended up as the neo-cons staunchest ally will have to look elsewhere. Hiro suggests that the core of the drama lies in the personality of George W. Bush – with his evangelical commitment to “gut instinct” – but surely the question is how Bush’s gut instinct became US policy, how the larger political environment licensed and sustained the neo-cons.

Hiro stresses the differences between the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, notably that the former enjoyed UN and NATO support and was a direct response to an attack on US soil. But he understates the continuities, which helped make progress to the Iraq war inexorable. In its response to 9/11, the US enlarged its exclusive prerogative for military action, claiming the right to attack any country that it suspected of ‘harbouring terrorists’. Along with that, it declared an open-ended “war on terror” – an invaluable replacement for the redundant Cold War ideology. The war on terror was vague and vivid and infinitely flexible. It married national security and global reach. The WMD claims would only become resonant within the context of a global terrorist threat. And with the US occupation of Iraq having unleashed a new wave of terrorist activity, inside and outside Iraq, the war on terror comes full circle and provides today a justification for the occupation.

Hiro’s book forces us to look back and focus sharply on the events of the past four years. This is no small virtue at a time when Blair and his allies are eager to erase popular memory of recent history, not least those unambiguous warnings that an invasion of Iraq would increase the likelihood of attacks on the UK.

Putting down Secrets and Lies, I couldn’t help but reflect angrily on the fact that not one of the culprits in this criminal saga has been brought to account. Bush and Blair have been re-elected. Condoleeza Rice promoted. Those who fashioned and retailed the whoppers about WMD remain in post, while Gilligan and Dyke were ousted from the BBC.

Nonetheless, the war-makers are now forced to operate in a climate of opinion profoundly affected by the anti-war movement. As the death tolls mount an the excuses wear thin, support for the occupation has plummeted in both the US and UK. Those who opposed the war but believed the occupation would benefit Iraqis, or saw no alternative to it, are reconsidering the options. As Hiro’s account makes clear, the occupation is shaped by the illegitimacy and violence of the invasion that gave it birth, and no retrospective tinkering will rectify that flaw.