Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Iraq's Horror

There's a very upsetting article in today's Independent about the uncovering of a mass grave in Iraq. Investigators have been unearthing a mass grave in northern Iraq, and have so far removed 120 bodies from the grave which may contain as many as 300 corpses. The Indie reports that the victims are believed to be Kurds murdered on Saddam's orders in 1987 and 1988. The evil brutality that must have occurred at the hands of Saddam's henchmen is brought home with a shocking description of two of the corpses - the Independent reports that, amongst the bodies, "excavators found the body of a mother still clutching her baby. The infant was shot in the back of the head and the other in the face."

You have to wonder what kind of human being could shoot a baby in the back of the head and its mother in the face. It's no surprise, however, that such evil took place under Saddam's regime.

I have to admit that every time the atrocities that took place under Saddam are described it shakes me, and I find myself having to re-evaluate my opposition to the war. It's not an easy evaluation to make - and I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who says that they've never even for a minute wavered over the issue.

However, there are some things that I need to remind myself of after reading this article. Firstly, it is wrong to regard what happened in Iraq as some sort of totally 'home-grown' and self-contained evil, which can be understood without giving consideration to the global political context in which all nation states operate. The evil of Saddam's regime did not take place in some kind of vacuum. It is all too easy for apologists for the war to present a picture of the Iraqi regime in terms of some inexplicable, radical evil which can be isolated from the rest of the world in terms of origins and counterposed like some kind of self-contained entity to its political opposite - the good, democratic West. In reality the West had everything to do with the existence of Saddam's regime.

The US's support (along with other Western countries) for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war is well known. From 1982 the US "actively supported Iraq, supplying billions of dollars of credits, US military intelligence and advice, and ensuring that necessary weaponry got to Iraq." (see here for source). Export of military-use equipment and the provision of financial backing for Iraq continued througout the 1980s. Much of this equipment was for use in so called 'WMD' production. In 1985 Reagan "approved the export to Iraq of biological cultures that are precursors to bioweapons: anthrax, botulism, etc" There were "over 70 shipments of such cultures between 1985-1988". In 1988, the US voted against a UN Security Council statement condemning Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja (an act of mass murder much referred to by Blair and Bush while drumming up support for the war). In addition, it's widely believed that the Iraqi regime at least thought that the US had given it the nod to go ahead and annex Kuwait in 1990. It would have been an extremely reckless act for Iraq to go against the wishes of its US backer knowingly and deliberately.

Remember, then, that in 1987-1988 when the horrific murder of this mother and child whose bodies were found in a mass grave took place, the US (and other liberal democratic states) were supporters of the Saddam regime. I am not arguing that there is moral equivalence between the thugs who pulled the trigger on the victims in the mass grave on the one hand and Western leaders on the other. However it is surely the case that some degree of responsibility for these people's horrific deaths lies with the financial, economic, political and military backers of the Iraqi state. They knew what Saddam was doing and, at the very least, turned a blind eye.

Confronted with such facts some supporters of the war claim that 'that was then, this is now'. They argue that while the West may have been in some way complicit in Saddam's evil in the past, a line should be drawn under the whole affair - the present day governments of the US and the UK are a different bunch of people and acted on humanitarian motives long overdue, when they invaded Iraq. Apart from being factually untrue in terms of the 'different people in charge now' argument (Donald Rumsfeld anyone?), it is beyond naive to imagine that the military actions of the US and UK were driven by anything than the same realpolitik that drove them to back Saddam in the 1980s. If you really believe that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by humanitarian concerns then I can only look at you in disbelief. The invasion of Iraq was driven by the same amoral, hard-nosed concerns (which leave little room for niceities like concern for human suffering - or, at least relegate these concerns to a position of secondary, very minor significance) that drove the great powers to arm Saddam in the first place. It's simply more of the same.

If you want to break the circle of human suffering and realpolitik then you cannot support this war. Flying into the arms of Western imperialism dressed up as 'humanitarianism' merely lends further support to the beneficiaries and string-pullers of the ghastly political system, which in a previous guise exported 'crop duster' equipment and chemical weapons components to Saddam and which will do similar things again, should it be in the interests of the powerful to do so. It's the same old system - the same old political cynicism - just with a different mask.

So, going back to those bodies in the mass grave - what are we to make of it? Of course, Saddam's regime was unspeakably evil and the people directly responsible for the killing should be strung up by their heels. Should we, in the light of such unimaginable horror as the deliberate shooting of a baby in the back of the head, have supported the war? It's a difficult decision to make, but I think we were right to oppose it. For one thing the bastards who killed this baby amongst thousands of other innocents would not have been in power were it not for the good 'democrats' and 'humanitarians' in Washington and Whitehall. For another, we cannot reasonably expect the ex-backers of Saddam to sort out all the horror while acting on the same cynical political and economic motives that drove them to export arms to him (and which continue to drive them to support repressive governments like that of Colombia for example to this very day) in the first place. The circle keeps going round and round.

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