By Rahul Mahajan
Iraq's desperate humanitarian situation has suddenly become a
retroactive justification for the war, even for the attacking of
civilian targets. The need to get aid into Basra has apparently
prompted a British military spokesperson to designate it as a
"legitimate military target," language reminiscent of Gulf War I,
when the saturation bombing of Basra was justified on the same
As verifiable civilian deaths mount toward 300 in this "war of
liberation," the need to establish American moral superiority is
growing rapidly. Thus Donald Rumsfeld's convenient rediscovery of
the Geneva Convention and thus the American media hysteria over
al-Jazeera, which has the temerity to provide balanced reporting of
Thus also a recent press conference by the execrable Andrew Natsios,
head administrator of USAID, in which he raised the already stunning
mendacity of the Bush administration to new heights. While beating
his chest over the massive preparations the United States has made
to avert a humanitarian tragedy in Iraq (always assuming the Iraqis
don't screw things up by continuing unaccountably to resist their
liberation), he touched on the problems of Basra, where only 40% of
the people currently have access to potable water.
The genesis of said problems, according to him, is "a deliberate
decision by the regime not to repair the water system or replace old
equipment with new equipment, so in many cases people are basically
drinking untreated sewer water in their homes and have been for some
A deliberate decision by the regime. We've seen some remarkable lies
about Iraq from this administration including Dick Cheney's
statement that Iraq has "reconstituted nuclear weapons", Ari
Fleischer's that Iraq did not declare the range of its al-Samoud 2
missiles, and an attempt to pass off crudely forged documents as
proof that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger.
But this. "A deliberate decision by the regime." The mind boggles.
Ever since Iraq's water treatment system was left in shambles by the
Gulf War, where the deliberate targeting of the entire electrical
power grid caused water pumping to shut down and sewage to fill the
streets of Basra, the Iraqi government has scrambled desperately to
repair its water system, only to come repeatedly face to face with
one huge obstacle: the United States government.
Joy Gordon's excellent article, "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a
Weapon of Mass Destruction" (Harper's, November 2002), documents at
length her conclusion that "the United States has consistently
thwarted Iraq from satisfying its most basic humanitarian needs."
Under the sanctions regime set up over Iraq after the Gulf War, any
country on the Security Council could block or indefinitely delay
any contract for goods submitted by the Iraqi government. The United
States has imposed far more blocks than all other members put
together; as of 2001, it had put half a billion dollars worth of
water and sanitation contracts on hold. The water treatment goods it
has blocked at one time or another include pipes (roughly 40% of the
clean water pumped is lost to leakage), earth-moving equipment,
safety equipment for handling chlorine, and no fewer than three
sewage treatment plants.
But there can be no doubt that, in the inimitable words of Madeleine
Albright, "we care more about the Iraqi people."
If you're not convinced yet, consider this. After coming under harsh
criticism because of the frightful inadequacy of its humanitarian
preparations, the United States has made some attempt to remedy the
problem. The original plan was a reprise of the Afghan operation
dubbed "military propaganda" by Doctors Without Borders, in which
some tens of thousands of meals would be dropped out of planes every
day, and, in the miraculous manner common in that part of the world,
each meal would feed a multitude; now, some shipments of wheat have
been added to the original plan.
The same Andrew Natsios wrote an indignant rejoinder to the
Washington Post, claiming full readiness of the United States to
"help Iraq.". Tucked away in the middle of his missive: "Saddam
Hussein has doubled monthly food rations since October, trying to
buy the affection of his people. As a result, families have stored
food at home."
In other words, for all the humanitarian triumphalism of the
"coalition," for all its great desire to level Basra so that Iraqis
can be fed, the agency that has taken meaningful steps to avert a
catastrophe is the Iraqi government. It did so under the severest of
constraints; for over a year, revenue has been depressed and the Oil
for Food program is dramatically underfunded.
Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who has subjected his people to
horrible suffering. There is little doubt about that. The fact that
on at least the grounds considered above he stacks up far better
than the U.S. government, no matter which administration, does not
bode well for the future of the Iraqi people.
Nor does this brave new humanitarian world being created by the
exponents of water privatization and structural adjustment bode well
for the future of anybody else. On Iraq, the New Humanitarianism is
clear: we had to destroy Iraq (over the past 12 years, not just the
last few days) in order to save it. Who will we save next?
[Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective. His
latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and
[The United States and Britain had no justification for invading Iraq either
on the grounds of alleged threats from illicit weapons and terrorism, or as
a humanitarian mission, an international civil rights group said yesterday.
The failure to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction has left
President George Bush and Tony Blair claiming that the invasion was on
humanitarian grounds, said a hard-hitting annual report of Human Rights
Watch. It said that the West had done nothing when Saddam massacred Kurds
and Shias in the past, and there was no evidence of any continuing mass
killings at the start of the war in March 2003.
The report claimed that the US and British occupation forces had "sidelined
human rights... as a matter of secondary importance. The rule of law has not
arrived and Iraq is still beset by the legacy of human rights abuses of the
former government, as well as new ones that have emerged under the
occupation." The reasons given for war by Mr Bush and Mr Blair - WMD and
Saddam's alleged links with international terrorism - had not been proved,
said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the organisation.--Kim Sengupta,
No humanitarian case for Iraq war, says rights group," The Independent,
January 27, 2004]