Iraq and Haditha

Argus Title : Who can blame the Iraqis for hating us?

My aunt died this week in South Africa. She was the wife of my mother’s brother.

She was a lovely lady, an accomplished needlewoman and housewife, fascinated by medicine. Had she belonged to a different generation, she’d probably have been a doctor. As it was, she spent her life looking after her husband and children. It’s probably no accident that the eldest of her 3 sons is a radiologist.

My mother and I couldn’t attend her funeral, but we phoned and sent cards to my uncle. Later we ordered flowers to be delivered on the day of her funeral. At the exact time of the service, my mother and I visited a local church and lit a candle for her – and also one in memory of my father.

We walked back quietly and had a cup of tea on the way at Forfars. It was a peaceful way to grieve and I think my mother was comforted.

In Iraq there is no such comfort for family members grieving the death of loved ones. In that country, no one in their right mind would leave their home unnecessarily, certainly not for tea or to buy stationery or flowers, even if there were any. Even prayer is dangerous. Many mosques lie in ruins.

Iraqis trawl the morgues for their missing loved ones. Just recently I read about a family group of 4 killed at a mortuary while trying to locate the body of a relation. I also watched film of an elderly woman whose family had been killed by US forces, shrieking her grief to the skies “Why do they treat us like this?” she screamed, stretching out her hands “What have we done to you?”.

A few days ago anonymous Iraqi government officials released information about the Iraqi death rate to British journalists. Since January, in Baghdad alone, over 6,000 people have died – the vast majority of them unarmed civilians.

The journalist John Simpson told BBC News that he had visited Baghdad 5 times this year and each time the situation was worse than before, with civilians bearing the brunt of the abductions, torture and killings. He spoke of people killed slowly with power drills. Such terrible deaths have become commonplace.

British journalists report on the killing from heavily fortified safety zones. If they travel they do it with the troops, as ‘embedded’ journalists, under military control. In general, they can tell us only what the military and the coalition governments want us to hear.

Throughout the occupation they have repeated the Coalition line that ‘insurgents’ are to blame for the violence, led by Sunnis who want to reinstate ‘privileges’ they enjoyed under Saddam’s leadership. Long after it ceased to be in any way the truth, journalists are still trying to persuade us that the Shia majority are largely supportive of Coalition troops.

In fact, all surveys indicate that the Shia also want the occupying forces to leave. Although sectarian violence is becoming increasingly bloody and vicious, it is recognised that the occupation encourages and fosters it.

There is increasing evidence that many civilian casualties are the work of the occupying armies, in particular US forces.

US soldiers have recently been cleared of killing 11 civilians, including 4 children, in Ishaqi. The soldiers claimed to be pursuing an al-Quaida operative and to have destroyed civilian housing in their attack. The Iraqis gave evidence, many details of which were later supported by BBC film, that US troops had burst into the house, executed its inhabitants and later bull-dozed the building. The court found that the US troops had used ‘normal operating procedures’.

The deaths of 24 civilians at Haditha at the hands of US marines, including children, a baby and a disabled elderly man in a wheelchair, is now belatedly under investigation.

US politicians have expressed horror at the allegations. Marines are after all the USA’s elite troops, highly trained and supposedly the army’s finest. Some have expressed fears that such atrocities are widespread.

One of the most devastating comments on Haditha came from the wife of a serving soldier, who alleged that US troops are frequently out of control and high on drugs. This recalls the Vietnam War when drug-fuelled atrocities against civilians became commonplace.

In its potential to affect US public opinion, the killings at Haditha have been likened to the worst of the Vietnam atrocities, the My Lai massacre, in which US troops ran amok raping, torturing and killing over 500 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.

Coalition forces tend to deal with allegations of abuse by either denying them or, if there is evidence, claiming that it results from post traumatic stress or the action of a few ‘bad apples’.
Iraq’s prime minister has lost patience and expresses anger at “habitual” killing of civilians by coalition forces. “There is a limit to the acceptable excuses” he said “Yes, a mistake may happen, but there is an acceptable limit to mistakes”.
He said violence against civilians had become a “daily phenomenon” by many troops in the American-led coalition who “do not respect the Iraqi people.” He added “They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion….This is completely unacceptable.” Attacks on civilians will play a role in future decisions on how long to ask American forces to remain in Iraq, the prime minister said.
The journalist Robert Fisk has recently described how he was told by a senior medical official in Baghdad mortuary “when the Americans bring bodies we are instructed that under no circumstances are we ever to do post mortems”.

The official showed Fisk an army document, accompanying a body. It stated simply “trauma wound”. Fisk asked “What kind of trauma?…Who is doing the mass killing? Who is dumping so many bodies on garbage heaps?” He went on “After Haditha, we are going to reshape our suspicions. It’s no good saying “a few bad apples”. All occupation enemies are corrupted. But do they all commit war crimes?”

It is a question we should ask ourselves. In November the trial of 7 paratroopers accused of murdering an Iraqi teenager collapsed when the judge referred to Iraqi witnesses as unreliable and judged they were seeking “blood money”.

In May 2003 in Basra 4 soldiers forced An asthmatic 15 year old into a canal where he drowned. He had been looting. The invading British army, self-proclaimed ‘liberators’ of the Iraqi people, had developed a policy of ‘wetting’ offenders, forcing them into canals and rivers to discourage further theft. This was despite the fact that most looters were stealing to get food for their families.

An Iraqi witness who survived the ‘wetting’ alleged they were beaten before being forced into the water. He claims the soldiers could not have failed to see that the boy was in difficulties, reporting that one soldier did try to help, but was ordered or held back.

What is undisputed is that the soldiers climbed into their vehicle and left a 15 year old boy to drown, not in a narrow slow moving canal, as some sections of the media have suggested, but in what is to all intents and purposes a swift-flowing tidal river with lethal currents.

The 4 Guardsmen, one a sergeant, were cleared of manslaughter by a panel of 7 army officers. Their actions had been, as the Sun newspaper put it, “a tragic mistake”.

After the acquittal Haidar Mussawi, a leading Iraqi National Congress official said “The message people get from this is there is no respect for the lives of the Iraqi people”.

The incident happened just after the Coalition ‘victory’ had been declared. Though looting was widespread, attacks on British troops were not. The occupying army had responsibility under international law to ensure the safety of the population. They failed to provide adequate food, fuel, medicines and other essential supplies and when people looted, they punished them. One senior British officer even requested permission to shoot them, but it was refused.

This week wives and mothers of serving soldiers launched a petition calling for recall of the troops. Lynda Holmes, a nurse, and mother of a Guardsman said “Innocent people have died. Those in the forces have died – they enlisted to protect their country. But all they’ve done is fight an illegal war for Blair and Bush.”

All the while, Ahmed Jabar Kareem’s plaintive little face looks out from the newspapers. No doubt he has a family mourning him, just as we grieve for our own departed.

If his family hate the British, it’s surely understandable. If they take up arms against us, who on earth could blame them?

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