IRAQ: 'Humanitarian' war in Basra?



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 prompted a British military spokesperson on March 25 to designate it as a "legitimate military target" (<>), language reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War, when the saturation bombing of Basra by US-led forces was justified on the same basis.

As verifiable Iraqi civilian deaths mount beyond 300 (<>) in this "war of liberation", the need to establish US-British moral superiority is growing rapidly. Thus US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's convenient rediscovery of the Geneva Conventions and thus the US media hysteria over al Jazeera TV, which has the temerity to provide balanced reporting of the invasion.

Thus also a recent press conference by the execrable Andrew Natsios, head administrator of USAID, in which he raised the already stunning mendacity of US President George Bush's administration to new heights. While beating his chest over the massive preparations the US has made to avert a humanitarian tragedy in Iraq (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 the problem, according to Natsios, was "a deliberate decision by the regime not to repair the water system or replace old equipment with new, so in many cases people are basically drinking untreated sewer water in their homes and have been for some years". (<D=1&H=1&O=D&F=&S=&P=10264>)

A "deliberate decision by the regime"? We've seen some remarkable lies (<>) about Iraq from this administration, including vice-president Dick Cheney's statement that Iraq has "reconstituted nuclear weapons" (<2003Mar17.html>), 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 "a deliberate decision by the regime"? The mind boggles. Ever since Iraq's water treatment system was left in a shambles by the 1991 Gulf War, in which the entire electrical power grid was deliberately targetted by US-led forces, causing 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 US government.

Joy Gordon's excellent article, "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction" (Harper's, November 2002, text at <>), 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 after the Gulf War, any country on the Security Council could block or indefinitely delay any contract for goods to be exported to Iraq. The US 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.

If you're not convinced yet, consider this: after coming under harsh criticism (<2003Mar6&notFound=true>) because of the frightful inadequacy of its humanitarian preparations, the US 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 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 on March 12, claiming full readiness of Washington to "help Iraq". (<dyn/articles/A18063-2003Mar12.html>). But tucked away in the middle of his missive was this: "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.

Hussein is a brutal dictator who has subjected his people to horrible suffering. The fact that on at least the grounds considered above, he stacks up far better than the US 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 privatisation 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's articles are collected at <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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