DAWN - Editorial; April 11, 2003

April 11, 2003


After Saddam, what?

THE fate of President Saddam Hussein and his close associates may not be known, yet, but for all practical purposes the Iraqi chapter of the Baathist regime has come to an end. Pockets of resistance may hold out in Baghdad and elsewhere for some time, but the Saddam regime has passed into history. After 21 days of an unequal fight in which Iraq’s impoverished armed forces were pitted against the coalition’s formidable war machine, Baghdad has fallen and with it has come to a close a sorry chapter in the life of this beleaguered nation — a chapter made up largely of coups, assassinations, upheavals, tyranny and persecution and latterly of wars and colossal human suffering imposed by an unjust and cruel “sanctions” regime. The scenes of jubilation by a section of the population seen on TV serve to underline the folly of building one’s castles in the air. Ultimately, this is the fate of all dictators who tyrannize over their own people. The looting in Baghdad and Basra also testifies to the unbearable limits which the Iraqi people’s material deprivations had reached as a result of twelve years of crippling sanctions. Those who suffered from the shortage of food and medicines were not the Baathist leaders but the hapless people of Iraq. Children who died for want of life-saving drugs alone numbered half a million.

Two issues now confront the victors. The short-term problem is one of alleviating the suffering of the Iraqi people and providing them with the basic necessities of life by using Iraq’s enormous oil wealth. The longer-term question concerns Iraq’s continuation as a sovereign political entity with its territorial integrity. This is of vital importance if the victors want to ensure durable peace and stability in the Middle East. Any attempt at dividing Iraq into smaller entities expected to act as vassals of foreign powers will be dangerously unwise and reckless. Turkey and Iran will both react negatively to any such move, for both have reasons to fear destabilization as a consequence, say, of the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Likewise, a Shia state in the south will be a source of instability and strife. What Iraq needs is a new government chosen by its own people. There has, of course, to be an interim set-up chosen, perhaps, by the US and Britain. But its job should be to restore the government machinery, enforce law and order and then create the conditions for a free and fair election, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations. It would be folly if Washington thinks in terms of ruling Iraq by proxy by manoeuvring a puppet regime into power to serve as a fig leaf for occupation. As for the task of reconstruction, it should be under the aegis of the United Nations and with the help of all states willing to join in rebuilding Iraq. Any attempt by Washington to go it alone will expose it to the charge of nursing imperialist designs — of keeping a hold on a country that has the world’s second largest reserves of oil. Such a move will do incalculable harm to America’s standing in the Third World, more particularly because the weapons of mass destruction for whose discovery and elimination this war was launched have not been found yet. Let the victors not be haunted by the ghost of Saddam Hussein. A stable and peaceful Iraq ruled by its own people will be a source of peace and stability in the Middle East if it is allowed to play a role that is commensurate with its size and economic potential.

Afghan civilian deaths

THE killing of 11 civilians in a US air attack in south-eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday has provoked widespread condemnation and anger and underlines the need for greater care in air raids to avoid civilian casualties. Seven men and four women were killed when a bomb strayed from its target and fell on their home on the outskirts of Shkin, near the border with Pakistan. Amnesty International has demanded an investigation into the deaths and called for measures to be taken to avoid civilian casualties. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the London-based human rights watchdog stated: “Civilian casualties cannot be allowed — in Afghanistan or Iraq — to become an acceptable feature of wars.” The deaths have come at a time when the US is already under fire for causing heavy civilian casualties in Iraq. The intense bombardment of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has killed and injured a large number of civilians, despite US assurances that raids would be restricted to military targets and the most sophisticated weapons would be used so that accuracy is ensured.

Clearly, no lessons seem to have been learnt from the Afghanistan experience where the record of the US-led forces in this regard has been poor. The most shocking in a string of incidents involving civilians occurred in July when US fighter aircraft shot at a wedding party in Uruzgan province, killing 48 people, mostly women and children. Civilians in southern Afghanistan, in particular, have become increasingly caught in the crossfire between US-led forces and supporters of the fallen Taliban regime, causing deep resentment among the people. To minimize their own casualties, the US forces in Afghanistan have relied heavily on air strikes rather than ground operations, putting civilians at serious risk. While it is difficult to estimate the number of civilian casualties, conservative estimates put the figure close to 1,000. Washington must change this central plank of its strategy if it wants to avoid needless deaths. Even the most hi-tech weapons are also likely to miss their targets and kill innocent people who happen to be within the radius of the margin for error. What can minimize these possibilities is utmost care and vigilance on the part of the men planning and actually carrying out certain operations.

Erosion of civil liberties

AS if the USA Patriot Act of 2001 was not enough of an abridgement of civil liberties, a Republican congressman from Florida has moved a bill in the House seeking restrictions on American citizenship. If passed into law, it will deprive those children born in the US of foreign parentage the right to American citizenship for the first time in the history of his ‘nation of immigrants’.

The current 107th Congress has already passed a record number of restrictive laws in the aftermath of 9/11. The all-encompassing Homeland Security Information Sharing Act, which the Congress is deliberating on, is also likely to sail through the legislature in the weeks ahead.

For the first time in American legislative history, a blatant distinction is being made between the rights of citizens and non-citizens, threatening the basic principles of equality set forth in the US constitution. The prospect of anyone mounting a successful legal challenge to such discriminatory laws appears rather bleak. The US Supreme Court, in recent months, has shown great complacency by refusing to take up cases such as those involving illegal immigrant prisoners in American jails and Afghan war prisoners being held in the Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba. The current mood of xenophobia among US legislators is reflected in the retrogressive laws being pushed through Congress. These are likely to leave a lasting negative imprint on the state of civil liberties in the world’s first constitutional democracy.