Thu, 06 Jan 2000

Iraq: Silent slaughter of a nation and people

By Jason Burke

BAGHDAD: No one saw the jets that fired the rockets that smashed the concrete that shattered the glass that sliced the faces of the children of class 1A.

No one saw because the children were noisy after their lunch break and their teachers were distracted. And no one saw because the jets -- American F-15E Strike Eagles from a base in Turkey -- were flying at 20,000ft to avoid anti-aircraft missiles. The British Tornado GR1 fighter-bombers do the same.

At that height the jets are no more than silver specks in the clear blue desert sky.

After the attack a Maj. Andy White at the United States Air Force's Turkish base said: "There is nothing to support claims of damage or injury to civilians." Except, of course, the scars on the faces and scalps of half a dozen 10-year-olds and three teachers who are still scared to come to school, and the holes in Ghous Mohammed's house, and his daughter-in-law's shattered leg, and the crushed wreck of his car.

The first thing Ghous Mohammed knew about the attack was when, at 1:20 p.m. on Nov. 28, two rockets smacked into the top floor of his neighbors' house and exploded, showering rubble over him and the primary school 30 yards away. He had heard the warning sirens earlier in the day but they sound so regularly now that he had ignored them. His town, Mosul, is hit at least a couple of times each week. "I should have listened to the alarms," he said. "After all, we are at war."

The war in Iraq hardly registers in London or Washington these days. American and British warplanes have flown around 15,000 sorties over Iraq this year. Thousands of tons of ordnance has been dropped and the Pentagon claims that 200 military installations -- all used for air defense -- have been destroyed.

An unknown number of Iraqis -- some in uniforms, some not -- have died. As military equipment is often hidden in civilian areas, the Allied spokesmen say, civilian casualties are inevitable. The aim of the strikes, and the wide-ranging sanctions that have been imposed on Iraq since it invaded Kuwait in 1990, is to undermine Saddam's regime.

So far the policy does not appear to be working very well. Saddam is still very much in power and there is little evidence that the Iraqi people are any closer to ousting him. The policy of bombings and sanctions perplexes many, outside and inside Iraq. And worse, for Western strategists -- it may be driving Saddam's Iraq into the clutches of hardline Islamic fundamentalists.

"What is this all for?" said Ghous Mohammed recently as he surveyed his battered home. "Do the British and Americans want to kill us all one by one?"

An hour's drive south of Baghdad is the site of ancient Babylon. Lying down by its waters and remembering Zion, at least aloud, would be a hazardous activity these days. By the branch of the Euphrates that runs by the ruins of the biblical city, the current local potentate has built an enormous, flood-lit, fenced- off palace.

To the horror of archaeologists, Saddam has reconstructed Babylon to provide a fitting monument to his own reign. The 10- year multi-million pound building project is complete and huge arches in sharp-edged yellow brick rise above the broken 2,500- year-old stone. Vast crenelated walls once again surround the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar. The king had his name inscribed on the original bricks in jagged cuneiform script. Now the walls carry inscriptions in swirling Arabic telling of the glory of "the great protector of Iraq... the ever victorious Saddam Hussein".

Within a few hundred yards of the site lie the 30 acres that Jabbar Caliph's family have been tilling since anyone can remember. Caliph's land is now failing, he says, because the United Nations sanctions' regime make it almost impossible to get modern fertilizers and seeds. The irrigation system is collapsing for want of spare parts. The dusty, dun-colored earth is drying out and dying.

Caliph's problems are not uncommon in Iraq. The combination of war and sanctions has pole-axed the economy and the drip feed of the UN "food for oil" program -- by which Saddam is allowed to sell around six billion pound sterlings of oil a year to buy essential medicines and foodstuffs -- does not go far in a country of 20 million people.

The schools are without proper facilities, the power supply is intermittent and, though the markets are busy, few can afford to buy much. The prices of staples such as rice and lentils are a thousand times their 1990 level. Bananas are a luxury. Doctors are paid a dollar a week.

On the leukemia and cancer ward of the Saddam Children's Hospital in western Baghdad the staff are understandably downbeat. Every one of their patients, they say, will die; there is a 100 percent death rate on their ward. In the West, with plentiful supplies of powerful antibiotics and access to chemotherapy, perhaps half would survive. But in Baghdad even pneumonia is now usually fatal. A single factory north of the city produces limited quantities of basic antibiotics, but almost everything else is paid for by the "food for oil" deal.

A UN report last month boasted that medical expenditure under the program had totaled 450 million pounds over three years -- about US$11 for each Iraqi each year. His enemies say Saddam cynically spends less than he could on medicine because he knows dying children are good propaganda material. His allies maintain the money released by the UN is criminally insufficient. Either way the effect is the same.

Five days ago young Omar Hameed Ibrahim was writhing in his bed as an aggressive cancer and infection attacked his eyes. They had swollen up and split like ripe black figs. A severe brain hemorrhage, septicaemia and the failure of almost all major organs will have almost certainly killed the boy by today. The doctors said the hospital simply does not have the drugs to treat his condition.

The UN is debating the future of the embargo and its whole policy towards Iraq. The Americans and British say that, before even a partial suspension of sanctions is considered, Saddam must agree to a new inspection regime to stop him rebuilding his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Recently the UN agreed a package offering to lift the embargo if a 120-day long inspection proved that their fears of a hidden weapons program were baseless. The last inspectors were withdrawn to allow the four-day concentrated bombing campaign of last December. Saddam will almost certainly reject the new package -- after all the sanctions don't bother him -- leaving the British and Americans scratching their heads.

"The blunt truth is that no one actually knows what to do now," said one senior UN official. "Everyone -- us, the diplomats, the spooks, the military -- seems to have run out of ideas ... and 'the Big Man' is still there."

Yet, within Iraq, there is little sign of any genuine widespread opposition to Saddam's rule. It is difficult to know why. It could be that everyone is simply too busy trying to scrape a living to worry about political activism.

The unpleasant truth is that the sanctions suit Saddam. So the question remains: what next? In the sermon given nine days ago to mark the beginning of Ramadhan -- the Muslim holy month -- Dr Mahmud al- Saadi, the sheikh at one of the biggest mosques in Baghdad, gave a glimpse of one possible future. The British and Americans want to keep Iraqis from the Koran and from their Prophet, he said. "The Prophet Muhammad waged the Muslims' first war against heretics during Ramadhan and now we face the same circumstances. We must unite to fight," he said. He was speaking with the full backing of the regime.

Saddam has recently launched the Alhamlalamaniyah (Enhancement of Islamic Belief) campaign. Since then drinking and gambling have been restricted, religious education expanded in schools and the state-controlled media packed with religious programming. Even the youth channel run by Uday, Saddam's 36-year-old son, carries hours of lectures by clerics. A few months ago, a radio channel entirely devoted to readings from the Koran was launched. Work is also under way on what is thought will be one of the world's largest mosques -- to be known as the Saddam Hussein mosque -- in Baghdad.

State propaganda now constantly stresses the President's recently discovered blood links to Muhammad and portraits of Saddam praying or in the robes of a religious leader are going up everywhere. It seems that the old-style Saddam in bad sunglasses and epaulets or shiny pin-striped suits -- the uniform of post- colonial nationalist socialism -- is being phased out.

There have also been shifts in foreign policy. In the past year Saddam has made great efforts to cultivate the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. This time last year the United States claimed that another delegation had met Osama bin Laden, the alleged terrorist mastermind and tried to woo him to Iraq.

Senior officials claim that the Islamization program is an attempt to defuse the threat of Islamic militancy rather than encourage it. "There are some who are being drawn to extremism (in Iraq)," said Qiwanuddin Abdu Sattar Muhammad Haiti, the dean of the new Saddam college of religious studies. "It is our aim to stop this by educating them about true and moderate Islam."

But the social desolation wrought by war and sanctions has made Iraq fertile ground for the politics of hate. And with their jets killing children, America and Britain are clear and obvious enemies. Already there are signs of a growing devotion to Islam in a country known for decades for its secular and tolerant traditions. Attendance at mosques has rocketed in the past two years, more young women wear the veil, enrollment in religious schools is rising fast and the rhetoric of the preachers is getting harsher and harsher.

Naim Shatri has been selling books off Baghdad's Al-Rasheed Street for 40 years. His stacks of translated Western classics -- once the staple of Baghdad students -- now lie untouched while religious tracts sell out. "They don't want these any longer," he said pointing to an Arabic translation of Sartre, a book of French Romantic poetry, a Hemingway and some dog-eared Shakespeare. "Now they are just thinking about judgment day."

-- Observer News Service