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17 December 1998

'Degrading' Iraq

Ignore all the hand-wringing about 'weapons of mass destruction'; the bombing of Iraq was driven by internal American politics, argues Brendan O'Neill

Tony Blair justified Britain and America's missile blitz on Iraq as an attempt to protect the world from an evil dictator: 'Saddam's threat is now and it is a threat to his region, to his people and to the security of the world.' But this image of Iraq holding the world to ransom by developing 'weapons of mass destruction' turns reality on its head. As evidenced by the Iraqi army's attempts to hold off US Navy cruise missiles with heavy machine gun fire, it is Britain and America who have the weapons of mass destruction.

According to Blair and Clinton, the attack was a response to Iraq's continual blocking of UN weapons inspectors UNSCOM. Blair describes Saddam as 'a serial breaker of promises'. Dishonesty, it seems, is now a capital offence (although not in Washington). The main complaint from UNSCOM is that Iraq has been 'withholding documents'. Lacking any real evidence that the Iraqi regime is developing weapons of mass destruction, UNSCOM demanded that Iraqis submit documents from factories and suspected 'weapon houses', which might shed light on what the regime is up to. They have even demanded access to the Baath Party headquarters and the right to dig up the floors of the presidential palaces. While American F117 Stealth fighters and RAF Tornado GR1s drop bombs on Baghdad, perhaps the only thing the Iraqis can be accused of is hiding 'memos of mass destruction'.

Blair and Clinton have the gall to depict Saddam as a threat, when in reality the United Nations security council has spent the past seven years forcing Iraq back to the stone age. Much of Iraq's industry was destroyed in the Gulf War of 1991, when 250 000 bombs were dropped and, according to the respected British Medical Journal, up to 180 000 Iraqis were killed; there were only about 150 fatalities among the Allied forces. Since then, a UN blockade on Iraqi oil sales - its principal export - has further crippled the country's economy, leaving it desperately short of money to buy food and medicine.

There is no evidence to support Britain and America's claim that Iraq is a threat which must be crushed. So what is behind this latest attack?

It clearly has nothing to do with the Middle East, where earlier this week Clinton claimed he wanted to unite Arabs and Israelis as part of the stalling 'peace process'; how could dropping bombs in the region be part of this same policy? Rather the air strikes are driven by internal US problems. The American government is seeking to assert its authority abroad to help alleviate its problems at home. The transparent and self-serving nature of the attack is illustrated by America's isolation in taking this action. The UN secretary-general Kofi Annan registered his opposition to the air strikes by saying that his thoughts are with the men and women of Iraq. Other members of the UN security council are either openly hostile, like China and Russia, or quietly hostile, like France. Such differing views among the leaders of the 'international community' expose the artificiality of the US campaign.

But America's decision is not just about 'timing', as the 'wag the dog' theorists argue, with Clinton supposedly bombing Iraq simply because he is about to face impeachment procedures. Military intervention abroad points to more deep-seated problems in countries like America and Britain. At a time when hardly anything at home goes right for Clinton he needs the international stage on which to assert his authority. He has clearly decided that Iraqi lives are expendable in the attempt to bolster his position as the world's moral policeman and to counter the American view of the president as 'Sick Willie'.

What of Blair's role in all of this? Far from being America's poodle, Blair has been the most aggressive advocate of attacking Iraq. He has assumed the moral high-ground, looking down on Iraq as an inferior country that needs to be taught a lesson or two. As politics' Mr Clean, Blair can get away with anything; including demanding that Saddam follows orders and threatening to 'degrade' him if he doesn't. Welcome to New Labour's 'humanitarian' foreign policy.

Groups opposing the bombing of Iraq are protesting outside Downing Street on Thursday 17 December and Friday 18 December at 6.00pm GMT, and on Saturday 19 December at 1.00pm GMT

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