Iraq: the great cover-up

19 January 2001

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On the eve of an election campaign, the Blair government is attempting,with mounting desperation, to suppress a scandal potentially greater than the arms-to-Iraq cover-up. This is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps many more, caused by decisions taken in Whitehall and Washington.

Moreover, the evidence of deceit and lying points to at least two Cabinet ministers and three junior ministers. At its centre is the unerring, wilful destruction of a whole society, Iraq, the aim of which is to keep the regime in Baghdad weak enough to be influenced by the west and yet strong enough to control its own people.

This is longstanding Anglo-American policy. Contrary to the propaganda version about protecting Iraq's ethnic peoples, the objective is to prevent a Kurdish secession in the north and the establishment of a Shi'ite religious state in the rest of the country, while maintaining the west's dominance of the region and its access to cheap oil.

The victims of this policy are 20 million Iraqis, uniquely isolated from the rest of humanity by an economic embargo whose viciousness has been compared with a medieval siege. The word "genocide" has been used by experts on international law and other cautious voices, such as Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, who resigned as the UN's senior humanitarian official in Iraq, and Hans von Sponeck, his successor, who also resigned in protest. Each had 34 years at the UN and were acclaimed in their field; their resignations, along with the head of the World Food Programme in Baghdad, were unprecedented.

After more than a decade of sanctions, no one on the Security Council wants them, except the United States and Britain. The French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, has called them "cruel, because they exclusively punish the Iraqi people and the weakest among them, and ineffective, because they don't touch the regime". Had Saddam Hussein said on television "we think the price is worth it", referring to Unicef's figure of half a million child deaths, he would have been called a monster by the British government. Madeleine Albright said that.

Whitehall remained silent.

The Blair government has played the traditional role of Washington's proxy with particular enthusiasm. The latest Security Council resolution,1284, was drafted by British officials in New York. They are said to be proud of it. Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, constantly refers to it as "Iraq's way out". In fact, it is a specious set of demands, requiring the return of weapons inspectors, but not offering any guarantee that sanctions will be suspended if the regime complies. Last year, Jon Davies, then head of the Iraq desk at the Foreign Office, admitted the "lack of clarity in exactly what the provisions will be". The suspicion all along, says Dr Eric Herring, the Bristol University specialist, is that "US and British policy is one of continually moving or hiding the goalposts so that compliance [by Iraq] becomes impossible and so that the sanctions cannot be lifted".

In recent months, in the columns of the New Statesman and the Guardian, Peter Hain has defended a sanctions regime that, says Unicef, is a principal cause of the deaths of at least 180 children every day. Hain's articles and letters are scripted by Foreign Office officials using the familiar, weasel lexicon that denied British support for the Khmer Rouge, the use of Hawk aircraft in East Timor and the illegal shipment of weapons parts to Britain's favourite 1980s tyrant,Saddam Hussein. Sir Richard Scott's inquiry acknowledged their "culture of lying".

You get a sense of the scale of lying from Hain's latest letter to the NS (15 January), in which he claimed that "about $16bn of humanitarian relief was available to the Iraqi people last year". Quoting UN documents, Hans von Sponeck replies in this issue (page 37) that the figure was actually for four years and that, after reparations are paid to Kuwait and the oil companies, Iraq is left with just $100 a year with which to keep one human being alive. That Hain does not appear even to question the competence of those who write his disinformation is remarkable. That he allows the bureaucracy of a rapacious order he once opposed to invoke his anti-apartheid record is a bleak irony. That he is said privately to have serious doubts about sanctions, which he rejected for Zimbabwe, saying they would "hurt the ordinary people, not the elite", is a measure of his ambition, and perhaps explains why he refuses to engage his critics, preferring rhetoric and abuse. Each time he calls a principled, informed critic, such as Halliday and von Sponeck, "a dupe of Saddam Hussein", there is an echo of the apartheid regime calling a young Hain "a dupe of communism".

The sanctions issue is one of three related scandals involving epic suffering and loss of life. The truth about the effects of depleted uranium in shells fired in the 1991 Gulf war and Nato's 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, is that the Americans and British waged a form of nuclear warfare on civilian populations, disregarding the health and safety of their own troops. This was largely to test the Pentagon's post-cold war strategy of "all-out war".

On 9 January, John Spellar, the Defence Minister, told the House of Commons that the conclusion of many years of research showed "there is no evidence linking DU to cancers or to the more general ill health being experienced by some Gulf veterans". This echoes Peter Hain, who said there had been "no credible research data". In fact, the data is credible and voluminous, dating back to the development of the atomic bomb in 1943, when Brigadier General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, warned that particles of uranium used in ammunition could cause "permanent lung damage". In 1991, the UK Atomic Energy Authority warned that, if particles from merely 8 per cent of the DU used in the Gulf were inhaled, there could be "300,000 potential deaths".

Spellar claimed there had been no rise in the number of kidney ailments or cancers among veterans of the Gulf war. The Ministry of Defence has been told by the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association of a dramatic increase in both diseases among veterans. Last year, Speller said: "We are unaware of anything that shows depleted uranium has caused any ill health or death of people who served in Kosovo or Bosnia." Again, this was false.Nato's own guidelines include: "Inhalation of insoluble depleted uranium dust particles has been associated with long-term health effects including cancers and birth defects." It was only after six Italian soldiers, who had served in Kosovo, died from leukaemia, that the scandal caused panic in Nato, with the Defence Secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, contradicting himself, saying DU posed a "limited risk", then "no risks", then, bizarrely, that it is "protecting British forces".

For the Iraqi people, however, the cover-up continues. What has been striking about the political and media reaction over the past fortnight is that most of the victims of depleted uranium have rated barely a mention. Yet Tony Blair himself was made aware of their suffering when he was sent, in March 1999, UN statistics, published in the British Medical Journal, showing a sevenfold increase in cancer in southern Iraq between 1989 and 1994.

It is in southern Iraq that the theoretical figure of "500,000 potential deaths" can be applied, in a desert landscape where the dust gets in your eyes, nose and throat, swirling around people in the street and children in playgrounds. In Basra's hospitals, the cancer wards are overflowing.

Before the Gulf war, they did not exist. "The dust carries death," Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist and member of Britain's Royal College of Physicians, told me. "Our own studies indicate that more than 40 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer in five years' time to begin with, then long afterwards. Most of my own family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease. It has spread to the medical staff of this hospital. We are living through another Hiroshima. Of course, we don't know the precise source of the contamination, because we are not allowed [under sanctions] to get the equipment to conduct a proper scientific survey, or even to test the excess level in our bodies. We suspect depleted uranium. There simply can be no other explanation."

The Sanctions Committee in New York has blocked or delayed a range of cancer diagnostic equipment and drugs, even painkillers. Professor Karol Sikora, as chief of the cancer programme of the World Health Organisation, wrote in the British Medical Journal: "Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the Sanctions Committee]. There seems to be a rather ludicrous notion that such agents could be converted into chemical or other weapons." Professor Sikora told me: "The saddest thing I saw in Iraq was children dying because there was no chemotherapy and no pain control. It seemed crazy they couldn't have morphine, because for everybody with cancer pain, it is the best drug. When I was there, they had a little bottle of aspirin pills to go round 200 patients in pain."

Although there have since been improvements in some areas, more than 1,000 life-saving items remain "on hold" in New York, with Kofi Annan personally appealing for their release "without delay".

I interviewed Professor Doug Rokke, the US Army health physicist who led the "clean-up" of depleted uranium in Kuwait. He now has 5,000 times the permissible level of radiation in his body, and is ill. "There can be no reasonable doubt about this," he said. "As a result of the heavy metal and radiological poison of DU, people in southern Iraq are experiencing respiratory problems, breathing problems, kidney problems, cancers. Members of my own team have died or are dying from cancer . . . At various meetings and conferences, the Iraqis have asked for the normal medical treatment protocols. The US Department of Defense and the British Ministry of Defence have refused them. I attended a conference in Washington where the Iraqis came looking for help. They approached myself, officials of the Defense Department and the British MoD. They were told it was their responsibility; they were rebuffed."

The third strand in the cover-up is the killing of Iraqi civilians by RAF and American aircraft in the "no-fly zones". As Hans von Sponeck points out in his letter, these violate international law. In a five-month period surveyed by the UN Security Sector, almost half the casualties were civilians. I interviewed eyewitnesses to one of the attacks described in the UN report. A shepherd family of six - a grandfather, the father and four children - were killed by a British or American pilot, who made two passes at them in open desert. Pieces of the missile lay among the remains of their sheep. United Nations staff - not the Iraqi government - confirmed in person the facts of this atrocity. The Blair government has spent ?800m bombing Iraq.

In his 15 January letter to the NS, Peter Hain described my reference to the possibility that he, along with other western politicians, might find themselves summoned before the new International Criminal Court as "gratuitous". It is far from gratuitous. A report for the UN Secretary General, written by Professor Marc Bossuyt, a distinguished authority on international law, says that the "sanctions regime against Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing human rights law" and "could raise questions under the Genocide Convention". His subtext is that if the new court is to have authority, it cannot merely dispense the justice of the powerful. A growing body of legal opinion agrees that the court has a duty, as Eric Herring wrote, to investigate "not only the regime, but also the UN bombing and sanctions which have violated the human rights of Iraqi civilians on a vast scale by denying them many of the means necessary for survival. It should also investigate those who assisted [Saddam Hussein's] programmes of now prohibited weapons, including western governments and companies."

Last year, Peter Hain blocked a parliamentary request to publish the full list of culpable British companies Why? A prosecutor might ask why, then ask who has killed the most number of innocent people in Iraq: Saddam Hussein, or British and American murderous policy-makers? The answer may well put the murderous tyrant in second place.