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Who will help? Civilians may face shortages of food and water in a devastated Iraq. Photo by Andrew Parsons/MOD/Getty Images


When It’s Over, It Won’t Be Over

Iraq’s looming humanitarian crisis

Until two missiles fell on a Baghdad market a week into the war, Iraqi civilians had been invisible in the high-tech production of “The War” brought to you by the American media. Some 17 men, women and children died in that raid and close to 40 people were wounded. Although definitive casualty figures are impossible to come by, combining reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), international aid groups and European reporters in Baghdad suggest more than 100 Iraqis have been killed and several hundred wounded by Anglo-American attacks in the first week of the war.

Also neglected by the American media have been the ravages of war besides death: starvation, disease and homelessness, which are building to a crisis as the war begins to engulf the Iraqi cities where most people live. Complicating the humanitarian crisis has been a behind-the-scenes international struggle against the Bush administration’s militarization of humanitarian aid.

A confidential United Nations planning report for humanitarian relief in wartime Iraq written last summer is alarming reading. It predicts that “the collapse of essential services in Iraq could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of U.N. agencies and other aid agencies.” Thirty percent of Iraqi children—1.25 million—could face death from malnutrition, the report says.

International aid groups from Oxfam to Refugees International to International Rescue Committee echo the alarm. “This isn’t 1991 in the Gulf, not a war in the empty desert; it’ll be a war for the cities and will engulf a people already vulnerable from 12 years of sanctions,” said Erik Gustafson, a Desert Storm veteran and executive director of EPIC, the Center for Education and Peace in Iraq. “Food would be the most urgent need,” said Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International. “Iraqis could starve.”

The U.N. report predicts that 10 million Iraqis would have insecure access to food because of military operations, that only 39 percent of Iraqis would have access to water even on a rationed basis, that shortages of fuel and power in cities would shut down water and sewage systems, that up to 1.45 million refugees may try to escape Iraq during the war, and that 900,000 may flee their homes inside the country. “All U.N. agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness,” the report concludes. And this is only what disaster planning specialists call a “medium” case—not a worst-case—scenario.

One hundred ten thousand Iraqi civilians died in the eight months following the brief 1991 Gulf War from the paralysis of the urban infrastructure and lack of food, water and electricity. More than 10,000 refugees died from disease and food shortages. So far, the Pentagon has not targeted Iraq’s urban infrastructure. Pentagon officials and even some private aid experts argue that since the Pentagon is expecting to run Iraq for at least several years after the war, it really does want to minimize civilian casualties, rather than face a hostile people who’ve lost family to American bombs and a decimated infrastructure. But now Anglo-American troops are being drawn into the cities, and Iraqis are using classic urban guerrilla tactics of basing troops and antiaircraft in residential neighborhoods, hospitals and schools. More and more unarmed Iraqi civilians will be slaughtered as these targets are attacked.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers softened up the American public for the carnage: “People are going to die. As hard as we try to limit civilian casualties, it will occur. We need to condition people that this is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it’s not going to be,” he told reporters at a Pentagon press conference before the infamous “shock and awe” campaign began.

Thirty-five hundred Iraqis died in the intense bombing raids that began before the first Gulf War. This time, the Pentagon says it is limiting civilian casualties by varying the size of bombs to minimize surrounding damage, controlling the blast by using different fuses and angles of attack and picking the time of day or night the target is hit. As for hitting chemical and biological weapons facilities or ammo dumps, which maimed both Iraqis and American soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon says this time they’ll use smaller weapons like mines and restrict access to the sites.

But Myers also admitted that, at most, only 70 percent of the bombs to be used in Iraq will be “smart” and that 10 percent of those can be expected to go “dumb”—misfire or go awry. Military critics like Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, an Army field artillery officer for 31 years and now advisor to the Vietnam Veterans Foundation, are still dubious. “The U.S. military is known for its excessive use of firepower,” argued Gard. “I’m extremely concerned about Iraq. I don’t care how accurate the weapons, if you unleash the kind of barrage they [have], a lot of people will be killed. Sure, we or the Israelis can hit a car in the open desert, but [we are] using high explosives in Baghdad. We ripped up the infrastructure in Kosovo with ‘smart’ bombs.

“Remember the Chinese Embassy, the refugee column that was hit? When we ran out of military targets we went on to civilian ones. The factories that spewed toxic chemicals on people. The pilots even have a name for it: ‘going downtown.’ Then the Pentagon talks about hitting ‘dual-use targets,’ say a shoe factory, because soldiers and civilians both wear shoes. Well, there’s nothing in the Geneva accords about that.”

And surviving the war may not mean surviving. Even before war, 12 years of sanctions have decimated Iraq. The United Nations says that one million Iraqi children under 5 years old suffer from malnutrition, that five million Iraqis don’t have adequate safe water or sanitation and that 16 million are dependent on the United Nations oil-for-food program administered by the Iraqi government. The defeat of Saddam Hussein’s government will lead to the collapse of the food-rationing system, the United Nations fears.

The United Nations reports from Basra that after electricity was cut in the first days of the war, aid experts were able to restore water to only 40 percent of the city’s 1.3 million residents. Diarrhea has already broken out among children there, and cholera is a threat because people are drinking dirty water. Food shipments to Basra have been delayed day after day because the Iraqis are seeding the harbor with mines and the city is not in Anglo-American hands.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday asked for $2.2 billion to meet the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. But the Bush administration’s decision to put the Pentagon rather than civilians in charge of the American aid has caused an international political crisis. Only about $34 million has been raised for U.N. efforts because the European Union and donor countries that oppose the war do not want to be associated with the American war effort. “The perception that the U.S. government will act unilaterally against Iraq has greatly chilled humanitarian donations to the U.N. and NGO relief agencies,” Sandra Mitchell of the International Rescue Committee told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing recently.

Because of Pentagon control, U.S. humanitarian aid is interwoven with war, making coordination with U.S. operations impossible. Oxfam International, one of the world’s most effective relief organizations, is refusing to accept aid from “belligerents” like the U.S. and British governments. “We refuse the money because it implies support for military action in Iraq,” says Oxfam head Jeremy Hobbs, who says the group will work with the United Nations and the European Union.

Annan this week stiffly reminded the United States that under the Geneva Accords “those in effective control of any territory are responsible for meeting the humanitarian needs of the population.”

The oil-for-food program, which fed 60 percent of the Iraqi population, has been halted because of the war. A major diplomatic battle has erupted in the U.N. Security Council between coalition supporters and opponents over control of the program and future U.N. aid to Iraq. France, Russia and Germany have vowed they will veto any reconstruction plan that gives the United States and Britain a dominant role in Iraq’s future. And the issue of U.N. involvement in Iraq has strained the coalition, with Tony Blair battling with President Bush for a larger U.N. role. While the Bush administration claims it will work through international aid groups, it (along with the UN) refused to lift sanctions before the war to allow these groups to prepare in Iraq for a humanitarian crisis.

The Iraqi government threw up roadblocks in the Kurdish areas of the north. As a result—unlike in Kosovo and Afganistan—only the ill-financed, understaffed United Nations has been able to get food, medicine and shelter ready ahead of the crisis. International aid groups have been forced to set up operations in Jordan, Iran and Kuwait. No preparations have been made to protect Iraqis or aid workers against chemical and biological weapons if Saddam Hussein uses them. Kurds, who were blasted with CBW in 1988 by Saddam Hussein, pled last month with the United Nations to send them gas masks. But the United Nations said it didn’t have the money and that sending them would violate sanctions.

The Bush administration’s response to the impending humanitarian crisis has been too little, too late. The new DOD controlled Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA) wasn’t even created until Jan. 20. Only last week did the White House ask Congress for $2.5 billion for humanitarian aid, a miserly sum because it covers repairs to Iraqi infrastructure and government services as well as food, water and medicine.

Pentagon plans to arm soldiers with food and medicine to pass out to “grateful” Iraqis have proven to be fantasies. No Iraqi city is “secure” enough for such aid supplies to be distributed. But they wouldn’t be enough anyway. The Pentagon ordered three million daily military rations to be sent to Iraq; enough, the Bush administration claimed, to feed Iraqis displaced by the war. Administration planners use U.N. estimates that there will be at least 2 million refugees. So this meager ration—food for only one-and-a-half days for 2 million—is laughable. So far, few refugees have reached camps outside Iraq. But the ICRC says 450,000 Iraqis have fled their homes inside the country and many more may be homeless when fighting overtakes the cities. The U.N.’s top official in Iraq, Ramino Lopes da Silva, said that food supplies—including the World Food Program’s stockpile of food for 250,000 for 10 weeks and extra rations distributed by the Iraqi government—aren’t nearly enough. Lopes da Silva predicted that after six weeks, “We will have to feed 10 million people. Eventually we’ll have to feed the entire population.”

And there’s little sign that the Pentagon, fixated on war, understands how much social chaos may occur during and after the war. “The biggest civilian casualties of the 1991 Gulf War were after the war,” said EPIC’s Erik Gustafson. “Thirty-five to fifty thousand Iraqis died in fighting amongst themselves. Already the Turks are on a collision course with the Kurds.”

While some aid groups, like the IRC, disagree that Iraqi ethnic groups like the Kurds and the Shiia are waiting to carve up Iraq after the war, most agree that a postwar lawless state would offer a rich opportunity for score settling. They doubt American military forces have the sophistication, skills and training to control a breakdown in social order. They have not been able to in Afganistan and Kosovo. Bush, Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein are waging their jihad. And they’ve made it nearly impossible for anyone to help the victims of their fanaticism—the unarmed people of Iraq.

—Judith Coburn

Judith Coburn is a journalist who has covered war and its effect on civilians in Indochina, Central America and the Middle East.

Just shut up: fired newsman Peter Arnett.Photo by Evan Agostini/Liaison

The Peter Principle

As American journalists were called home to safety, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondant Peter Arnett remained in Baghdad, reporting from the scene and calling it as he saw it. For his efforts, he was shown the door

As I write these words, Peter Arnett is presumably packing his bags and hailing a taxi to drive him over the Jordanian border and his future life on a pension.

As in the first Gulf War, Arnett was the last American TV journalist broadcasting out of Baghdad. In 1991, he was denounced as a traitor for showing civilian life and death under American bombing, but CNN kept him on the air. Now, after just 11 days of wartime footage on the ground for NBC, not only is his loyalty suspect—he’s been fired.

[Since this article was written, Arnett has been hired as a columnist by London’s Daily Mirror.]

In these days of lies and propaganda swallowed whole and dissenters chewed up and spit out similarly, what’s amazing is that the old war dog lasted through almost one whole spin cycle before getting the boot. But then, his traitorous crime was committed on a weekend, when only the right-wing watchdogs who never sleep were holding the perimeter.

A brief review of the chain of events before this episode gets flushed away by the next media industry profile in courage is in order: Arnett gave an interview to Iraqi television in which he said what reporters have been reporting in the United States and all over the world for days: “The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan.”

This was not news to the Iraqis. It’s also not an opinion, having been reported worldwide for days.

To take one example, Newsweek quoted Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the Army’s ground commander in Iraq: “The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against.” Newsweek added that Wallace told reporters, “Because of the fierceness of the resistance and overextended supply lines, the war is going to take longer than predicted.” Arnett went on to state that footage of civilian casualties in Baghdad possibly gave ammunition to American war protesters. Not news either.

He then apparently tacitly praised or thanked the Iraqi information ministry for letting him and other reporters continue to cover Baghdad during the 12 years since the Gulf War. That’s certainly a notion many would dispute, given that journalists are disappearing from the streets of Baghdad, but not terribly atypical journalistic pandering either.

Arnett’s Interview with the Enemy gave the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz an easy Monday-morning story with which to scandalize the capital. Kurtz, ever fair-minded and eager to get “both sides” for his stories, solicited an opinion from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who called Arnett an “agenda-driven reporter.” Howie also downloaded some quotes from the ravers on Fox to complete his balanced roundup of reax. The White House weighed in that Arnett was “ignorant” of war plans. Howie printed that assertion without noting that no one in the White House has spent a fraction of the time in that war that Arnett, the veteran war correspondent, has.

The Wall Street Journal’s reporter—probably also scanning Fox—picked up the story too, focusing almost exclusively on Arnett’s seeming praise of the Iraqi info ministry. Sunday night, while Kurtz and the Journal reporter were typing away, Arnett still had a job—a nasty one certainly, under nightly bombing, but someone ought to do it.

When he went to sleep, NBC was still behind him all the way, pointing out that he and his crew “have risked their lives to bring the American people up-to-date, straightforward information on what is happening in and around Baghdad” and calling his remarks “analytical.”

Oh, how efficiently does a single spin cycle wash away the stain of a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent during this wartime. By Monday morning, in the wake of the two stories in key establishment newspapers—and the right-wing howl always inching toward “booooycooottt!”—NBC and National Geographic had ditched their courageous reporter faster than you can say Tokyo Rose.

“It was wrong for him to discuss his personal opinions” on Iraqi state TV, said NBC President Neil Shapiro. National Geo simply said the society had not been consulted, and had it been, Arnett would have been told not to talk to the Iraqis.

Arnett’s mistake—a big and foolish one—was to behave like a reporter first, and a Pentagon spokesman second. Having been called a traitor on the floor of Congress 12 years ago, he ought to have learned by now. The irony of all this is that if we really want to “liberate” Iraq, giving them a taste of the First Amendment in action, with an American reporter free to speak his mind anywhere and anytime, might have brought us a step closer to that stated goal of “winning hearts and minds.”

But then, as everybody in the world knows—and the Iraqis are the last people to need Arnett to tell them—that Big Ole’ Compassionate war plan has been sacked, just like Pete.

—Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh is researching a book on the scientists who accompanied Napoleon into Egypt. Her book about James Smithson will be published in September by William Morrow.

Support Is a Temporary Thing

While Bush urges Americans to rally behind the troops, his administration is slashing veterans’ benefits at home

If you’ve attended many anti-war protests lately, you know that one of the most popular slogans hurled from pro-war passersby is “Support our troops.”

What many hawks don’t understand is that Americans can simultaneously oppose the war and support U.S. soldiers. Support means we hope the troops return safely, that they aren’t injured—physically or psychologically—and that upon returning to civilian life, they receive the veterans benefits due them.

Ironically, as the ever-bellicose President Bush crows about “supporting the troops,” earlier this year, the Bush administration announced it was suspending enrollment in the Veterans Administration health system for at least 160,000 qualified veterans because of budget constraints. While Bush extended millions of dollars in tax cuts to gazillionaires and his corporate pals, these veterans, the president contended, make too much money to qualify for care.

How much is too much? According to The Independent Budget, an online newsletter produced by different veterans groups, it depends on where the veterans live and their household size. For example, unmarried veterans making more than a whopping $38,100 in Atlanta or an impressive $23,050 in Abilene, Texas, would be excluded from VA health benefits this year. More than 6.5 million veterans are enrolled in the VA health-care system, but because of insufficient funding, 230,000 of them have been placed on waiting lists for medical care; many spend at least six months on the list before they get their first medical appointment with the VA. If veterans have cancer, heart problems, or other life-threatening diseases, they could die before their first doctor’s visit.

So what did Bush do to alleviate the half-year wait for those who so courageously served our country? On Aug. 13, 2002, the prez vetoed $275 million earmarked to reduce nationwide waiting lists for VA care.

In addition, the House Budget Committee is proposing a $15 billion cut in the VA budget through 2013. How will the VA cover the needs of current veterans—not including a new round of veterans from Gulf War II, who could likely suffer the same debilitating syndromes and illnesses as their Gulf War I counterparts?

So as the Bush administration and its minions are supporting the military by slashing veterans’ benefits, that same contingent is painting antiwar activists as traitors. On a recent Sunday morning political talk show, David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and currently the online editor for the arch-conservative magazine National Review, went so far as to characterize the antiwar movement as “Al Qaeda apologists.”

To label war opponents as terrorists is like saying that everyone who joins the armed forces can’t wait to slaughter people. People oppose the war for different reasons, be it on religious, political, or economic grounds. Yes, there are splinter groups that breach the limits of civil disobedience by destroying property, but the movement is not a sanctuary for Saddamites. In general, antiwar activists support U.S. troops; many have friends in the service or are veterans themselves. They believe in the freedoms of this country, including the right of free speech and the right of dissent.

On the other hand, Bush received preferential treatment during the Vietnam War: Instead of defending American interests in Southeast Asia, he lollygagged in the Champagne unit of the Texas Air National Guard, then disappeared from the service—only to resurface without so much as a slap on the hand, let alone a court-martial—as a political and business dilettante. Now he’s president, and willing to send soldiers to war, but unwilling to compensate them for their courage.

—Lisa Sorg

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