will help? Civilians may face shortages of food and
water in a devastated Iraq. Photo
by Andrew Parsons/MOD/Getty Images
It’s Over, It Won’t Be Over
looming humanitarian crisis
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
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
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
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.
Coburn is a journalist who has covered war and its effect
on civilians in Indochina, Central America and the Middle
shut up: fired newsman Peter Arnett.Photo
by Evan Agostini/Liaison
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Is a Temporary Thing
Bush urges Americans to rally behind the troops, his administration
is slashing veterans’ benefits at home
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
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.