By Thalif Deen *
UNITED NATIONS, 18 March 2023 (IDN) — When the United States was embroiled in political and military conflicts with Iran and Iraq, President George W. Bush and his aides at the White House continued to mispronounce the names of the two countries, giving them an American linguistic twist: I-RAN and I-RAQ.
Injecting an element of humour into a much-maligned invasion, a late-night stand-up comedian remarked amid laughter: “We should never invade a country unless our leaders know how to correctly pronounce the name of that country.”
The US invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003—marking the 20th anniversary this month—was a fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) which were never discovered.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, who is a creature of member states, rarely challenges or defies his creators. But Kofi Annan did both. Surprisingly, he lived to tell the tale—but paid an unfairly heavy price after being hounded by the United States.
Annan described the invasion as “illegal” because it did not have the blessings of the 15-member UN Security Council, the only institution in the world body with the power to declare war and peace.
But the Bush administration went after him for challenging its decision to unilaterally declare war against Iraq: an attack by a member state against another for no legally justifiable reason.
The weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), reportedly in Iraq’s military arsenal, which was one of the primary reasons for the invasion, were never found.
Subsequently, Annan came under heavy fire for misperceived lapses in the implementation of the “Oil-for-Food” program, which was aimed at alleviating the sufferings of millions of Iraqis weighed down by UN sanctions.
Federico Borello, Executive Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), said last week the war in Iraq marked a turning point in modern history for many reasons: one of the most glaring was the devastating civilian death toll.
“While it’s impossible to know the exact numbers of civilian deaths and injuries, we know that Iraqi civilians were repeatedly targeted and killed by aerial bombings, shellings, gunshots, suicide attacks, and fires started by explosions.”
“The plight of Iraqi civilians has been a resounding reminder of the reality that there has long been a failure to respect the lives and dignity of civilians by parties to the conflict. This is true up until today in Iraq and other conflict settings such as Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, he pointed out.
“We’ve come a long way in our quest to change the way the United States prevents, investigates, and responds to civilian casualties. The launch of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP) by the US Department of Defense in August 2022 was a major accomplishment.
“However, we still have a long way to go before the U.S. properly investigates civilian harm, provides amends to victims and their families, and takes appropriate actions in its military planning and operations to prevent and reduce civilian harm,” Borello declared.
Meanwhile, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ran one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes in the militarily-volatile Middle East during 1979-2003, US newspapers routinely described him as “the strongman of Iraq”—as most journalists rightly view dictators worldwide.
But one of his political aides, described as “Saddam’s right-hand man” (what if Saddam was left-handed?), took issue with a visiting US journalist when he rather hilariously challenged the description, “No, no, no”, exclaimed the aide, unfamiliar with the nuances of the English language, “Saddam is no strong man. He is the strongest man in Iraq”.
Iraq’s prodigious military strength was built on a massive arsenal of weapons, mostly from the then Soviet Union (under a 15-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation) and also from France and UK.
Still, the Saddam regime, which invaded neighbouring Kuwait and temporarily occupied the country in 1990, was ousted from power after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
And the Bush administration justified the invasion, without the blessings of the UN Security Council, on the grounds that it was chasing Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)—which never existed.
The US declared an end to the war on December 15, 2011, nearly eight years after the invasion.
According to a joke circulating in Washington political circles, Saddam Hussein’s notorious torture chamber in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad—once held up as a symbol of barbarity—was never shut down. After the US occupation of the country, a signboard outside the prison chamber apparently read: “Under New Management.”
The extent of the US administration’s embarrassment following the publication of photos showing torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib was evident in the fact that Washington postponed the release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights abuses worldwide. The official reasons for the eleventh-hour postponement were not disclosed.
The report usually takes aim at virtually every country, mostly in the developing world, for human rights excesses while excluding US abuses from its pages. The question that was asked was: Can Washington afford to take a holier-than-thou attitude when it beats up the rest of the world every year in its annual report?
Even the ‘New York Times’ admitted in its editorial that “the United States has been humiliated” to a point where government officials could not release the year’s international human rights report “for fear of being scoffed at by the rest of the world.”
The harrowing images of US soldiers brutalizing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners—aired worldwide—triggered outrage in the Middle East and beyond. The photographs and television images included those of young Iraqis stripped naked and forced to pile up in a pyramid formation while US soldiers grin at the hideous spectacle.
According to published reports, Iraqi detainees were also beaten up, tortured, threatened with rape and victimized by ferocious guard dogs. Dead bodies were later exhumed to ascertain the cause of death at the hands of soldiers or interrogators from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The United States, which actively participates in an annual ritual of “bashing” countries like Iran, Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Sudan and Myanmar at the UN Human Rights Commission, and later the successor Human Rights Council, in Geneva and at the General Assembly sessions in New York, had lost its moral authority to point an accusing finger at miscreants when it has problems in its own backyard, said diplomats from developing nations.
Meanwhile, in 1981, an Israeli attack by US-supplied F-15 and F-16 fighter planes destroyed the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad, described as the world’s first air strike against a nuclear plant.
Following the attack, Iraq hosted an international conference attended by world politicians, rebel leaders and journalists in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The conference, needlessly to say, adopted a resolution vociferously condemning Israel for the attack.
After nearly a week-long stay, the contingent of journalists was promised an on-again, off-again press conference by Saddam Hussein, keeping the reporters guessing. Along with some 10 or 15 international journalists, I was at a presidential palace to attend the press briefing on the day of my departure.
We were seated in what appeared to be an Assembly Hall, with most Arab journalists on the lower floor and the international journalists on the upper floor.
The press briefing that started around 6 pm went on and on late into the night past 10 pm. There were no English translations and Arab journalists had the advantage over the rest of us. In characteristic Middle Eastern tradition, Saddam’s responses went on for hours. A British journalist and I were expected to be at the airport for a midnight flight to Belgrade. So, we both slipped out and told an Iraqi official of our plight.
In our presence, he picked up the phone and spoke to someone in Arabic. After hanging up, he told us: “Don’t worry, I just spoke to the head of Iraqi Airways and told him there are two journalists who should be on the midnight flight to Belgrade, but they are held up at a press conference with President Saddam—and that flight should NOT leave until the two were on board”.
And the aircraft remained on the tarmac until we got there long past midnight. Perhaps one of the advantages of being a guest flying in an airline owned and operated by an authoritarian regime.
This article contains excerpts from a recently-released book* on the United Nations titled “No Comment–and Don’t Quote Me on that”, available on Amazon: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
*Thalif Deen is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based In-Depth News Service (IDN), an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA). [IDN-InDepthNews]
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