Bad girl Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Like many others who have been trawling through the secret military records leaked on Friday, I was shocked at the candid indifference and complicity of the US military towards human rights violations in Iraq, but also the incompetence of the Iraqi government. The leaked documents though, in many respects, did not reveal a lot that many didn’t know already – abuse and torture by Iraqi security forces, foreign interference from both sides of the border, a cat-and-mouse game with terrorists and death, destruction and suffering on an epic scale. The difference now being that this information was never intended to be publicly available – and has embarrassed both American and Iraqi officials alike.
However, Ms Alibhai-Brown, in an opinion piece published in the Independent on Monday, insults the Iraqi people by callously claiming that “the sanctions and war killed, maimed and destroyed more civilians than Saddam did.” Ms Alibhai-Brown’s crass comments were, clearly, more about scoring some cheap political point than it was about giving facts.
Her fundamental mistake is that she somehow looks at Iraq in an epochal vacuum void of any historical context. She ignores the fact that the sanctions were manipulated by Saddam to score political points (a past-time Ms Alibhai-Brown appreciates). During the last year of Saddam’s disastrous rule, he allocated just US$16m for the Ministry of Health to spend for the year, amounting to around 60 cents per Iraqi, meanwhile, in the last decade of his rule (a decade in which Iraq was heavily sanctioned), Saddam spent an estimated US$2.2b on constructing palaces for himself and the coterie of despots he surrounded himself with. Saddam lived a life of luxury while his people starved through the economic sanctions and he, more than anybody else, should be held responsible for the suffering of millions upon millions of people under his regime. What followed cannot be “a worse record than Saddam’s” because the butcher of Baghdad was a big part of it.
Many in the west are obsessed with WMDs and the lies that were told to secure support for the Iraq war, but to many Iraqis, the matter is inconsequential. Saddam was the weapon of mass destruction.
Since Ms Alibhai-Brown matter-of-factly states that it was better during Saddam’s era “even during the most diabolical periods of his rule”, let us look specifically at the incidents that occurred.
Could she be referring to the eight-year war of attrition with Iran that claimed the lives of over one million human beings?
Could she be referring to the campaign of genocide in the north against the Kurds in the late 80s when over one hundred and eighty thousand civilians were systemically ethnically cleansed?
Could she be referring to the First Gulf War when Kuwait was plundered and seventy-five thousand people were killed?
Could she be referring to the mass-killings of those who rebelled against Saddam’s tyranny in ’91?
Could she be referring to the political opponents and religious scholars brutally tortured and executed by his regime that number in excess of one hundred thousand?
Could she be referring to the campaign of genocide in the southern marshes when the Ba’ath regime deliberately dried up the lifeline of a five thousand year-old community who once lived there?
Obviously, she can’t be referring to the plethora of Saddam’s crimes in their entirety because it would make her comment on breaking “records” seem slightly misinformed.
Another mistake Ms Alibhai-Brown makes is to assume the death toll would somehow have magically kept static had Saddam remained in power. I wonder then, has Ms Alibhai-Brown ever heard of two brothers by the names of Uday and Qusay? Even if Saddam had dropped dead before the invasion his sadistic sons would have ruled in his stead unchallenged and they would have carried on with the same campaign of hatred, fear and death that their father masterminded.
Ms Alibhai-Brown then goes on to say that hundreds of “savvy, smart, keenly aware” Muslims throughout various Muslim states send her e-mails because they are baffled at the foreign policy of western governments and their double standards. To an extent, they have a very valid point.
The hypocrisy of western foreign policy must be exposed whenever and wherever possible. Western support for dictatorships across the world is blatant and it is done in the interest of securing vital resources that fuel their economies or serves their foreign interests. But that does not mean the Arab and Muslim world should be let off the hook, or that their role should be downplayed.
The west should indeed be blamed for many of the catastrophic events that unfolded in Iraq throughout its history, but it would be both naïve and insincere to try to pin all the blame on Bush and Blair. If anything, these leaks confirm previous suspicions that terrorists came ten a penny from neighbouring Syria and Iran.
To Iraqis like me, who have lost immediate family-members both pre and post 2003, the sudden burst of conscience from a public that was silent during three decades of the harshest, most despotic regime the Middle East has seen in the last few centuries is abhorrent in itself, and leads me to question the motivation behind the sudden faux-concern for the plight of the millions of suffering Iraqis. Here in London, Iraqis campaigned for years against Saddam, and tried desperately to convince people like Ms Alibhai-Brown to support their worthy cause. Very few heeded the calls; apparently stories of Iraqis dying are not all too interesting. Unless of course the West is somehow culpable in the killing.
It is such a shame that commentary on Iraq has been reduced by many to an industry focused at selling news with little regard for history and context. Much of the suffering in Iraq today is a direct result of Saddam’s legacy. It is the failure to understand and appreciate historical context that has led to the crass, shallow, superficiality that has become a feature of much of the news coverage in Iraq.
It is cruel to count victims as statistics who perished in the recent war, but if we want to be soulless and academic, then the civilian victims that are identified in the latest documents make up only one-third of those who vanished during the Anfal campaign under Saddam. More to the point, Ms Alibhai-Brown seems to paper over the fact that tens of thousands of the post 2003 war victims were in fact targeted by a ruthless insurgency in Iraq, and insurgency that relies on remnants of Saddam’s regime for funding, logistics and indeed recruits. Saddam may have been arrested, tried, and executed, but his men are still in Iraq committing the same crimes they have always been committing. The legacy of Saddam is still claiming lives and it is still destroying the country.
But this story isn’t just about Iraq, Muslims should have a better understanding of what other Muslims are doing to them and those smart and savvy Muslim youths should be looking closer to home when it comes to figuring out why so much has gone wrong in that part of the world. Perhaps they should realise when they point a finger across the Atlantic, three fingers are pointing straight back at them.
I wonder if Ms Alibhai-Brown even knows that two hundred years before the US invasion of Iraq – during Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency in 1802 – fanatic Muslims attacked Iraq and indiscriminately slaughtered the men, women and children they saw. This was all done in the name of Islam to purify the religion. The people who committed that heinous crime are the ideological ancestors of modern-day terrorists that are responsible for many of the deaths Ms Alibhai-Brown is apparently concerned about and they were slaughtering innocent Muslims centuries before the neo-con mandarins planned the Iraq war.
One thing Iraq now has, that it never had under Saddam, is hope. The situation on the ground is messy, and it is important to condemn first and foremost the Iraqi government for failing to secure the country or provide basic services to its people, but at least now Iraq has a chance for a better future. Its people have a say in the running of the country and they exercise democratic rights many other Middle Easterners can only dream of.
Edited by Ali Rashid.