The world press on the war

If Basra fights, Baghdad may too.

Published March 26, 2003 6:37PM (EST)

United Kingdom, James Meek in the Guardian

Hopes of a joyful liberation of a grateful Iraq by US and British armies are evaporating fast in the Euphrates valley as a sense of bitterness, germinated from blood spilled and humiliations endured, begins to grow in the hearts of invaded and invader alike.

Attempts by US marines to take bridges over the river Euphrates, which passes through Nassiriya, have become bogged down in casualties and troops taken prisoner. The marines, in turn, have responded harshly.

A surgical assistant at the Saddam hospital in Nassiriya, interviewed at a marine check point outside the city, said that on Sunday, half an hour after two dead marines were brought into the hospital, US aircraft dropped what he described as three or four cluster bombs on civilian areas, killing 10 and wounding 200.

The marines are aggrieved: aggrieved that the Iraqis aren't more grateful, aggrieved that the Iraqis are shooting at them, aggrieved that the US army's spearhead 3rd Infantry Division tore through Nassiriya earlier in the invasion without making it safe.

And the Iraqis are aggrieved at the marines. A 50-year-old businessman and farmer, Said Yahir, was driving up to the main body of the reconnaissance unit, stationed under the bridge. He wanted to know why the marines had come to his house and taken his son Nathen, his Kalashnikov rifle, and his 3m dinars (about #500).

"What did I do?" he said. "This is your freedom that you're talking about? This is my life savings."

In 1991, in the wake of Iraq's defeat in the first Gulf war, Mr Yahir was one of those who joined the rebellion against Saddam Hussein. His house was shelled by the dictator's artillery. The US refused to intervene and the rebellion was crushed.

"Saddam would have fallen if they had supported us," Mr Yahir said. "I've been so humiliated."

Under the bridge, Sergeant Michael Sprague was unrepentant. The money, the marines said, was probably destined for terrorist activities -- buying a suicide bomber, for instance. "The same people we determined were safe yesterday were found with weapons today," he said....

Nathen had been captured the previous day, along with dozens of others, and like them, had been let go, Sgt Sprague said. Then they caught him again with a Kalashnikov in mint condition and 3m dinars.

"So the question I would like to be asked is, if this person already went through EPW [enemy prisoner of war] questioning and was found to be OK, why on earth would he come back? The problem with these people is that you can't believe anything they say."

Could he understand the locals' distrust of the US after what happened in 1991?

"If it weren't for the liberal press, we might have taken Baghdad last time," said the sergeant.

In the end the marines let father and son go on their way with gun and money, accepting that both were for personal use. But Sgt Sprague was none too happy to see them go. The convoys have, after all, come under sporadic mortar attack. "There's a mad mortarman out there," he said.

Israel, Zvi Bar'el in Haaretz

The strategic decision to make Iraq's second city Basra a legitimate military target, and to try to conquer the city rather than simply lay siege to it, could, over the next few days, develop into the first test of the power of the civilian Iraqi population against the allied forces.

For the first time in this conflict, a huge Iraqi population center -- over one million in the city itself and a further two million in the outlying region -- will see the allied armies on its streets, and not just on its television screens.

This will also be the test of the biggest unanswered question of the war: to what extent will the Iraqi populace quickly surrender to American and British troops, just to rid itself of the dread of the Iraqi command.

Thus far, it appears that the coalition's basic assumptions were wrong, and that the population is not in any hurry to wave the white flag or to rise up against the Iraqi army. There is a two-fold explanation for this: the iron-fisted control the Iraqi forces have over the actions of the general population, and the strength of the Iraqis' national aversion to the foreign conquerors, a feeling that transcends sect and religion.

On Tuesday, there were initial reports of a civilian uprising in Basra (the veracity of which is hard to ascertain). Basra, much of which has been without electricity and water for the past several days, is likely to be a test of Iraqis' behavior ahead of the battle for Baghdad. This is the Iraqi home front, which, so far, has not been made a part of the war. The reaction of this home front will determine the future tactics of both the coalition forces and the Iraqi army.

United Kingdom, Rod Liddle in the Guardian

Our military people haven't been telling us the truth, have they? Every day they tell us stuff -- either directly, through press conferences and statements, or through private briefings with our more credulous television journalists -- and 12 hours later the reverse of what they've told us turns out to have happened ...

Here are a few examples ...

Coalition forces have taken the "strategically important" town of Umm Qasr, we were told on day two.

No, actually, they hadn't, as they were decent enough to admit two days later. They still haven't taken it as I write this. Ditto those oilfields they kept on about and then, very suddenly, stopped going on about ...

The coalition forces have no intention of taking Basra because it would involve street fighting and therefore a potential danger to civilians.

So, to clarify, then: Basra is indeed, now, a target. Because, er, otherwise there would be a danger to civilians, a veritable humanitarian catastrophe ...

And the question that occurs is this: are they deliberately lying to us in order, one would assume, to mislead the enemy -- or do they really not have a clue what's going on? My guess is that it's a mixture of the two. They're lying from time to time and they often don't have a clue what's going on. Which is a bit of a worry.

Not because we shouldn't be lied to per se, but because no matter what happens on the ground, militarily, we're beginning to lose the propaganda war across the world, if it were not already lost to begin with.

I'm quite prepared to believe that the war is being prosecuted with military excellence; the relatively low number of civilians -- and coalition servicemen -- killed would seem to provide some evidence of this. But the impression created through either deliberately misleading statements or wildly optimistic pronouncements is one of either deviousness or ineptitude or both.

Philippines, Conrado de Quiros in the Philippine Daily Inquirer

I looked up the Geneva Conventions and saw no part there that forbids the showing of prisoners on TV. The Conventions in any case were written long before media intruded on everything, including wars, and became a weapon of mass destruction or creation, depending on how you look at it, all their own. What is there, which is what Rumsfeld himself quoted (his staff at the Pentagon must have scrambled for the appropriate passage on short notice), is 1.c. of Article 3 on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. It forbids "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." A case could be made for the fact that the circumstances in which the prisoners were shown were humiliating and degrading. But it is at least a contentious point.

What is not so, indeed what makes Rumsfeld's comments downright hypocritical, is his sudden discovery of the virtue of something he and his government have scorned for so long. At the very least, it cannot do him and his government a favor that he should invoke the principles of international law after so brazenly flouting them. His fulminations only serve to remind the world that their adventure on Iraq has absolutely no blessings from the international community, represented by the United Nations, the only body in which international law reposes. You break the rules when it suits you, you cannot count on those same rules to protect you.

But it goes beyond general principles. Rumsfeld and company have in fact themselves been openly violating the Geneva Conventions. Early last year, Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's US Program, complained about the treatment of Taliban prisoners who were being kept in small cages with chain-link sides and metal roofs that offered little protection from wind and rain. "The Secretary (Rumsfeld)," said Fellner, "seems unaware of the requirements of international humanitarian law. As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States is required to treat every detained combatant humanely, including 'unlawful combatants.' The United States may not pick and choose among them to decide who is entitled to decent treatment."

And there is of course the United States' infamous, and for the Arab countries at least, grating, coddling of Israel in its open defiance of civilized conduct. In 1988, the UN Security Council twice condemned Israel for grossly violating the Geneva Conventions. In S/19466, it noted the oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and affirmed "that the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War ... is applicable to the Palestinians." It reiterated this in S/19780, after noting Israel's persistent refusal to comply with the Geneva Convention. In both cases, the vote was 14-1. The lone dissenter, which vetoed the resolution, as it had all UN resolutions on Israel, was the United States.

Some people call it karma. Others just say, what goes around, comes around.

Australia, Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald

There are about 600 Western journalists covering the United States invasion of Iraq and 2000 Australian military involved in fighting it. One reporter for every three of our soldiers/sailors/pilots/whatever. The Americans have 200,000 military personnel there and the Brits 40,000. The numbers say everything. Nothing has changed from Vietnam 40 years ago, a war Britain refused to join.

We're there only for political window dressing. The contest in patriotism is just as nauseating.

John Howard concluded his national television address last Thursday night: "Can I say something I know will find an echo from all of you, whether or not you agree with the Government? That is to say, to the men and women of Australia's [military] in the Gulf -- we admire you, we are thinking of you, we want all of you to come back home safe and sound. We care for and anguish with your loved ones here in Australia. Our prayers and hopes are with you."

Labor's Kim Beazley was almost as gushing. "Our hearts are with the allied soldiers and the Australian troops," Beazley told Parliament. "May the Lord hold them in his hands until this is over, and bring them home safely. That is where our hearts lie" ...

When we learnt this week, however, that Britain's first battle deaths were two pilots disintegrated by a missile from a US ground crew, and that American marines shot up a CNN television crew, killing at least one and most likely three journalists, Howard's and Beazley's appeals to the Almighty assumed greater meaning for this irreverent cynic. God protect our troops from our "friends".

Pakistan, Pratap Chatterjee in the Daily Times

As the first bombs rain down on Baghdad, thousands of employees of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, are working alongside US troops in Kuwait and Turkey under a package deal worth close to a billion dollars. According to US Army sources, they are building tent cities and providing logistical support for the war in Iraq in addition to other hot spots in the "war on terrorism" ...

In December 2001, Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, secured a 10-year deal known as the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), from the Pentagon. The contract is a "cost-plus-award-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity service" which basically means that the federal government has an open-ended mandate and budget to send Brown and Root anywhere in the world to run military operations for a profit.

The current contract in Kuwait began in September 2002 when Joyce Taylor of the US Army Materiel Command's Program Management Office, arrived to supervise approximately 1,800 Brown and Root employees to set up tent cities that would provide accommodation for tens of thousands of soldiers and officials. Army officials working with Brown and Root say the collaboration is helping cut costs by hiring local labor at a fraction of regular Army salaries ...

During the past few weeks, these Brown and Root employees have helped transform Kuwait into an armed camp, to support some 80,000 foreign troops, roughly the equivalent of 10 percent of Kuwait's native-born population.

Most of these troops are now living in the tent cities in the rugged desert north of Kuwait City, poised to invade Iraq. Some of the encampments are named after the states associated with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- Camp New York, Camp Virginia and Camp Pennsylvania. The headquarters for this effort is Camp Arifjan, where civilian and military employees have built a gravel terrace with plastic picnic tables and chairs, surrounded by a gymnasium in a tent, a PX and newly arrived fast food outlets such as Burger King, Subway and Baskin-Robbins, set up in trailers or shipping containers. Basketball hoops and volleyball nets are set up outside the mess hall.

Turkey, Mehmet Ali Birand in the Turkish Daily News

Frankly, as many other observers I had thought that the Northern Iraqi Kurds would benefit from the new order to be established in postwar Iraq.

The widely-held view was that the Kurdish leaders, namely, Talabani and Barzani, would have increased influence in the post-Saddam period, and that the region would become a "gravity center".

The officials in Ankara subscribe to that idea. In fact, they take this further. They actually take military measures against the possibility of an independent Kurdistan getting established.

Today Kurds are acting as if they have an independent state. They conduct their own policies the way they like.

Under the new system that will not be so easy.

Kurds will constitute part of the Iraqi Federation and the policies to be determined in Baghdad will impose limits on them.

Many people are sorry now that Turkey has not enabled the USA to open up a Northern front, that Turkey has dragged its feet and thus played havoc with the American plans, and that, in return, Turkey has lost the opportunity to enter Northern Iraq at ease as well as the opportunity to have its losses offset. We have played wrongly. We have received bad advice about the tactics to be used. We have scored a goal against our own team. Leave that aside now. Close up the old books. In this or that manner Parliament said "No." There is no sense in wallowing in regret.

Let us focus on what we can do from now on. Let us try to score new goals.

China, Letter in the Globalist

[Editor's note: A Chinese government official in Beijing recently wrote to an old family friend in his home village ... an act of courtesy he has observed for many years. Patrick Smith, our Asia Editor, received a copy of his letter ... and was asked that it be published anonymously.]

Americans now hope for a swift and dramatic victory in Iraq. They view the exercise as a great display of power that will be the beginning of a project to remake the Middle East in their own image.

It is breathtaking in its hubris, but it expresses the essence of the unilateral perspective as the Americans entertain it: To triumph over others ... and then refashion them to conform to the American vision.

It is a view predicated on the supremacy of American power as the defining characteristic of our time.

No one here in Beijing questions the supremacy of American might. But we recognize America's status as a sole superpower as an interim.

It will be followed in the not-distant future by a world in which multilateralism is the basis of order ... and where no one can act alone. That is the lesson the Americans have to learn to their great surprise.

China is not as powerful now as it one day will be. But it is making itself strong. America is now powerful, but it is making itself weak.

It is isolating itself internationally at precisely the moment it should be maturing as a world leader.

There are times when one need do little but watch and wait as those whom one opposes on one matter or another make even bigger mistakes. We Chinese have had many more centuries than the Americans to grasp this truth.

By Compiled by Laura McClure

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