25 April 2003

Ungrateful Ali: The Painful Paradox of Embedded Freedom

25 April 2003
The Times of India

Ungrateful Ali
The Painful Paradox of Embedded Freedom

By Siddharth Varadarajan

As he ran his tank deep into Iraq three weeks ago, Sgt Sprague from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, took time off momentarily to reflect upon the noble campaign he was part of. "These people got nothing," he told the Guardian's James Meek. "We've been all the way from Basra to here and I ain't seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant. Even in a little town like ours, you got a McDonald's at one end and a Hardee's at the other." The victors of every war produce their own narratives -- some epochal, some ephemeral -- to chronicle or celebrate, criticize, rationalize or exorcise the furies of armed conflict. But as the nature of the battlefield changes, so too must its literature. If Sgt Sprague's observations seem slender compared to, say, Thucydides, this is perhaps because the historian of the Peloponnessian War had 27 years of fighting to reflect upon. And though shorter, the Mahabharata war -- chronicled by Sanjaya, perhaps the world's first "embedded journalist" -- took so many complex twists that the story perforce ran into several volumes.

In any case, how does one chronicle a war where we are told both sides emerged victorious? There is no doubt that the U.S. won. But having proclaimed victory -- crowning its triumph with the staged, spectatorial toppling of a Saddam statue -- and installed a retired American general as viceroy, the Bush administration says the real victors are the Iraqis themselves. Iraqis who are now free, as Donald Rumsfeld put it generously, "to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." Even loot museums and burn libraries. "Freedom's untidy," the U.S. defence secretary told CNN. "Stuff happens." Fortunately for the Iraqi people, the untidiness of Rumsfeldian freedom did not extend to the country's oil wealth. As Baghdad descended into chaos last week, the one building U.S. troops secured -- by coincidence, presumably -- was the oil ministry.

Unlike the Mahabharata, the chroniclers of Operation Iraqi Freedom have not been tormented by moral dilemmas, self-doubt or remorse. Consider this uplifting performance by CNN's Kyra Phillips last week. Phillips was interviewing Dr Imad al-Najada, the Kuwaiti surgeon treating a 12-year-old Iraqi child, Ali, who lost his arms -- and his entire family -- in the U.S. bombing.

CNN: Doctor, Tell us what this little boy has been saying to you.

Dr al-Najada: Actually, today he was in good condition... and started speaking with a journalist. The thing which he (asked Ali was) what message he wants to reflect from the war. He said, first of all, thank you for the attention they're giving to him, but he hopes nobody from the children in the war will suffer like what he suffer.

CNN: Doctor, does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Iraqi freedom and the meaning? Does he understand it?

I didn't see the live interview, and the transcript on CNN's website provides no hint of how the doctor reacted to Ms Phillips' touching belief that little Ali -- "free" at last but orphaned, burned and bereft of limbs -- would actually be grateful to the U.S.. The transcript merely records the doctor replying that he hadn't discussed this issue with Ali because "he's in very bad psychological trauma." "But," he added, "we discussed this issue with his uncle and the message we got from his family, they said they are living far away from the American troops, from the military of Saddam...and they don't know how they (i.e. the U.S.) hit them by missiles."
After insisting for years that sanctions imposed to force Iraq to give up weapons of mass destruction did not affect ordinary Iraqis, the U.S. is now citing their plight to demand sanctions end immediately. The only problem is that the thousands of litres of anthrax and nerve agents that the U.S. insisted Iraq has have not yet been found.

If sanctions are lifted today without these WMD being accounted for, they could just as easily have been lifted before the war started, or even many years earlier, before the blood of the half a million Iraqi children UNICEF says died as a result was spilt.

The U.S. wants sanctions to be lifted so that Iraqi oil can be exported, the revenues used to defray the costs of military occupation and U.S. oil companies can take lucrative upstream positions there. The UN must not cooperate. Until the WMD are fully accounted for by UN weapons inspectors or the Iraqi people manage to end the U.S. occupation, Iraqi oil revenues must go only into a UN-run account. Here, their use can be regulated to ensure companies from the U.S. -- which defied the UN in invading Iraq -- do not benefit from the aggression.

The embargo on non-military imports can immediately be suspended without the WMD being accounted for, provided the U.S. acknowledges in the Security Council that its stated rationale for invading Iraq -- to destroy prohibited weapons it finally never found -- had no legal basis. The U.S. must also agree to submit its political and military leadership to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for the Prosecutor to establish the extent of their liability for war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Finally, Ali and other victims of the U.S. invasion -- and of the economic sanctions kept in place all these years by Washington -- should be allowed to sue the U.S. government. The money for Iraq's reconstruction should come from these reparations, and not from the oil resources of a people who have already suffered so much.

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