This time I'm scared
US propaganda fuelled the
first Gulf war. It will fuel this one too - and the risks are
by Maggie O'Kane
The Guardian (London), Thursday,
December 5, 2002
I have a picture from the last Gulf war.
It was taken in the basement of the Al Rashid hotel, the night
the war started. The look on my face is one you might expect of
a 28-year-old reporter at the centre of one of the biggest stories
of my lifetime: earnest, excited and thrilled to be in Baghdad.
Eleven years later, I'm on maternity leave
and the news of an impending second Gulf war follows me around
the kitchen. This time, I feel only a sense of intense danger
as the Middle East lurches towards a possible chemical and biological
The chances of Saddam Hussein using chemical
and biological weapons if attacked are, according to the testimony
of the CIA to the US Senate intelligence committee on October
7, "pretty high" - a scenario that even one of greatest
hawks in US history, Brent Scowcroft, former national security
adviser to George Bush senior, says would lead to meltdown in
the Middle East. As of December 7, when Iraq is expected to produce
its definitive dossier, there should be no illusions: no matter
what Baghdad discloses, America and almost certainly Britain are
going to war. The "material breach", if it does not
happen by itself, will be manufactured, so wringing consent for
the second Gulf war just as consent was manufactured with breathtaking
cynicism in 1991.
There were two glaring examples of how
the propaganda machine worked before the first Gulf war. First,
in the final days before the war started on January 9, the Pentagon
insisted that not only was Saddam Hussein not withdrawing from
Kuwait - he was - but that he had 265,000 troops poised in the
desert to pounce on Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon claimed to have
satellite photographs to prove it. Thus, the waverers and anti-war
protesters were silenced.
We now know from declassified documents
and satellite photographs taken by a Russian commercial satellite
that there were no Iraqi troops poised to attack Saudi. At the
time, no one bothered to ask for proof.
No one except Jean Heller, a five-times
nominated Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the St Petersburg
Times in Florida, who persuaded her bosses to buy two photos at
$1,600 each from the Russian commercial satellite, the Soyuz Karta.
Guess what? No massing troops. "You could see the planes
sitting wing tip to wing tip in Riyadh airport," Ms Heller
says, "but there wasn't was any sign of a quarter of a million
Iraqi troops sitting in the middle of the desert." So what
will the fake satellite pictures show this time: a massive chemical
installation with Iraqi goblins cooking up anthrax?
The US propaganda machine is already gearing
up. In its sights already is Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector.
He's too much of a softie for Saddam, the former CIA director
James Wolsey told the Today programme last week. His work is of
"limited value". He was Kofi Annan's "second choice".
What next? Blix's granny is Iraqi? He
has a drugs problem?
Meanwhile, in Britain, Jack Straw's new
human rights dossier on Iraq is timed to coincide with the build-up.
Convenient, eh? The second tactic used to get consensus for war
in 1991 was another propaganda classic: dead babies. Then, the
daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, Nijirah al-Sabah,
tearfully described how, as a volunteer in the Al Adnan hospital
in Kuwait City, she had watched Iraqi soldiers looting incubators
to take back to Baghdad, pitching the Kuwaiti babies on to "the
cold floor to die".
Except it never happened. The Filipina
nurses, Frieda Construe-Nag and Myra Ancog Cooke, who worked in
the maternity ward of the Al Adnan hospital, had never seen Ms
al-Sabah in their lives. Amnesty admitted they had been duped.
Middle East Watch confirmed the fabrication, but it was too late:
a marginal US congress had been swung to vote for war. George
Bush senior mentioned the "incubator babies" seven times
in pre-war rallying speeches. It was months before the truth came
out. By then, the war was over.
This time, we have yet to see what propaganda
will be used to rally consensus for the second Gulf war by proving
a "material breach". It is highly likely that Saddam
Hussein maintains at least some chemical and biological capacity.
In a war in which his own survival is unlikely (and already rumoured
to be ill with cancer) Saddam Hussein has nothing to lose. If
he knows his fall is imminent, what terrible legacy might he choose
to leave behind? What better present to his extremist Arab brothers
than an attack on Israel? And how will the US, Britain or Israel
respond if their troops or cities come under chemical or biological
I n 1995, the Washington-based Defense
News reported on the outcome of the then highly classified Global
95 Wargame, a high-level military exercise enacted at the US Naval
War college. Global 95 played out a simultaneous threat from North
Korea and Iraq. The North Korean situation was diffused, but Iraq
attacked US troops in the region with biological weapons. Washington
replied with a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. The main observation during
the Global 95 experiment was just how quickly the situation escalated.
But the greatest irony, and most important
issue, is that although the war on Iraq may indeed get George
Bush re-elected, it will not win the war on terrorism. It will
instead fuel it.
In 1998, I spent an afternoon with Abu
Ziad, an elderly accountant in Baghdad. He recounted how, at 2am
on February 13, 1991, two bombs had hit the Amiryia bomb shelter
near his home. The first pierced the roof, slicing into the central
heating tank and sending gallons of boiling water pouring over
the women and children below. The second bomb, 15 minutes later,
exploded with such force that he never had the chance to identify
the bodies of his wife and four of their five children: Zena,14,
Fuad, 12, Lena, seven and Sadaad, six. He remembers standing outside
the shelter in the early morning and noticing the ankles of dead
women and children marked by the red hot mattress springs they
had fought to climb over to get out of the shelter before the
second bomb dropped.
The Abu Ziads of the second Gulf war will
be seen on al-Jazeera TV giving their heartbreaking testimony
to a new generation of disaffected and dispossessed young Muslim
men from Palestine, Indonesia, the Middle East and Africa. And
we can all hear the death chant of a hundred suicide bombers:
Allahu Akbar. It's a high price to pay for another four years
in the White House.
I am not some naive pacifist. I supported
intervention in Bosnia, the war in Kosovo and military intervention
in East Timor. Baghdad is a city where terror hangs in the air
in every home. Iraqis literally dare not speak Saddam Hussein's
name. But now he is cornered, dangerous and possibly dying. Provoking
him is criminally irresponsible and provoking him in order to
secure a second presidential term is unforgivable.
Remember the words of JFK to his brother
Bobby, spoken in the ante-room of the Oval Office the night before
the Cuban missile crisis, now declassified. "I have to do
it, Bobby," said John Kennedy, explaining why he was facing
up to the Soviets. "I'll lose the presidency if I don't."
Krushchev had a way out. He ordered the Soviet ships to turn around.
What would have happened if he had nowhere to turn? ·
Maggie O'Kane is editorial director of
GuardianFilms. She was named European Journalist of the Year this
week for its first documentary, Looking for Karadzic.