Iraq 1: The First Gulf War 1991

Banksy Fallen-Soldier1

[The first of three essays on recent Iraq history. Can one really understand, or begin to understand, some of the complexities of the massive suffering and dire situations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan without understanding some of the history behind the present chaos, in particular the history of the many western imperial interventions in the region? As ye sow, so shall ye reap… The original of the essay is copiously footnoted with sources, but as usual WordPress won’t let me cut and paste them for some reason. Let’s start with the first Gulf War 1991. The image is Banksy’s “Fallen Soldier’.]

The Gulf War 1991

The greatest moral crusade since World War II.
– US President George Bush Sr. on the first Gulf War

…a sample group of children were asked, ‘What sticks in your mind about the television coverage of the war?’ Most referred to the hi-tech weapons and equipment; some mentioned specifically the Pentagon war ‘videogames’. None mentioned people.
– J. Pilger, Hidden Agendas, p. 58.

By military conquest, economic control or client states, the British, French and US empires have dominated the oil-rich Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In the words of ex-US Secretary of State Ramsey Clark:

Throughout the seventy-five year period from Britain’s invasion of Iraq early in World War I to the destruction of Iraq in 1991 by US air power, the United States and the United Kingdom demonstrated no concern for democratic values, human rights, social justice, or political and cultural integrity in the region, nor for stopping military aggression there.

Despite having helped set up the tyrannous Ba’athist regime itself in 1968 and very actively (together with the USSR, Britain, Brazil, France and Germany) traded with, armed and supported the dictatorial, human rights-abusing Saddam Hussein regime against Iran throughout the eighties and right up to the war , the US gained (after some bribery and arm-twisting) UN Security Council approval, and a 33 nation coalition, for an attack on Iraq after the latter occupied Kuwait in 1990.

For 42 days from January 1991 the US flew 110,000 air sorties against Iraq, dropping 88,000 tons of bombs, nearly seven times the equivalent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb; most targets were civilian facilities and this resulted in a systematic destruction of Iraq’s industrial infrastructure, leaving it in a pre-industrial condition. More ordnance was dropped on Iraq during the six weeks of ‘Desert Storm’ than was dropped in the whole of World War Two. Residential and commercial areas, schools, hospitals, mosques, highway traffic were also targeted and destroyed; between 113,000 and 125,000 men, women and children are estimated to have been killed. The UN Under Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari reported that the effects of the bombing of infrastructure were ‘near apocalyptic’: twenty eight hospitals had been hit, along with major water and sewage facilities, all eight of Iraq’s hydro-power dams and grain storage silos and irrigation systems. More than 1.8 million Iraqis were forced from their homes. Also, at least 100,000 Iraqi (mostly conscripted) soldiers were killed at a cost of 148 US combat casualties.

General Colin Powell’s response to a press inquiry about the possible number of Iraqi dead was: ‘It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.’ Among the known illegal weapons employed by the US were fuel air explosives, napalm, cluster and fragmentation bombs. The Australian Labor government under Prime Minister Hawke sent a frigate.

Part of the Pentagon and corporate media spin given to the aerial bombardment was that this was a ‘clean war’ because of the new ‘surgical strike’ precision of high-tech ‘smart bombs’. After the war the Pentagon admitted that only 7% of US explosives dropped were of such nature; 70% of the 88,000 tons dropped missed their targets completely. ‘Precision’ Tomahawk cruise missiles also delivered ‘grenade sub-munitions’ that sprayed tens of thousands of small pieces of shrapnel aimed at shredding people.

Thousands of Iraqi (mostly conscripted) soldiers fleeing home from Kuwait on the Basra road after Iraq had agreed to comply with UN Resolution 660 (a cease fire and an unconditional withdrawal) were massacred from the air in a so-called ‘duck shoot’. As Colin Hughes, a correspondent for the UK Independent (the only British newspaper to give consistent and substantial coverage to this slaughter) reported:

The glee with which American pilots returning to their carriers spoke of the ‘duck shoot’ presented by columns of Iraqis retreating from Kuwait City (has) troubled many humanitarians who otherwise supported the Allied objectives. Naturally it is sickening to witness a routed army being shot in the back.

The UK Telegraph reported US pilots likening their attack on the convoy to ‘shooting fish in a barrel’. The massacre of withdrawing soldiers removing themselves from combat under direct orders from Baghdad is a war crime violating The Geneva Conventions of 1949 Common Article III and the 1907 Hague Convention.

Six months after the war New York Newsday disclosed that in the last two days before the ceasefire US infantry had ‘used snow ploughs mounted on tanks and combat earth movers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers – some still alive – in more than 70 miles of trenches’; a brigade commander, Colonel Moreno, was quoted as saying: ‘For all I know, we could have killed thousands’.

In total, around 100,000 Iraqi soldiers lost their lives. The American death toll was 115. On the rather shaky assumption that such incredible figures can still somehow express a notion of ‘war’ (rather than, say, a bloodbath), then this roughly 1 to 1,000 ratio is probably unique in the history of warfare.

After Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait and the cessation of bombing President Bush exhorted Iraqis to rise up against him. When the Kurds in the north and Shias in the south did so, they were slaughtered:

the Coalition sat on its hands. The uprisings were duly cut to pieces by the Republican Guards who had mysteriously surfaced intact from Desert Storm and on whom Saddam relied for his power. The most terrible suffering followed.

In 1993 it was revealed that depleted uranium (DU) – like the other above mentioned weapons a UN-designated ‘weapon of mass destruction’ – had also been used for the first time in the Gulf War, with perhaps as much as 900 tonnes remaining on the ground in Iraq. According to one estimate, this may equate to around 300 tonnes of uranium.

(DU is a waste product from the uranium enrichment process in which uranium is separated into around 15% enriched uranium for use as reactor fuel and 85% depleted uranium as waste; in 1997 the US Department of Energy had about 704,000 t waste DU in storage. Australia, producing around 18% of global uranium, and selling 1,272 t to the US in 1999, is thus of course also implicated in DU manufacture. Upon explosion of DU weapons a fine dust of radioactive uranium oxide is formed that is small enough to be deeply inhaled. After claims of cancer and groundwater contamination, Irish scientists also found plutonium in DU rounds fired by NATO in Kosovo in 1999 , so one can assume plutonium is also now present in Iraq.)

US and British governments informed neither Iraqi civilians nor coalition soldiers of the dangers they faced from DU. Nine years after the war, the general cancer rate in Iraq had risen up to tenfold; in Basra radiation levels in fauna and flora had reached 84 times the World Health Organization’s recommended safe limit and many babies had been born with no eyes, brains, limbs, genitalia, internal organs on the outside, grotesque deformations etc. Between 1990 and 1997 in Basra uterine cancers increased by 160%, thyroid cancer by 143 %, breast cancer by 102 % and leukaemia by 82%.

One of the children affected in Basra was Jassim, who died in 1998 at the age of 13 of leukaemia. Jassim was also a poet.

Poetic Interlude 2

Jassim: Identity Card

The name is love,
The class is mindless,
The school is suffering,
The governorate is sadness,
The city is sighing,
The street is misery,
The home number is one thousand sighs.

In 1999 a UN subcommittee called for the global banning of DU use; the initiative was blocked by the US. In 2003 the European Parliament called for a moratorium on the use of DU.

Ten years after the war, over 200,000 of the 600,000 US Gulf War veterans had sought help or disability benefits from Veterans’ Administration hospitals and in Britain 8,000 of the 29,000 Gulf War veterans were ill and over 400 had died; as with Agent Orange in Vietnam, veterans’ babies have been showing high rates of congenital abnormalities (missing ears, eyes or fingers, severe blood diseases or respiratory problems). The US army of course, as usual, neglected to tell its personnel anything about the possible health hazards although a US army report six months before the Gulf War had detailed the risks of DU use and had called for the usual ‘public relations efforts’ to stave off the ‘potential for adverse international reaction.’

In 2004 Dr Doug Rokke, director of the US Army DU project after the first Gulf War and himself now seriously ill, estimated that more than 10,000 US troops had died since 1991 as a result of the war, many from contamination illness, and ‘tens of thousands’ of Iraqis had been contaminated. Again, as with Vietnam veterans and their experience of thirty years of governmental denial of delayed Agent Orange effects, for eight years the British Ministry of Defence refused to countenance DU as a contributory cause of veterans’ ‘Gulf War Syndrome’. As of 2007, the corporate media, in contrast to their wartime drum banging about ‘our heroic troops’, of course continue to remain conspicuously silent on the issue.

The Saddam Hussein regime had in fact acquired all its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction during the 1980s from the US, Britain, France and Germany. The regime enjoyed steady support from the US and the west during its war with Iran during the 1980s, receiving billions in loans, weapons, intelligence information on Iranian deployments. In 1994 a US Senate Committee reported that until 1989 US companies supplied – with the approval of the Pentagon and other government agencies – Iraq with biological materials capable of weapons grade use (including anthrax and botulism), precursors for chemical warfare agents, plans for chemical and biological warfare production facilities, even chemical warhead filling equipment. The US supplied Hussein with hundreds of tons of unrefined sarin (used in chemical warfare) even after the Iraqi gas attack on Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988 which left around 8,000 dead.

During the actual terror bombing campaign in 1991 any vestiges of the (theoretical) role of the US media as democratic correctives to executive abuse totally collapsed and the media became ‒ as in any authoritarian system ‒ bellicose, de facto sub-organisations of the State (or Pentagon). As described by ex-Secretary of State Ramsey Clark:

the press received virtually all its information from or by permission of the Pentagon. Efforts were made to prevent any adverse information or opposition views from being heard. CNN’s limited presence in Baghdad was described as Iraqi propaganda. Independent observers, eyewitnesses’ photos, and video tapes with information about the effects of the US bombing were excluded from the media. Television network ownership, advertisers, newspaper ownership, elite columnists and commentators intimidated and instructed reporters and selected interviewees. They formed a near-single voice of praise for US militarism, often exceeding the Pentagon in bellicosity.

For the first time to this extent, the media presented the war as a victim-free hi-tech spectacle for home consumption. In the new merging of weaponry and camera in which bombers or ‘smart weapons’ like cruise missiles can actually film their targets as they are destroyed, ‘the technology of killing and the technology of the photo opportunity (…) fuse into one moment.’ In David Holmes’ summary, ‘War is reduced to electronic impulses flickering on a video screen, encoded in a technologically extended form of engagement at once removed and curiously comforting.’ As in violent video games on which the media war spectacle seemed based, there were no real bodies, no blood, no suffering, no human trauma ever allowed onto the screens. Iraqi civilians simply did not exist. Research revealed that of the 8,000 images used in British TV coverage of the war, for example, only 1% dealt with human suffering. In the US, a new ‘military-industrial-entertainment complex’ had emerged, fusing the arms industry, the Pentagon, Hollywood, the electronic games industry, the corporate media and patriotic consumers.

As in any authoritarian society, corporate newspaper reporting was, as usual, characterized by the blatant manufacture of public consent to the war-mongering. After the Kuwait invasion, ally Saddam Hussein suddenly became ‘another Hitler’ and his previous ally role became absolute taboo: ‘Following August 2, 1990, when he became an enemy, it would be difficult to find in the mainstream media any reference to the fact that this demon ‘had been in alliance with the US as short a time ago as August 1, 1990.

Common propaganda techniques included: a fixation on battle statistics, strategies and economic costs (to the West), the omission of images of and figures on Iraqi and civilian deaths and suffering, the personalization, outright falsification or demonisation of complex realities (Saddam-Hitler, The ‘Butcher of Baghdad’, the PR disinformation item of Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies in incubators etc), the usual restriction of political debate to narrowly limited, unhistorical and de-contextualized establishment parameters. One key and intended result of the corporate media propaganda techniques constructing the powerful high-tech spectacle of a sanitized war was that ‘the sheer scale of this killing never entered public consciousness in the West’.

American veteran situationist Ken Knabb describes the predominant spectator sport reaction in the US:

The spectators, under the impression that they were expressing their own considered views, parroted the catch phrases and debated the pseudo-issues that the media had instilled in them day after day, and as in any other spectator sport loyally ‘supported’ the home team in the desert by rooting for it.

The independent International War Crimes Tribunal, comprising many respected members from many countries, found the US government guilty of war crimes and conduct that violated the UN Charter, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Charter, the US Constitution and the laws of armed conflict.

Total Iraqi Civilian Deaths by Allied Terror Bombing 1991: 113,000 to 125,000
Total Iraqi Conscripted Soldier Deaths 1991: more than 100,000


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on July 21, 2015.

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