Iraq War as War Crime (Part Two)
Editor’s Note: From the start of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the toll on Iraqi civilians and on out-gunned Iraqi soldiers was staggering. Indeed, that appears to have been part of the message Bush’s neocon advisers wanted to send to other countries that might think of resisting Washington’s imperial ambitions.
Yet back home, most of the horror was kept out of view for Americans watching on TV who wanted to feel good about their brave soldiers and not think much about how their country was crossing a line into an imperial aggressor.
On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq -- and in honor of all who have died -- we are publishing the second part of an excerpt from Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush:
Despite the stiffer-than-expected resistance, the U.S. military continued to blast its way toward its goal of toppling Saddam Hussein.
From the first days of the war, that violence took a heavy toll on Iraq’s civilians, though the bloody images were often sanitized from the American broadcasts so as not to dampen the war enthusiasm and depress the TV ratings.
The Bush administration’s lack of sensitivity about civilian casualties was reflected in the hasty decision to bomb a residential restaurant where Hussein was thought to be eating. It turned out that the intelligence was wrong, but that wasn’t discovered until after the restaurant was leveled and 14 civilians, including seven children, were killed.
One mother hysterically sought her daughter and collapsed when the headless body was pulled from the rubble.
“When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head,” The Associated Press reported, “her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed.”
The London Independent cited this restaurant attack as one that represented “a clear breach” of the Geneva Conventions ban on bombing civilian targets.
Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who had been the center of his life.
“It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.”
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, pregnant mother and siblings were all killed.
As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he would rather die than live without his hands.
For its part, the Bush administration announced that it had no intention of tallying the number of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the war.
On the battlefield, rather than throwing down their weapons, the Iraqi army sometimes fought heroically though hopelessly against the technologically superior U.S. forces.
Christian Science Monitor reporter Ann Scott Tyson interviewed U.S. troops with the 3rd Infantry Division who were deeply troubled by their task of mowing down Iraqi soldiers who kept fighting even in suicidal situations.
“Even as U.S. commanders cite dramatic success in the three-week-old war, many look upon the wholesale destruction of Iraq’s military and the killing of thousands of Iraqi fighters with a sense of regret,” Tyson reported. “They voice frustration at the number of Iraqis who stood their ground against overwhelming U.S. firepower, wasting their lives and equipment rather than capitulating as expected.”
“They have no command and control, no organization,” said Brig. Gen. Louis Weber. “They’re just dying.”
Commenting upon the annihilation of Iraqi forces in one-sided battles, Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe said, “We didn’t want to do this. Even a brain-dead moron can understand we are so vastly superior militarily that there is no hope. You would think they would see that and give up.”
In one battle around Najaf, U.S. commanders ordered air strikes to kill the Iraqis en masse rather than have U.S. soldiers continue to kill them one by one.
“There were waves and waves of people coming at them with AK-47s, out of this factory, and they [the U.S. soldiers] were killing everyone,” said Radcliffe. “The commander called and said, ‘This is not right. This is insane. Let’s hit the factory with close air support and take them out all at once.’”
This slaughter of young Iraqis troubled front-line U.S. soldiers.
“For lack of a better word, I felt almost guilty about the massacre,” one soldier said privately. “We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?”
Bush seemed to share none of these regrets. Commenting about the Iraqi soldiers to his war council, Bush said they “fight like terrorists.”
To Bush, Iraq had become a demonstration of both America’s military might and his own itchy trigger finger, Bush had made Iraq his Alderaan, the hapless planet in the original Star Wars movie that was picked to show off the power of the Death Star.
“Fear will keep the local systems in line, fear of this battle station,” explained Death Star commander Tarkin in the movie. “No star system will dare oppose the emperor now.”
Similarly, the slaughter of the outmatched Iraqi military sent a message to other countries that might be tempted to resist Bush’s dictates.
At a Central Command briefing, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks took note of this awesome power on display as he described the “degrading” of Iraqi forces south of Baghdad.
“They’re in serious trouble,” Brooks said. “They remain in contact now with the most powerful force on earth.”
The enthusiasm of many Americans for the war in Iraq – and their lightly considered acquiescence to this crossover to imperial power – delivered another chilling message to the world.
The message was that the American people and their increasingly enfeebled democratic process would not serve as a check on George W. Bush, at least in the near term.
The fall of Baghdad after three weeks of fighting washed away most of the remaining doubts for a majority of the American people.
The iconic image of an American soldier and tank helping Iraqis topple a statue of Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdus Square on April 9 became Exhibit A to prove that Bush was right about “liberating” the Iraqis.
After being pulled down by the U.S. tank, the toppled statue was set upon by dancing Iraqis who carried off the head as a prize.
For many Americans the scene was a catharsis, bringing relief that the war might end quickly and satisfaction that the Iraqis were finally acting like the grateful people that administration officials had said they would be.
However, Americans seeking a fuller understanding of the moment needed to search the Internet or access foreign newspapers. Those who did found the victorious images were misleading.
Rather than a spontaneous Berlin Wall-type celebration by hundreds of thousands, the toppling of the statue was a staged event with a small crowd estimated in the scores, not even the hundreds. One photo from a distance showed the square ringed by U.S. tanks with a small knot of people gathered around the statue.
Indeed, given the political importance of the images, some intelligence experts expressed surprise that so few Iraqis were present. One CIA veteran told us that such images are never left to chance because of their psychological warfare potential.
He said all U.S. battle plans include a “psy-war annex,” a kind of public-relations script meant to influence the target population – in this case, the Iraqis – as well as the larger world public, including the American people.
Despite the scene’s shortcomings, it served its purpose.
The ouster of Hussein – and the apparent U.S. victory after a three-week campaign – solidified Bush’s reputation as a decisive leader who wouldn’t tolerate petty tyrants getting in America’s way.
For his neoconservative enthusiasts, the conquest of Iraq also marked an important step in establishing an American global empire that would punish any upstart who threatened U.S. interests and would send a message to potential American enemies everywhere.
As Hussein fled into hiding, Bush gained the political advantage over his domestic critics, too. The anti-empire side found itself pinned down by accusations that its opposition to the Iraq invasion had been naïve and even disloyal.
The war skeptics still tried to warn their fellow citizens of the dangers from the neoconservative plan to transform the American Republic into a new-age empire.
But many Americans were too caught up in the joy and excitement of military success to worry about such concerns as whether some fundamental change was occurring to the U.S. system of government.
The Iraq War naysayers also were a scattered lot, a disorganized mix of political interests, including old-time conservatives and traditional liberals, from the likes of Pat Buchanan to Howard Dean. The anti-imperial groupings also emphasized different points.
For instance, Buchanan made the case to his conservative backers that neoconservative ideologues had won over Bush and were pushing their strategies in the interests of hard-liners in Israel’s Likud Party who opposed ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests,” Buchanan wrote in The American Conservative.
In contrast, former Vermont Governor Dean, one of the few Democratic presidential contenders at the time who opposed Bush’s Iraq War resolution, stressed the damage Bush was doing to international cooperation needed to protect American long-term interests.
“This unilateral approach to foreign policy is a disaster,” Dean wrote in explaining his opposition to the so-called Bush Doctrine. “All of the challenges facing the United States – from winning the war on terror and containing weapons of mass destruction to building an open world economy and protecting the global environment – can only be met by working with our allies.”
Without doubt, Bush and the neoconservatives were on a roll. But there were early signs that not everything was going as well as the neocons had hoped.
Chaos and looting followed the removal of the Hussein government. While U.S. Marines guarded offices associated with the oil industry, other unprotected government buildings were burned, including the central library where ancient Arabic texts were stored.
The national museum – one of the prides of the Islamic world – was ransacked with many priceless antiquities stolen and others smashed.
“They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq’s history,” wrote Robert Fisk of London’s Independent newspaper. “The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete.
“Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history only to be destroyed when Americans came to ‘liberate’ the city.”
The CIA veteran told us that the post-combat chaos was partly the fault of inadequate Pentagon deployment of civil affairs personnel with the troops.
The wishful thinking about capitulation immediately after the demonstration of “shock and awe” left U.S. forces without enough experts to deal with the breakdown of police operations, the need for riot control, and the lack of electricity, food and medicines, he said.
As Marines and other front-line combat troops were forced into controlling anti-American demonstrations, killings of civilians resulted.
In the northern city of Mosul, Marines fired into angry crowds, killing 17 Iraqis in the city’s main square, the director of the city’s hospital said. Marines said they had been fired upon, but Mosul residents denied those claims.
“We must be united and support each other against the Anglo-American invasion,” declared Sheik Ibrahim al-Namaa, who emerged as a rising leader in Mosul, where the looting of that city’s ancient treasures also fed anger over the U.S. occupation. “We must try to put an end to this aggression.”
Thousands of Iraqis also demonstrated against the U.S. occupation in Baghdad, with nearly 100 Islamic leaders calling for the ouster of Americans and the creation of an Islamic state.
“You are the masters today,” said Islamic leader Ahmed al-Kubeisy about the Americans. “But I warn you against thinking of staying. Get out before we kick you out.”
But in those heady days, after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government, Bush was living the life of a conquering emperor.
Return to Part One
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, wrote Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. It can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. Or go to Amazon.com.
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