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October 13, 2003

The Iraq Dilemma:
An Illegitimate Occupation


by George Hunsinger

The war in Iraq by no means ceased on May 1 when President Bush announced the end of major hostilities. It simply entered a new and ominous phase. It is the war that keeps on killing.

Not least, it keeps on killing American troops. As long as U.S. body bags keep piling up, this war is not over. The death toll for American soldiers is steadily mounting. Last summer an AP article stated that attacks on U.S. forces were occurring "almost hourly too frequent for military press officers to keep up with," and the situation has not improved. Our soldiers are still being killed on the average of 1.2 per day. More troops have now died in the second phase of this war than during the first. There are 355 confirmed coalition deaths. An even greater number will live permanently disabled. The question is urgent, When will our troops come home?

Secondly, this war keeps on killing civilians, and especially children. Nearly 10,000 innocent civilians perished in the first phase of this ill-considered war, along with perhaps 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, many of whom were teenage conscripts. Today Iraq exists in a humanitarian crisis. The rate of child mortality among the highest in the world during the past 12 years has grown even higher. The country is so lacking in stability that aid agencies like the International Red Cross, Save the Children, and Oxfam have evacuated their workers. This move, virtually unprecedented, came in the wake of a series of disasters last summer that began with the attack on the Jordanian embassy and culminated with the murderous bombings of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a mosque in Najaf. These and other catastrophes suggest that the occupation forces do not control the country and that their days are numbered. "Local Iraqis Take Joy in Attack on US Convoy in Khaldiyah" is only a recent sign of more such headlines to come.

We now know that our government and military officials grossly underestimated the problems they would face in conquering and occupying Iraq. They were prepared to take care only of what was most important to them. Baghdad's Ministry of Oil was quickly secured while the museums were ransacked, the universities destroyed, the bureaucracies reduced to rubble, the police forces dismantled, the hospitals crippled, and the libraries torched. An alienated population and ever-increasing guerrilla warfare loom large upon the horizon. The terrible quagmire we are entering is matched only by the depth of denial in Washington. Our government needs to swallow its pride, for the good of all concerned, and follow the advice of France and Germany by turning Iraq's reconstruction over to the United Nations. To call France and Germany our enemies, as certain pundits have done, is like calling someone an enemy who takes car keys away from a drunk.

Everything that antiwar critics said about Iraq has turned out to be true. Before the invasion they voiced their concerns that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States, that it was not directly linked to the war on terrorism, that an invasion might make the terrorism problem worse, that there was no international coalition supporting the war, and that there were other ways to contain Saddam Hussein. Now the United States, with no real allies inside the country, has months, not years, before it is forced out in defeat, if it persists down its current path. The situation could unravel into chaos at any time. Above all, every death in this war is unnecessary, because the war was unnecessary.

Antiwar critics were also correct to charge that the case for the war was based on a pattern of distortion and deception. After five months of occupation, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. That Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons which could be launched in just 45 minutes has been exposed as a fraud, one that threatens to bring down Tony Blair. The scare perpetrated by President Bush that Iraq had imported uranium from Niger which could be used for nuclear weapons was based on forged documents; their worthlessness was known at the time by U.S. intelligence but ignored by the administration. The innuendo, repeatedly made by the administration, that Saddam Hussein was linked to September 11 has only recently been retracted now that it has served its purpose. The one about his alleged ties to al Qaeda awaits retraction. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the American public still believes these toxic myths. Yet their falsehood, now more widely recognized, was demonstrated repeatedly prior to the war which they did so much to validate.

To those who say it doesn't matter if no weapons of mass destruction are found, because at least the world has been rid of a vicious dictator, there is an obvious reply: Yes, Iraq is better off now that Saddam is gone with his prisons, his tortures, his secret police, and his killing fields. Yet as even conservative columnist George F. Will has acknowledged, this argument is not good enough. He writes:

"It is unacceptable to argue that Hussein's mass graves and torture chambers suffice as retrospective justifications for pre-emptive war."

It is unacceptable because there are actually about 70 other regimes in this sorry world as dreadful as Saddam's, and we cannot go to war against them all. Above all, it is unacceptable because when waged against against a nation crippled by 12 years of sanctions and posing no imminent threat to our own, "pre-emptive" war is little more than a crime of aggression.

In a book just published, Winning Modern Wars, Gen. Wesley Clark reveals that in November 2001 a senior U.S. military officer told him that the administration's plan for invading Iraq was part of a broader five-year military campaign aimed at seven countries. After Iraq, the plan called for targeting Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.

Since the war was illegitimate, the U.S. has no legitimacy in trying to dictate the shape of reconstruction. Above all, it has no right to turn Iraq into a staging ground for new "pre-emptive" wars. Therefore:

1. Any new UN resolution should be opposed which simply serves to legitimate the U.S.-UK occupation. No countries should send troops or funds that would merely "internationalize" the existing foreign rule.

2. Only after the occupation has ended should the United Nations return to Iraq with multinational peacekeeping forces. Its mandate should be restricted to a very short and defined period. Its goal would be to assist Iraq in reconstruction and to oversee the election of a governing authority.

3. The humanitarian needs of Iraq must be met, as international law requires, by the belligerent powers that initiated the war and now occupy the country.

4. All contracts awarded to U.S. corporations by the administration without competitive bidding must be revoked. Rampant crony capitalism with corporations like Halliburton, which is positioned to receive $7 billion over the next two years, must be abandoned in favor of support for indigenous Iraqi businesses and expertise.

5. The plans to establish four permanent military bases in Iraq from which future wars can be launched must be blocked.

Everything depends, in short, on wresting the reconstruction of Iraq away from the militarists and the profiteers.

The Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has suggested that Americans suffer from "a will to ignorance." A will to ignorance implies a troubled conscience. If our government kills and impoverishes people to maintain global dominance, we don't want to hear about it because it hurts. For the churches this means that America desperately needs preaching that will help it to face its flaws, heal its wounds, and bring it to change its values. Dr. James A. Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City has recently annnounced a series of lectures on just these themes. One hopes that they will soon be published.


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George Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. He once worked on the staff of the Riverside Church Disarmanent Program in NYC.

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