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January 24, 2004

Iraq: The Case for War Crumbles


by George Hunsinger

Contrary to what most Americans believe, the U.S. is in deep trouble in Iraq, and its policies are adrift. Especially ominous are problems surrounding the June 30 plan for elections. If direct elections are held, the Shi’ites, with 60% of the population, will prevail. If, however, their representation is watered down by resort to closed caucuses, as the U.S. wants, the Shi’ites will turn to violence. Either way, tensions among all religious and ethnic factions are mounting. Iraq is edging closer to a civil war, and chaos could engulf the entire region.

Whether the UN can help to stabilize the situation remains unclear. Much depends on how much real independence and power it is granted, if any. Although Iraq is not beyond positive solutions, many knowledgeable observers worry that a UN intervention may be too little, too late. Time is running out, and the situation seems to deteriorate a bit more with each passing day.

To keep a lid on the violence, a new secret police force is being planned by the CIA. It will draw upon feared Mukhabarat (intelligence) operatives, the very ones who bolstered Saddam Hussein’s thuggish regime. "They’re clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam," said Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of CIA counter-terrorism. (The Phoenix program was investigated by a Senate committee in the mid-1970s after tens of thousands in Vietnam had allegedly been kidnapped, tortured and murdered.) As battalion commander Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman has remarked, "With a heavy dose of fear and violence and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."

Not everyone regards a new Phoenix program as compatible with official promises of democracy. The real intent seems to be to continue the occupation by other means. "The presence of a powerful secret police, loyal to the Americans, will mean that the new Iraqi political regime will not stray outside the parameters that the U.S. wants to set," said John Pike, director of the Washington-based institute, Global Security. Under these circumstances, "the new Iraqi government will reign but not rule."

Meanwhile the death toll in Iraq continues to rise. Over 500 American troops have now lost their lives in combat along with tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens. Less widely reported are the non-fatal American casualties. "Thousands of US soldiers are coming home with their faces blown off, or missing limbs, facing a lifetime in a wheel chair," writes respected commentator Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan. "The result is large numbers of permanently maimed vets, who have largely been hidden away from public view." The downing of U.S. helicopters, the brazen attacks on Coalition Authority headquarters, and the continuing failure to restore basic services like water and electricity point to a deteriorating situation. "I’d say there is increasing evidence that the US is not in control in Iraq," states Cole, "and that the place may well be headed toward being a failed state for the near term. When, 9 or 10 months after an army conquers a place, its HQ is not safe from attack, this is always a bad sign."

So far the American public has been tolerant of administration policies, but a shift in support may be just a disaster away. "If things are going well, people aren’t bothered that we haven’t found weapons in Iraq," says William Schneider, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. But if a bombing claimed a large number of American troops, or if radical Islamic Shi’ites took control, "overnight people will say, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing there?’"

Erosion of support would not be surprising given the way that the case for the invasion is crumbling. What antiwar critics insisted before the war has been confirmed at every turn. This January, for example, within the course of one week, the Bush administration had to face the following:

  • David Kay resigned after his inspection team, with nine months to search and a budget of $600 million, failed to turn up any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. (NYT, 1/08/04)
  • The Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute issued a sharply critical report stating that the war on Iraq was a distraction from America’s real security interests and that it had brought the U.S. army "near the breaking point." (WP, 1/13/04)
  • The Washington Post published an extensive front-page report that "Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only On Paper." Since the first Gulf War, illegal weapons "never got past the planning stage." (WP, 1/07/04)
  • A study was released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stating that "administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile program" by treating possibilities as fact and "misrepresenting inspectors’ findings in ways that turned threats from minor to dire." (Boston Globe, 1/09/04)
  • George Bush’s former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill revealed that the president took office fully intending to invade Iraq. In January and February of 2001, at the first meetings of the National Security Council, Bush asked his advisors to find a pretext. "It was all about finding a way to do it," states O’Neill, a life-long Republican and former Alcoa CEO. "That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’" (Interview, CBS News, 1/11/04)

The O’Neill revelations are the most serious. Invading another country without provocation and without legitimate authority (in this case, explicit authorization from the UN Security Council) is the textbook definition of aggressive war. And aggressive war is a crime that has held a special place in international law as well as in the historic just-war tradition. As Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, put it: "Our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy."

According to the Nuremberg Tribunal, a war of aggression is "the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

If the fog of war is not soon lifted from our hearts and minds, one fears that in the not-too-distant future, we can expect to face additional wars that are equally grievous and illegitimate. Given the potential for (nuclear) catastrophe, they could make Iraq look like that "walk in the park" which pro-war forces told us to expect.


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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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