August 17, 2003
By Raffique Shah
'In 1989, the literacy rate was more than 90 per cent; parents were fined for failing to send their children to school. The phenomenon of street children was unheard of. Iraq had reached the stage where basic indicators we use to measure the overall well being of human beings, including children, were some of the best in the world. Now it is among the bottom 20 per cent.'
Dr Anupama Rao Singh, Unicef's senior representative in Iraq (interviewed by John Pilger).
Last week Saturday, US Ambassador to this country, Roy Austin, chose to give a "100-day report" on progress Iraq had seen since American forces stormed into Baghdad and "liberated" its people from Saddam's sadism. He wrote: "Working closely with Iraqis, the Coalition Provisional Authority is focused on security, strengthening basic services, and the establishment of an independent, democratic government." He trumpeted the occupying forces' achievements: some 200,000 former Iraqi soldiers had been paid their 'stipends', banks had reopened, transportation restarted, university students sat their exams and more than 150 newspapers "compete in a new marketplace of ideas."
One cannot expect anything different from Austin's mouth or pen. He has to parrot whatever the State Department decrees, and whether or not it's the truth, he must deliver. But the media continue to be manipulated long after hostilities have lessened in Iraq, also parroting stories that are nothing but misinformation on Iraq–and any other foe the US happens to be zeroing in on. Last week another newspaper report on the theft and smuggling of Mercedes Benz cars from Iraq to Jordan referred to the "jalopies" that Iraqis were used to driving prior to the advent of The Great Savior.
If one accepts what is being written about Iraq, what comes across is a country that sits on the second largest oil reserves in the world, but in which, thanks to Saddam, the people lived in abject poverty. That few had houses or cars, that the standard of living was like that in any backwater Third World country. That there were inadequate water supplies, that electrical power was intermittent, and the health and education facilities almost non-existent. Nothing is further from the truth, and I write here with authority.
You see, I happened to visit Iraq in 1980, mere months before it became engulfed in an eight-year, bitter and costly war with neighbouring Iran. That was just seven years after OPEC was inspired to determine the price of crude oil, sending prices up from less than US$9 a barrel to as high as US$40 a barrel. In other words, oil producing countries, Trinidad and Tobago included, had only enjoyed seven years of reasonable prices for their nature-given resources. To refresh the memories of those who were around, here we saw the first signs of industrialisation (both the Point Lisas power plant and the steel mill were commissioned), the Uriah Butler Highway was upgraded, as was the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway. In other words, but for some plundering of our oil dollars, we saw a measure of progress.
In Iraq, the first thing that struck me were the ever-present Toyota Royal Saloons. And ever so often one spotted Mercedes and other luxury cars. There weren't too many small cars, and I was later told one reason was they needed vehicles that could withstand the summer temperatures, hence the choice of six-cylinders over four-cylinders. The public transport buses were also air conditioned and clean. I can't say if they ran on time. Huge housing projects were underway, miles and miles of high-rise apartments and single units. Manufacturing was well advanced, and I especially recall an Iraqi showing off an agricultural tractor that was "completely manufactured" in the country.
It's not that I did not see pockets of poverty, or that everyone was prosperous. Clearly, there were poorer and middle-class sectors in Baghdad, but, as the Unicef representative quoted above said, I saw no street children. That's not counting the few Gypsies I encountered on a visit to Babylon, or the clusters of thatched houses I saw in remote villages en route to Babylon. Too, I cannot say if Saddam was a sadist or a saint. The people in this secular state were nervous, though, about the designs of Ayatollah Khomeini, what with some 50 per cent of Iraqis being Shiites. But by any standard, Iraq was a fairly prosperous country, its oil wealth being put to use to uplift its people.
Today, having bombed the country's infrastructure to smithereens, the Americans are suggesting that it was Saddam who had the people living in sub-human conditions. Its forces unleashed 300 tonnes of depleted uranium on Iraq (every bullet, every shell, every rocket, was coated with uranium) in 1991, not only destroying most of its vital utilities, but causing some one million deaths from cancer and war-related diseases. Was that not a form of genocide? Then the brutal sanctions followed, worse than what were imposed on Germany after Hitler and World War II. Food, medicines, material to clean up the uranium, were denied the Iraqis. It was a holocaust, a form of nuclear war.
I shan't dwell on the numerous attacks launched by the Americans and British in the "no fly zones" between 1991-2003, the tens of thousands of bombs unleashed. Suffice it to say that they all but destroyed the country--and now want to boast of bringing it back to civilisation! What utter crap! And we in the media peddle, without probing, the misinformation these superpowers feed us. Pilger, a Journalist of the Year in Britain on several occasions, writes: "Rescuing these facts ought to be the job of journalists, so that 'news' has meaning rather than serve as an incessant echo."
And he quotes celebrated US writer Gore Vidal who wrote in the aftermath of 9/11: "The media were assigned their familiar task of inciting public opinion against bin Laden, still not the proven mastermind. These media blitzes resemble the magician's classic gesture of distraction: as you watch the rippling bright colours of the silk handkerchief in one hand, he is planting a rabbit in your pocket with the other."
Few writers challenge the untruths that defenders of US genocide in Iraq say or write. On a parting note: Libya has agreed to pay some US$2.7 billion to the families of victims of the Lockerbie aircraft bombing.
Will America belatedly offer some compensation to the families of the 80-odd victims on the Cubana commercial aircraft that was bombed off Barbados in 1977? After all, it was their agents who committed that ghastly act. And they now live happily ever after in the USA.