May 11, 2003
By Raffique Shah
THE US Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent-born Roy Austin, comes across as the perfect host of cocktail parties and other social gatherings. He is also a lively guest at local entertainment, whether it's in a panyard or at a fete or calypso show. But when it comes to defending the indefensible, in this case George Bush's unprovoked annihilation of Iraq, Austin is hopeless. Worse for the amiable ambassador, he is touting tripe to a nation that, for all its weaknesses, is gifted with a large body of people who read a lot, who think, and who have all grown up in a culture that abhors "advantage".
Austin has tried his best to convince people of this country that the US was about to "give Iraqis a democratic future". He expounded on its post-war role of bringing to an end the 20-odd years of suffering they had endured under Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party that ruled Iraq with an iron fist. But maybe because he himself did not believe what he wrote, Austin contradicted his postulations in just about every sentence.
He claimed that under Saddam, Iraq's population suffered for lack of basic necessities, and now it was left to the "coalition forces" to restore some semblance of civilisation. He accused Saddam's regime of having failed to provide proper infrastructure and to maintain utilities like electricity, water and sanitation systems. Quoting figures that would expose US propaganda for what it really is, the Ambassador said: "The child mortality rate... had fallen from 83 deaths per 1,000 in 1980 to 50 per 1,000 in 1991, (and) surged to 133 per thousand by 2001." I could not believe Austin, in one sentence, could expose the US for this horrible crime committed against the people of Iraq, and in particular its children, so openly, maybe unwittingly.
Let me remind Austin that 1980 was the year the Iraqis went to war against Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. It was also the year in which I was fortunate to have visited Iraq and saw the massive economic and social development that was underway. I thought then that here was a country that was using its oil wealth to benefit its people, what with miles of new housing projects and evidence of an industrialisation programme that must have been the envy of its neighbours. But this column is not about that trip, which I may some day write about.
Suffice it to say it is common knowledge that it was the Ayatollah who stoked that fire in a bid to get the Shiites in Iraq to "rise up against the infidel Saddam Hussein". A superior-armed Iran—using US-supplied armaments that had been given to The Shah—kept that conflict going for eight long years. It sapped much of Iraq's revenues that could have been used for development. I need also remind Austin that the US, sensing that Iraq could have been overrun by the fundamentalist regime in Iran, moreso with 60 per cent of the former's population being Shiite, lent material support to Saddam. Maybe that was where the notion of "weapons of mass destruction" started: did the US arm Saddam with some deadly "hardware" that is yet to be found?
However, prior to the war, Iraq's infant mortality rate was low, 83 deaths per 1,000, as Austin quoted from World Bank statistics. Before the Gulf War began in 1991, and that after a long, bloody and costly campaign against Iran, the rate had actually dropped to 50. Then came the world-vs-Iraq war, a campaign that saw thousands of high-tech bombs rained on Baghdad and other cities. In the wake of Iraq's surrender, the US-led sanctions against the defeated Saddam did not even allow medicine to enter the country in the early days. It was only after the insistence of European and Third World countries that the US relented and the result was the oil-for-food programme.
Iraq as a sovereign state was whittled down to maybe one-third of what it was pre-1991, with the US actively encouraging the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north, to further "box in" Saddam. Moreover, by using warheads coated with depleted uranium, the aftermath of the bombings saw tens of thousands of those who survived that nightly horror, die of cancer. In fact, figures show that up to 29 per cent of US troops that participated in that war have been stricken with similar diseases. It would be interesting to see what the numbers would look like two years down the road, both among the Iraqis who were close to the areas that were bombed, and the US and British troops who stormed the country after the bombings.
So that if the infant mortality rate jumped to 133 per thousand after 1991, who is to blame? Saddam? Or could it not be said that George Bush Sr is a "war criminal", that term used to define those who deliberately target non-combatants during a war? It is clear that the US was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis in the 1991 war. And that it can be blamed for indirectly causing maybe another 500,000 or so deaths after the war (through starvation and withholding medical supplies), and now an untold number of deaths of mainly innocent civilians. Worse, its main target, Saddam, is yet to be found.
Austin argued, too, that people of this country will have seen, via the international media, "the deteriorated infrastructure... created by years of neglect (by Saddam)". Yes, Mr Ambassador, we all saw the lights in Baghdad stay on, the city looking prettier than anything we have in the Caribbean—until your warplanes bombed the power plants and grids to smithereens!
So who is responsible for the immeasurable suffering the Iraqis are now being forced to endure? Cholera in Basra, typhoid elsewhere, no electricity, no potable water, hospitals without basic medications or means to treat the maimed. Not even Saddam was capable of inflicting such horror on Iraqis. The US must take full blame for the suffering of those people.
This is not to say that Saddam was a saint. But maybe Austin will like to tell us how much democracy exists in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in the UAE, and in countless other countries where his government installed monsters in power.
Mr Ambassador, it's true Trinis like to fete. We even had "curfew parties" during the 1990 attempted coup. But we are no fools. Try peddling your twisted theories in St Vincent or in Tonga... not in Trinidad and Tobago. And read the excellent editorial in the very edition of the Guardian in which your piece was published.