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Immoral and illogical attack on Iraq
Posted: Friday, August 9, 2002

No convincing case has been made for the slaughter that would follow an attack on Iraq

BY Colin Bennetts, Guardian

The threat of military action against Iraq raises profound moral questions, for people of any religious conviction or none. The government's failure to set out a convincing case for military action has created a vacuum in which public opinion, left to its own devices, has already concluded that such action would be both illegal and immoral. Churches are rightly at the forefront of an emerging coalition, comprising key elements of civil society such as trade unions, NGOs and parliamentarians, which is urging caution and restraint. Significantly, a number of eminent and highly experienced military leaders have also expressed their deep reservations about the wisdom, as well as the morality, of attacking Iraq.

Unless the government takes steps to present a coherent case for military action, it will find it increasingly hard to rally public opinion in the UK, let alone in those countries in the Middle East whose support would be vital to the success of any such operation. The failure to present such a case would appear to substantiate King Abdullah's comments that the prime minister has similar concerns about how this could all unravel. So what, then, are these concerns and how should the government address them?

Earlier this year the government promised to publish a dossier of evidence incriminating Iraq. No such dossier has been released and no publication date has been given. Instead the government has drawn attention to the chemical and biological material unaccounted for by Unscom inspectors in 1998. Why is such prominence being given to information which is now four years old?

Until more up-to-date information is published, it will be difficult to fathom both the speed and depth by which Iraq has restructured its weapons of mass destruction programme. This would allow more accurate conclusions to be drawn as to the threat posed by Iraq. But even if Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction he is not alone in that, so there needs to be strong and compelling evidence that he is prepared to or about to use them before we are at the point of making any kind of intervention.

The government's failure to publish such documentation will provide an obstacle to securing the widest possible support both in and outside parliament. This is especially important for those Muslim communities here in the UK, who would perceive a UK attack on Iraq as evidence of an in-built hostility to the Islamic world. There can be no question that British involvement in military action against Iraq would multiply the problems faced by Muslim communities here, and could severely destabilise inter-faith relations. For all the official insistence that the war on terrorism, and in particular the war in Afghanistan, is not an attack on Islam, considerable numbers of Muslims still see it precisely as that.

Without the incriminating dossier, the public will find it hard to accept the argument that the government's preferred policy of containment hasn't worked. In the past the government has consistently argued that sanctions have kept a brutal dictator contained for 10 years and have denied him access to equipment necessary to rebuild his weapons arsenal. To now argue that the policy of containment has not worked is an admission that the last 11 years of sanctions amount to an impressive policy failure. The government needs to explain this u-turn, especially since any military action is fraught with uncertainty and when any post-conflict settlement remains clouded in ambiguity.

The perception exists that the government's thinking on Iraq has been unduly influenced by considerations across the Atlantic. Yet in reality the US and UK positions are contradictory rather than complementary. The UK has always insisted that its objective is to get the UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and if necessary to force Saddam Hussein to comply with relevant UN security council resolutions. Contrast this nuanced position with the stated US objective of regime change, an objective which is, by definition, ill-disposed to any conciliatory moves by Baghdad. While it remains important to show solidarity with the US post-September 11, this solidarity should not be at the expense of sacrificing our own policy objectives in favour of saving the US the embarrassment of unilateral action.

While Saddam Hussein is a brutal and nasty dictator and one the world could well do without, talk of regime change places unnecessary obstacles in the path of finding a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. Would it really be such a waste of time to invite the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, to visit London and Washington? Have we really passed the point of no return for the kind of diplomatic initiative that might possibly lead to a peaceful compromise? After all, what incentive exists for the Iraqi government to cooperate with the UN when the US has repeatedly stated that allowing weapons inspectors back into the country will be insufficient to stave off military action? Instead, the talk of regime change merely serves to weaken the existing consensus in favour of containment.

Any war of this kind needs proper justification, and it needs to be conducted within the framework of international law. However, competing US and UK policy objectives only serve to undermine public confidence as to the legality of any military action. The government has given assurances that any military action the UK undertakes will be carried out in accordance with international law.

In reality, it seems more than likely the government will justify an attack by arguing that Iraq is in contravention of the 1991 ceasefire resolution. While this might provide the basis for such force as is necessary to restore the ceasefire agreement, it would be not be sufficient to justify the US policy ambition of regime change. The government must guarantee that if it were to participate in any US-led military enterprise, explicit as well as implicit UN security council authorisation would be sought.

The threat of a prolonged war in the Middle East, possibly entailing the use of chemical and biological warfare, with the risk of substantial civilian and military casualties, must be avoided at all costs. The collateral damage is likely to be huge. Some 90% of the victims would be civilians and half of those would be children. To justify that kind of slaughter the evidence for Saddam's capacity to deploy weapons of mass destruction against his neighbours, to say nothing of the UK and the US, would need to be compelling. Until the government shows greater clarity of thought and purpose as to why a military solution is necessary and feasible, it would be wiser to persist with the tried and tested policy of containment.

Talk of containment could imply a continuation of the existing sanctions policy, but that simply will not do. UN figures reveal that over half a million children have probably died as a direct result of the last decade of sanctions, many more than are likely to die in open warfare. Smart sanctions, the targeting of fissionable materials, toxic chemicals and malign biological agents, have never really been seriously tried by the international community. Surely their time is now.

The Right Rev Colin Bennetts is bishop of Coventry

bishcov@clara.net


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