On the Eve of the Elections

  • 100,000 Iraqis Dead
  • 380 tons of deadly explosives looted on the U.S. watch
  • Israel escalates new attacks against Gaza refugee camps
  • $70 billion in Congressional pipeline for next phase of war

As the election count-down goes into its final days, new evidence has come to the fore of just how high is the actual cost of the Iraq war and the administration’s disastrous Middle East policy.

According to a new report by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, Iraq has suffered a rise in the civilian death rate from 5% to 7.9% annually in the last 18 months. As a result, there have been 100,000 “excess deaths” of civilians in Iraq since the U.S. invasion began. Much of the rise in the death rate was due to violence, and the researchers cite U.S. air strikes on towns and cities as responsible for many of the deaths. Les Roberts, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters that, “the use of air power in areas with lots of civilians appears to be killing a lot of women and children. … What we have evidence of is the use of air power in populated urban areas and the bad consequences of it.”

The report is significant for several reasons. First, the credibility of Johns Hopkins and of The Lancet is virtually unchallengeable. The effort by Human Rights Watch to undermine the report’s veracity focused only on claims that the sample (988 households containing 7,868 people in 33 neighborhoods) was too small and that HRW investigation showed that the ground war, not bombing, caused more of the deaths. No one disputes that tens of thousands have died. Second, the report documents more than six times earlier estimates (from Iraq Body Count and others) of 16,000 civilian deaths. The report found that Iraqi civilians’ risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher than before the war. Third, the report is the first to take into account the continuing consequences of the years of U.S.-imposed UN economic sanctions that are still devastating Iraqis.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said in an editorial that, “these findings also raise questions for those far removed from Iraq — in the governments of the countries responsible for launching a pre-emptive war.”

The news that 760,000 pounds of lethal explosives, some of it usable for triggering nuclear explosions and much of it efficient for blowing up trucks, planes and buildings, had disappeared from the al-Qaqaa weapons depot in Iraq, made quick headlines. New video evidence from U.S. reporters “embedded” with the U.S. troops who entered the Al-Qaqaa facility after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime shows soldiers breaking seals, apparently International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals, and Arabic-English signs indicating “explosives.” The site was left unguarded, and the seals left broken, without a search or any effort to guard the material. The IAEA warned the U.S. about the threat of looting at the Al-Qaqaa military base around April, 2003. IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, “it is also important to note that this was the main high explosives storage facility in Iraq, and it was well-known through IAEA reports to the Security Council.”

Much of the coverage of the missing explosives deteriorated quickly into an election-eve debate over whether the Bush administration had tried to cover up the revelations and whether the Kerry campaign was trying to take advantage of the news for political ends. Both allegations were true of course. But the election punditry quickly diverted attention from the substantive reality that the missing weapons showed: that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has put Americans and the rest of the world at far greater risk. The war has not made anyone safer. The New York Times, perhaps gloating over its scoop, went as far as to editorialize that “President Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq appears to have achieved what Saddam Hussein did not: putting dangerous weapons in the hands of terrorists and creating an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Indeed.

The U.S. and the U.S.-sponsored “government” in Baghdad complained about the UN’s refusal to send additional election experts to help organize the January elections ostensibly planned for Iraq. So far, the UN has made the very important decision to refuse to send significant numbers of international experts (there is a token group of seven, with 20+ security and administrative assistants, now in Iraq). Even if the official reason is the lack of security, UN refusal to send additional election workers is the right decision. The hypocrisy of the U.S. and its Iraqi “government” minions is even clearer in light of NY Newsday’s scoop regarding the effort by a group of Muslim countries, including Pakistan and several others, to provide a 1500-strong battalion specifically to provide protection to UN workers in Iraq in the run-up to the election. It was Washington who rejected the proposal, refusing to accept a military contingent under the direct command of the United Nations, not the Pentagon.

In Palestine, a renewed assault on Jabaliya refugee camp and elsewhere in the northern Gaza Strip brought few headlines but over 138 Palestinian deaths, many of them civilians including children. The deteriorating health of PLO Chairman and President of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat brought new speculation regarding “chaos” in the occupied territories without Arafat, but no new acknowledgement by the U.S. or Israel that ending the occupation was a prerequisite to achieving stability.

In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won parliamentary support for his plan for “disengagement” from Gaza. His plan would not end the occupation even of Gaza, but would simply transform the current occupation of Gaza into a siege of Gaza, with Israel maintaining military control of Gaza’s border crossings, air space, water, and huge swathes of territory abutting the Egyptian border. Despite Sharon’s claims, a besieging power is obligated under the Geneva Conventions to provide the same humanitarian support to the besieged civilian population as to an occupied population. A new Human Rights Watch report confirms that “The Israeli government’s plan to remove troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip would not end Israel’s occupation of the territory, Human Rights Watch said today. As an occupying power, Israel will retain responsibility for the welfare of Gaza’s civilian population.”

More significantly, the U.S.-endorsed “disengagement” plan would annex enormous territory within the occupied West Bank, leaving more than 80% of the current 420,000 Israeli settlers in place in their West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. The plan, according to Sharon, is designed to hold on to West Bank territory far more strategically important to Israel than the Gaza Strip. The Bush administration’s official endorsement of Sharon’s plan to annex West Bank territory has been key in consolidating even further the U.S.-Israeli alliance. While John Kerry has pandered shamelessly to pro-Israeli forces in his campaign, the significance of the sitting U.S. president endorsing such blatant violations of international law has led even Bush supporters such as Brent Scowcroft to condemn the president as being “mesmerized” by the Israeli prime minister, stating that “Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger.”

And in Congress, leaked information indicates that the administration is requesting $70 billion in additional funding for military operations in Iraq. Not for reconstruction, not for peace in the Middle East, solely for more death and destruction in Iraq.

Our position remains the same: the U.S. occupation is the problem, not the solution, in Iraq. Whoever wins or steals the election, whether we are filled with despair or breathing a huge sigh of relief on November 3rd (or 4th or 5th ….) we must continue to mobilize and build an independent movement for an end to war and occupation in Iraq, peace and justice and an end to occupation in Palestine, and a U.S. accountable to international law and not the law of empire.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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