What Obama didn’t say at Fort Bragg
Speaking to an audience of soldiers at Fort Bragg today, President Obama marked the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, declaring the mission a success and saying that the final pullout from Iraq after nearly nine years is an “historic” moment. The country they leave behind, he said, is “an extraordinary achievement.”
The President offered remembrances of some the war’s difficulties and the sacrifices made by American soldiers and their families:
We remember the early days -– the American units that streaked across the sands and skies of Iraq; the battles from Karbala to Baghdad, American troops breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month.
We remember the grind of the insurgency -– the roadside bombs, the sniper fire, the suicide attacks. From the “triangle of death” to the fight for Ramadi; from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south -– your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it.
We remember the specter of sectarian violence -– al Qaeda’s attacks on mosques and pilgrims, militias that carried out campaigns of intimidation and campaigns of assassination. And in the face of ancient divisions, you stood firm to help those Iraqis who put their faith in the future.
We remember the surge and we remember the Awakening -– when the abyss of chaos turned toward the promise of reconciliation. By battling and building block by block in Baghdad, by bringing tribes into the fold and partnering with the Iraqi army and police, you helped turn the tide toward peace.
And we remember the end of our combat mission and the emergence of a new dawn -– the precision of our efforts against al Qaeda in Iraq, the professionalism of the training of Iraqi security forces, and the steady drawdown of our forces. In handing over responsibility to the Iraqis, you preserved the gains of the last four years and made this day possible. …
We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq — 1.5 million. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded, and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice — including 202 fallen heroes from here at Fort Bragg — 202. So today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family. We grieve with them.
What Obama didn’t mention were the other costs of this war, particularly the cost in Iraqi lives at around one million dead, with millions more living as refugees. What he did not “remember” was that it is the Iraqi people who by far paid the highest cost for this war, and that what has been done to their country is a tragedy. In short, the U.S. is leaving behind a “destroyed nation,” as Iraqi-American blogger Raed Jarrar put it on RT America yesterday.
In its 2011 country report on Iraq, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees stated,
Iraq continues to suffer from sporadic violence, a general lack of basic services and high unemployment. Some returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain in dire circumstances that require urgent humanitarian interventions. An inability to form a Government following the March 2010 elections compounded these challenges and reinforced the vulnerabilities of many Iraqis.
While some 350,000 IDPs and nearly 60,000 refugees returned spontaneously in 2008 and 2009, returns have slowed in the first half of 2010, with only 60,000 IDPs and 16,000 refugees returning. Meanwhile the majority of some 1.5 million IDPs in the country have found no solutions to their plight.
As Al-Jazeera reports today,
the US leaves behind an Iraq visibly scarred and struggling to regain a sense of normalcy, let alone its once-prominent stature in the Arab world.
Traffic jams clog Baghdad’s streets as cars wait to pass through the city’s innumerable checkpoints. Neighbourhoods remain sealed off by concrete walls and mountains of barbed wire. Assassinations, roadside bombings and other outbreaks of violence still continue with chilling regularity.
But beyond the tragic costs that the Iraqi people have paid over the past nine years, we would be remiss if we do not also take account of the cost to basic principles of international justice.
The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.
Below is a partial accounting of some of the most blatant violations of international law that took place in the early days of hostilities with Iraq, starting with the threats that were being made in the weeks and months leading up to the attack.
Threats of Force
As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.
“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”
A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”
The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.
A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.
”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”
The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
Shock and Awe
“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.
The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.
Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7. A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.
Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.
The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, which states:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture
Failure to Provide Security
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.
Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.
“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”
During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.
Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.
Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”
They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law. [WSJ, June 7, 2004]
“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.
These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.
These are just a few of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. Of course, sadly, the crimes against the Iraqi people have continued and intensified over the years.
There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. And of course, there was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks last year. (To name just a few.)
While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with in its own way, it is important not to lose sight of the forest through the trees. In this respect, it is worth remembering the words of American prosecutor Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”
Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”
As the war is finally drawn to a close after nearly nine years, it is worth keeping those words in mind.