Iraqis Of Two Minds

February 16, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

LET'S TAKE the Iraqis at their word, Pentagon assurancesnotwithstanding. Civilians crowded into a Baghdad bunker, seeking a haven from relentless air attacks. Two 2,000-pound bombs, dropped from a Stealth fighter-bomber and guided with deadly precision, struck first the door, trapping the helpless victims inside, then bored through 10 feet of reinforced concrete to get at them.

That is a terrible tragedy. The potential for such results is what keeps most nations from launching into the unpredictable waters of war in the first place. Americans have been spared the grossest consequences of international strife by our fortunate location.

But even if the average American has little contact with battlefield horror, few here could fail to cringe at the grisly pictures of scorched bodies. Justified or not, a war that produces mass incineration of women and children can only provoke profound regret.

There is, however, more to the picture.

Clearly, allied officers have relied too completely on electronic intelligence, from satellites, air reconnaissance and ground listening posts. If the briefers in Riyadh are right, remote sensor pictures showed Iraqi soldiers going in the bunker, carrying what appeared to be communications gear. So the soldiers missed the civilian activity.

Result: a first-class disaster.

But there are some other bad assumptions at work here. If President Bush and his advisers erred in believing they could avoid the mistakes and miscalculations that happen in all wars, the rhetoric out of the Arab world betrays assumptions and wishful thinking that can only lead to such tragedies.

Go back to Kuwait, Day One.

Leaders of Arab and Muslim states from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent deplored the Iraqi invasion, but the man in the street thought might made right. The Kuwaitis were ''arrogant'' with their money.

Day Ten, after it became clear Baghdad meant complete annexation, the word from the cheering crowds and some intellectuals explaining their mood to Western TV audiences was that these borders were drawn by colonialists anyway. Wars by desert clans such as the al-Sabahs and Ibn Sauds made ''countries'' out of these colonized areas; and all Western nations were formed out of wars of conquest anyway, so why complain?

The al-Sabah family rule predates modern Iraq, since Kuwait was a tributary to the Ottoman Turks before World War I, but who cares about facts? Might makes right again, especially when it's knocking down the ''arrogant, selfish'' Kuwaitis.

Later still, as Iraqi troops ripped the country apart, the Iraqi public seemed, in interviews on television, to have forgotten that Kuwait financedIraq's war with Iran, suffering missile and sea attacks. Soldiers looted the Kuwaiti treasury, sending the gold to Baghdad along with food and medical supplies stolen from warehouse shelves, but that was okay. The al-Sabahs were despotic, colonial toadies anyway.

How can this legitimize subjecting the Kuwaiti people, and not the al-Sabahs, to rape and pillage, being dragged from hospitals and killed, having homes confiscated, young men pulled from cars and shot to death?

Then the long-awaited U.S. attack began. One Jordanian said that if the Americans took on Saddam Hussein, he would gladly strap dynamite to his body to kill them. A young Iraqi said, chillingly, ''if war comes, so be it.'' Think he feels that way now?

It is also difficult to reconcile claims of moral outrage from authorities who phlegmatically dismissed the torture of captured pilots, the firing of Scud missiles onto civilian populations in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraqis and their supporters told reporters that was justified because the Israelis had bombed others elsewhere and because it was really their war. And by the way, let the Saudis know that panderers to grasping imperialists could not be safe anywhere.

But if might truly makes right, a bigger army is always available. In the midst of a ghastly tragedy, a clear U.S. miscalculation, one wonders when the Iraqis will let reporters into Kuwait? Will the new citizens of Greater Iraq please tell the world how grateful they are that an Arab army has erased those odious colonial borders?

The horrors of war readily surpass anybody's expectations. Anyone who is comfortable sparking one is sure to meet results he wishes he hadn't seen.

Mr. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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