Protect Iraqi people from looming disaster

January 17, 2003|By James Ron

AS U.S. and British forces prepare for an Iraqi war, scant attention is being paid to a looming human rights disaster. U.S. officials vow that their planes will not indiscriminately target civilians, but they ignore other acute dangers.

Anti-war protesters are suspicious of America, but for the wrong reasons. The main threat to Iraqi civilians does not come from U.S. bombs. Western battle technology and practice have improved dramatically since the Vietnam War. U.S. jets will most likely not napalm villages, dump Agent Orange or shell crowded neighborhoods.

Instead, the main dangers lurk in the deadly chain of events that will be triggered once the fighting begins.

When the shooting starts, Iraqi forces are likely to attack potential insurgents in the country's southern Shiite communities, catching tens of thousands of civilians in the crossfire. This happened in 1991, after U.S. forces based in Kuwait encouraged a Shiite rebellion. Iraqi soldiers killed about 30,000 people in the fighting, many of them believed to be Shiites, but U.S. troops did little to help.

In Iraq's north, local Kurdish civilians are similarly vulnerable. Militias have carved out an autonomous zone with the help of U.S. and British warplanes, and Iraqi ground troops have not invaded for fear of the Western response. But if a major war breaks out, Iraqi units are liable to swiftly penetrate the enclave, hurting innocent bystanders. In 1991, about 100,000 Kurds fled their homes and were then stranded in harsh, rugged terrain.

A prolonged Western air bombardment of Iraq, moreover, is liable to disrupt vital civilian infrastructure such as electricity, water, transportation and food distribution networks. Iraq's population is highly dependent on government services, and these are likely to disappear once fighting begins.

U.N. and World Health Organization officials are aware of these dangers. In a confidential report leaked last week to the British Broadcasting Corp., they predicted 500,000 Iraqis may be killed or wounded in a U.S.-led war and about 3 million will be forced from their homes. A third of those will flee across international borders, and the rest will wander about within Iraq.

One hopes that U.S. military chiefs are concerned about these potential threats and are working round the clock to plan for worst-case scenarios. The historical record, however, gives cause for concern.

In 1999, I traveled to Kosovo's border with Albania when U.S. planes began their war on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces. Interviewing dozens of Kosovar refugees for Human Rights Watch, I learned that U.S. pilots were making a genuine effort to avoid hitting civilians.

U.S. forces were doing nothing, however, to protect Kosovars from Serbian reprisals. A viable protection plan would have included dropping U.S. paratroopers into Kosovo, but that would have entailed taking casualties in ground fighting. The Clinton administration decided not to take the risk. It was determined to punish Mr. Milosevic's regime but was unwilling to put American lives on the line in such an effort.

As a result, about 10,000 Kosovars were killed by Serbian forces, and more than 800,000 were forced across international borders. Serbian paramilitaries perpetrated sexual assaults, torture, minor massacres and forced marches under the very noses of U.S. warplanes and CNN cameras.

To add insult to injury, I discovered that the United States had done nothing to prepare for refugee relief. Refugees streamed into the Albanian mountains with no food, medical supplies or water, and it took weeks to set up appropriate facilities.

Perhaps the Pentagon has learned from its Kosovo mistakes and has developed comprehensive plans to protect Iraqi civilians once the war begins.

Iraqi Shiites and Kurds do not vote in U.S. elections, however, and make no contributions to American political parties. Without representation in the U.S. political system, it is difficult to get a real hearing. Recall that several U.S. administrations have been willing to let international sanctions damage Iraq's health care facilities, with devastating effect for civilians.

Media reports predict the United States will begin attacking Iraq next month. In the meantime, concerned parties can and should make a difference. They must ask tough questions of U.S. military planners, insisting that the price of popular support for the war is a viable plan to protect noncombatants.

A disaster looms over the horizon, but its worst effects can be mitigated through proper planning.

James Ron is Canada Research Chair for Conflict and Human Rights at McGill University in Montreal.

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