Instead of a debate over war, there's been a national shrug
The press hounds barked over 'Cheriegate', so why are they silent on Iraq?
Monday December 23, 2002
Hands up all those who really think that George Bush is not determined to attack Iraq some time soon. Hands up all those who think that if he does so without UN authority Tony Blair will turn round and say: "Sorry Buddy, you're on your own." Not many takers, I bet. And yet the political conversation in this country has become surreal. Tony Blair and the rest of the government speak and act as if we are going through a patient, careful, international review of Iraq's weaponry. War, they say, may still not happen, so it's pointless to discuss "what ifs".
Everyone knows this is nonsense. We are preparing for conflict very soon: tens of thousands of American troops are already in the region, British and US warships are sailing, special forces and marines are being inoculated against anthrax, Bush has cancelled his trip to Africa. We are going to war, but Tony hasn't quite got round to telling us. By the time we wake up from our Christmas hangovers, the momentum will be unstoppable, just as in 1914, once the armies were moving, it was too late to alter the railway timetables.
You might have imagined that the country would be riven by argument and debate. After all, most people seem at best confused about the need to attack Iraq. The connection between the terrorist threat at home and the Bagdhad regime seems more rhetorical than proven. Ministers in private express their bemusement and count through unanswered questions on the fingers of both hands. But they, like the anti-war party, inside the Labour party and outside it, sound fatalistic. So far, there's been a great national shrug. If this is what Tony wants, this is what Tony will get. It is almost as if the country has lost the power of speech, let alone any relish for disagreement.
Many thousands of British troops are being sent towards a huge, unpredictable event which may kill them, and which may be the start of another bloody and politically dangerous intervention in a region of the world where the west's history of intervention has hardly been happy. There could of course be a benign outcome - Saddam might produce enough evidence to satisfy Hans Blix, he might allow the inspectors to destroy whatever chemical and biological stocks he still has, he might be overthrown in a coup - but there are some fearsome scenarios too. Who knows whether the Iraqis will fight, and with what, and for how long? Who knows what this will do to the other powers of the region, including Iran? Who knows whether, instead of stopping future terrorist attacks, this will provide the motivation for more?
We are being regularly spooked by terrifying-sounding briefings from the government about possible attacks on the London Underground, in shopping centres or cinemas. Yesterday, it was reported that there is a plan to move parliament to Manchester city hall if London is contaminated by a "dirty" bomb or a chemical or biological attack. But what no official voice has explained is why attacking Iraq makes it less likely that some Muslim or Arab revenge will occur, rather than more likely.
At a less self-interested level, there must be serious worries about whether such an attack makes the Middle East safer or more secure. Who can honestly say that if Iraq is defeated, justice for the Palestinians will follow? Not Tony Blair. He has made strenuous efforts to help the peace process and seems to hope that the Americans will eventually put pressure on Israel in a bizarre act of post-conflict generosity. He always was a trusting soul.
You would have expected these questions to be asked, debated and maybe even answered. But no. Iain Duncan Smith and his team are a pale, dull echo of New Labour. The Liberal Democrats are at least asking critical questions, but so far they have been less daring than, say, the Church of England. If there were ever an issue on which Charles Kennedy might suddenly find himself speaking for a large section of this country, here it is. We wait in hope.
Nowadays, it's fashionable to describe the press as the effective opposition. But with a few notable exceptions, the newspapers have lost their critical faculties too. Just consider the difference between a looming war, that could kill huge numbers of people and destabilise the world's most sensitive region, and the question of the PM's wife's beautician's boyfriend's involvement in buying a couple of flats in Bristol. During "Cheriegate", Westminster's journalists turned into a ferocious pack, furious that they had been deceived, full of hyperbolic outrage, forcing Downing Street on to the defensive day after day. They disrupted all Alastair Campbell's media plans, winkled out Cherie herself, provoked a sort-of apology from her husband, and hijacked the political agenda for nearly a fortnight.
But most of the papers and the leading commentators are either in favour of the war or prepared simply to ignore it and let the government have its way. Even if there is a case for war - and there may be - we should be asking about the endgame, the possible consequences, the likely ramifications. Yet there is nothing of the tension here that is building up in France or Germany.
Perhaps the real reason is one so shameful we hardly dare admit it to ourselves. There is no democratic furore about this war because we are no longer an independent country on these matters. In Washington, Tony Blair may have some small influence, but it is bought at the price of acquiescence on the big issues. We are a colony of our former colonies, a confused little island tugged helplessly along in the wake of the continental superpower, crossing our fingers and desperately trying to keep our dignity.
That is the sadness of British politics. Like some flyblown colonial capital, we can have our little local scandals, our flutters of excitement about the governor's wife. But we cannot really engage in matters of global substance, whatever we pretend. It is an indictment of our political system. Maybe we should all move to Manchester anyway, and start again from there.Iraq hits back with CIA offer
US agents invited to search for weapons
Ewen MacAskill, Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington and Richard Norton-Taylor
Monday December 23, 2002
Baghdad fought back in the highly charged propaganda battle with the US and Britain yesterday by inviting its arch-enemy, the CIA, to enter Iraq and track down the country's elusive weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqi offer of unhindered access to US intelligence agents came after intensive pressure from Washington that made war early in the new year appear almost inevitable.
After four days of diplomatic pounding, Iraq hit back yesterday, accusing the Bush administration of rehashing old lies.
"We have told the world we are not producing these kind of weapons, but it seems that the world is drugged, absent or in a weak position," President Saddam Hussein said.
At a press conference in Baghdad yesterday, General Amir al-Sadi, scientific adviser to the president, issued a challenge to the US and British intelligence to offer up hard evidence that Iraq has any biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
"We do not even have any objections if the CIA sent somebody with the inspectors to show them the suspected sites," Gen Sadi said.
This marks a major turnaround. Until yesterday, Iraq had objected to the possibility of US or other Western spies infiltrating the UN weapons teams.
Baghdad said, rightly, that the inspections team that left Iraq in 1998 had been infiltrated by intelligence agents and, in the intervening four years, repeatedly cited this as a reason why it objected to the return of the UN inspectors.
A CIA spokesman said yesterday that he did not want to comment on Baghdad's offer.
Both the US and Britain claim, against Iraqi denials, that they have evidence that Iraq has continued to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said at the end of last week that if the US and Britain had such evidence, they should hand it over.
US officials said at the weekend that they have been handing over intelligence and will provide more specific information to the inspectors over the next fortnight.
The Foreign Office made a similar promise yesterday: "The weapons inspectors will get all the help they need to carry out their job in Iraq."
But it emerged that British intelligence is reluctant to hand over everything it claims to have, insisting there is a danger that sources could be compromised.
British government officials have already privately admitted that they do not have any "killer evidence" about weapons of mass destruction. If they had, they would have already passed it to the inspectors.
Babil, the Iraqi government newspaper run by president Saddam's son, Uday, said in a front-page editorial yesterday: "Everybody knows that if they had concrete information, they would have put it on television all around the world before giving it to the inspection teams."
Gen Sadi accused the US and Britain of rushing to judge Iraq's weapons programmes.
He claimed that objections raised by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to Iraq's declaration on weapons of mass destruction, were a rehash of old information that had already been dealt with.
But US officials said yesterday the accusation made by Washington last week that Iraq was in material breach of a UN resolution on disarmament had come from specific information it has obtained and not from the declaration.
This new information, they said, was based on satellite pictures that showed construction at sites that had previously been bombed by US-led forces.
They also claimed to have fresh information based on records of suspicious dual-use material - that which has both a civilian and military function - procured by Iraq as part of a UN deal to relieve the suffering of Iraqis from sanctions.
British military chiefs are drawing up detailed plans in which thousands of Royal Marines would take part in a huge amphibious assault to seize the Iraqi port of Basra to control key strategic areas in south of the country.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed yesterday that HMS Ocean, Britain's biggest helicopter and marine commando carrier, will be available to join a flotilla heading towards the Gulf next month after a major refit.
Broadcasters prepare for war coverage
Monday December 23, 2002
Broadcasters are scrambling to block-book space on BT satellites so they can bounce video footage in the event of war in the Middle East.
As Britain and the US gear up for war with Iraq, BT has reported a surge in demand from broadcasters wanting to reserve space on its communications satellites.
Enquiries for January and February have jumped by almost a third compared with normal levels, the company said, with the BBC, CNN and Reuters all scrambling to secure as much space as possible.
"Normally people book satellite time in 15-minute slots, but when you need mass coverage it becomes more economic to block-book 12 or 24 hours at a time, which is what's happening now," said Mark Smith, the managing director of BT Broadcast Services.
"Most broadcasters have already selected which satellites they will use and how they will share resources," Mr Smith added.
Broadcasters need to block-book satellite transmission time so they are ready to switch to rolling coverage of any attack on Iraq at short notice.
The US government last week invoked the trigger phrase for war with Iraq, accusing Saddam Hussein of being in "material breach" of its UN obligations to fully disclose its weapons arsenal.
This means the US could go to war soon after January 27, when the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, is due to report to the UN security council on the progress of his team's inspections of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme.