This time I'm scared
US propaganda fuelled the first Gulf war. It will fuel this one too - and the risks are even greater
Thursday December 5, 2002
I have a picture from the last Gulf war. It was taken in the basement of the Al Rashid hotel, the night the war started. The look on my face is one you might expect of a 28-year-old reporter at the centre of one of the biggest stories of my lifetime: earnest, excited and thrilled to be in Baghdad.
Eleven years later, I'm on maternity leave and the news of an impending second Gulf war follows me around the kitchen. This time, I feel only a sense of intense danger as the Middle East lurches towards a possible chemical and biological war.
The chances of Saddam Hussein using chemical and biological weapons if attacked are, according to the testimony of the CIA to the US Senate intelligence committee on October 7, "pretty high" - a scenario that even one of greatest hawks in US history, Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to George Bush senior, says would lead to meltdown in the Middle East. As of December 7, when Iraq is expected to produce its definitive dossier, there should be no illusions: no matter what Baghdad discloses, America and almost certainly Britain are going to war. The "material breach", if it does not happen by itself, will be manufactured, so wringing consent for the second Gulf war just as consent was manufactured with breathtaking cynicism in 1991.
There were two glaring examples of how the propaganda machine worked before the first Gulf war. First, in the final days before the war started on January 9, the Pentagon insisted that not only was Saddam Hussein not withdrawing from Kuwait - he was - but that he had 265,000 troops poised in the desert to pounce on Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon claimed to have satellite photographs to prove it. Thus, the waverers and anti-war protesters were silenced.
We now know from declassified documents and satellite photographs taken by a Russian commercial satellite that there were no Iraqi troops poised to attack Saudi. At the time, no one bothered to ask for proof.
No one except Jean Heller, a five-times nominated Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the St Petersburg Times in Florida, who persuaded her bosses to buy two photos at $1,600 each from the Russian commercial satellite, the Soyuz Karta. Guess what? No massing troops. "You could see the planes sitting wing tip to wing tip in Riyadh airport," Ms Heller says, "but there wasn't was any sign of a quarter of a million Iraqi troops sitting in the middle of the desert." So what will the fake satellite pictures show this time: a massive chemical installation with Iraqi goblins cooking up anthrax?
The US propaganda machine is already gearing up. In its sights already is Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector. He's too much of a softie for Saddam, the former CIA director James Wolsey told the Today programme last week. His work is of "limited value". He was Kofi Annan's "second choice".
What next? Blix's granny is Iraqi? He has a drugs problem?
Meanwhile, in Britain, Jack Straw's new human rights dossier on Iraq is timed to coincide with the build-up. Convenient, eh? The second tactic used to get consensus for war in 1991 was another propaganda classic: dead babies. Then, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, Nijirah al-Sabah, tearfully described how, as a volunteer in the Al Adnan hospital in Kuwait City, she had watched Iraqi soldiers looting incubators to take back to Baghdad, pitching the Kuwaiti babies on to "the cold floor to die".
Except it never happened. The Filipina nurses, Frieda Construe-Nag and Myra Ancog Cooke, who worked in the maternity ward of the Al Adnan hospital, had never seen Ms al-Sabah in their lives. Amnesty admitted they had been duped. Middle East Watch confirmed the fabrication, but it was too late: a marginal US congress had been swung to vote for war. George Bush senior mentioned the "incubator babies" seven times in pre-war rallying speeches. It was months before the truth came out. By then, the war was over.
This time, we have yet to see what propaganda will be used to rally consensus for the second Gulf war by proving a "material breach". It is highly likely that Saddam Hussein maintains at least some chemical and biological capacity. In a war in which his own survival is unlikely (and already rumoured to be ill with cancer) Saddam Hussein has nothing to lose. If he knows his fall is imminent, what terrible legacy might he choose to leave behind? What better present to his extremist Arab brothers than an attack on Israel? And how will the US, Britain or Israel respond if their troops or cities come under chemical or biological attack?
I n 1995, the Washington-based Defense News reported on the outcome of the then highly classified Global 95 Wargame, a high-level military exercise enacted at the US Naval War college. Global 95 played out a simultaneous threat from North Korea and Iraq. The North Korean situation was diffused, but Iraq attacked US troops in the region with biological weapons. Washington replied with a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. The main observation during the Global 95 experiment was just how quickly the situation escalated.
But the greatest irony, and most important issue, is that although the war on Iraq may indeed get George Bush re-elected, it will not win the war on terrorism. It will instead fuel it.
In 1998, I spent an afternoon with Abu Ziad, an elderly accountant in Baghdad. He recounted how, at 2am on February 13, 1991, two bombs had hit the Amiryia bomb shelter near his home. The first pierced the roof, slicing into the central heating tank and sending gallons of boiling water pouring over the women and children below. The second bomb, 15 minutes later, exploded with such force that he never had the chance to identify the bodies of his wife and four of their five children: Zena,14, Fuad, 12, Lena, seven and Sadaad, six. He remembers standing outside the shelter in the early morning and noticing the ankles of dead women and children marked by the red hot mattress springs they had fought to climb over to get out of the shelter before the second bomb dropped.
The Abu Ziads of the second Gulf war will be seen on al-Jazeera TV giving their heartbreaking testimony to a new generation of disaffected and dispossessed young Muslim men from Palestine, Indonesia, the Middle East and Africa. And we can all hear the death chant of a hundred suicide bombers: Allahu Akbar. It's a high price to pay for another four years in the White House.
I am not some naive pacifist. I supported intervention in Bosnia, the war in Kosovo and military intervention in East Timor. Baghdad is a city where terror hangs in the air in every home. Iraqis literally dare not speak Saddam Hussein's name. But now he is cornered, dangerous and possibly dying. Provoking him is criminally irresponsible and provoking him in order to secure a second presidential term is unforgivable.
Remember the words of JFK to his brother Bobby, spoken in the ante-room of the Oval Office the night before the Cuban missile crisis, now declassified. "I have to do it, Bobby," said John Kennedy, explaining why he was facing up to the Soviets. "I'll lose the presidency if I don't." Krushchev had a way out. He ordered the Soviet ships to turn around. What would have happened if he had nowhere to turn?
7 Maggie O'Kane is editorial director of GuardianFilms. She was named European Journalist of the Year this week for its first documentary, Looking for Karadzic.