May 7, 2004
It is a pity that even as the Bush administration is running helter-skelter to contain international outrage against Iraqi prisoner abuse, there is nothing more than a murmur from the world’s largest democracy. Agreed we are in the midst of elections but is the national conscience in a state of slumber because we are watching exit polls?
What is happening in Iraq (and not just in Abu Gharaib and Basrah) is a shocking addition to the annals of bestiality. The global media is transmitting images of unspeakable horror. Why are we silent? Election or no election, the prime minister must take the lead (as he did when he snuffed out proposals to send Indian troops to Iraq in May 2003) to speak out against the barbarity being perpetrated behind the backs of the American and British people. A strong statement from New Delhi will be in harmony with the rising tide of opinion in US and Britain.
To calm Arab anger US President Bush had to go live on Al Arabia TV. This is ironical because two Al Arabia journalists were shot dead by US troops on the very day when Colin Powell was visiting Baghdad in March to ‘celebrate’ the first anniversary of the war. When Arab journalists walked out of Powell’s press conference in protest against the atrocity, US troops threw them out of the compound. Sadly, western journalists showed no solidarity with their Arab colleagues. Subsequently, necessity appears to have bridged the gap between western and Arab journalists. Without Arab cameramen, there would be no coverage of the war. There is chronological consistency in the fact that Walter Cronkite of CBS turned the tide of American public opinion against the US in Vietnam and now his understudy, Dan Rather, has blown the whistle on the atrocities being committed by Americans on Iraqi prisoners.
One of the depressing casualties of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe has been a pillar of the world’s liberal edifice: The free Press. The shameful performance of most of the 600 or so “embedded” TV journalists (there were outstanding exceptions too), partisan reporting peddled as news, has hurt the credibility of the Western media. One still had faith that the western media would break out of restrictions imposed in the name of national security. This has begun to happen. The restoration of faith in the western electronic media could well be one of the gifts of the recent revelations.
And, who knows, there may be more horrible revelations on the way. Abuses in prisons were being commonly talked about by Iraqis when I was in Baghdad last month. Why did I not write about them? There was no confirmation. Another story doing the rounds sounds almost apocryphal. Remember, how US tanks simply glided into Firdaus Square in April 2003? A few days earlier, the colourful minister for information, Mohammad Sahhaf, had threatened “a unique way” in which US troops around Baghdad airport would be “handled”. Two floors of the passenger areas were under American control. But Iraqis were still in occupation of VIP and service buildings. This is where the control valves were for water supply to the main passenger area, where the Americans were. At night, petrol was pumped into the first floor. The ground floor of the passenger terminal was flooded with water. An 11 KV current passed through the water. The first floor was then set on fire causing the US soldiers to rush downstairs — to be electrocuted. Heaven knows how many were killed.
To flush out the Iraqis from the remaining airport buildings, a neutron bomb was allegedly used. This enhanced radiation bomb spares buildings but reduces humans to ash. Iraqi Republican guards, witness to this macabre display, informed the Baathist military leadership about the lengths to which the US could go. This resulted in the collapse of all resistance, facilitating the entry of UStanks into central Baghdad. This is a one-sided story sourced to Baathist soldiers and local villagers. The US should either confirm or deny it. Was this the reason why Baghdad airport remained closed until nine months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003?
A very respected cleric in Najaf told me: “The horrible stories in our prisons, the mystery at Baghdad airport — all these will surface in some distant future.” Well, Baathist army leaders and troops have been pressed into service in Fallujah. The story of prisoner abuse appears to be only the tip of the iceberg. What Americans thought were tightly kept secrets are part of common “gossip” in Baghdad. These will now reach Americans as truth resurrected by American journalists determined to restore credibility to their profession. The mist on Iraq and Afghanistan has begun to lift from the eyes of the American public, indeed the world.
And now that stories of Indian mercenaries are also breaking with alarming regularity. The time may have come for some of us to resume our stations in Baghdad and Kabul. That we are already not there is a shame.
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