Civilian casualties and ugly wars

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Saddam Hussein is an evil and reckless tyrant, but one should not underestimate his ability to identify and exploit the weaknesses of his enemies.

As his last desperate hope to ward off defeat he has designated a number of strategies to undermine domestic morale in America and build up an international antiwar momentum.

They include fanning the fires of Arab nationalism to generate regional instability; intensifying divisions between Americans and their principal European adversaries; and above all replicating the Palestinian example by employing suicide bombers and politically exploiting civilian casualties via the electronic media especially now with the willing cooperation of Al Jazeera and other anti-American TV networks.

After failing to take out Saddam and his entourage, the Americans called on Iraqis to launch an internal revolt. But they did not take account of the draconian grip on the population by Saddam’s secret police and fedayeen, who are renowned for summarily executing civilians.

They also underestimated Shi’ite recollections of the previous Gulf War, when the Allies encouraged them to revolt and then stood aside whilst Hussein took retribution against them.

To make matters worse, before the war the Americans went to great pains to inform the world that their new hi-tech arsenal would enable such precise targeting of military installations that civilian casualties would be minimal.

These expectations were utterly unrealistic and the issue of civilian casualties could well become their Achilles heel.

We Israelis have gone through all this. Remember the international outcry after we took out Salah Shehadeh, the cruel mass-murderer who deliberately chose to locate himself amongst civilians in a densely populated area?

When civilians were inadvertently killed with him, there was such an outcry that a number of foolish Israeli spokesmen even apologized and expressed regret for having targeted him.

Remember Jenin, when the media turned reality upside down, accusing the IDF of carrying out a “massacre” despite the fact that many of our soldiers were killed in ambushes because they tried so hard to protect civilians?

One American general involved with the UN even alleged that Israel had committed war crimes. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, the lie of the “Jenin massacre” is still being disseminated.

It was therefore not unexpected that Iraqi civilians would be accidentally killed. Such tragedies in war are inevitable and the Allies must brace themselves to face more of the same once the battle for Baghdad begins in earnest.

The Allies should be upfront and tell their domestic constituency the truth that more than any international military force in history, they have and will continue to practice restraint in order to minimize civilian casualties.

But they face barbaric enemies for whom the sanctity of human life is irrelevant; who disguise themselves as innocent civilians frequently accompanied by children; who engage in fake surrenders and then “martyr” themselves, attempting to kill everyone in their proximity.

They deliberately locate their fedayeen and military in the heart of civilian populated areas near and even inside schools, mosques and hospitals and shed no tears for those killed because they provide fuel for their propaganda.

ULTIMATELY the Americans must decide whether to continue sacrificing large numbers of their soldiers or reviewing the terms of engagement by utilizing superior firepower more effectively to take out enemy concentrations.

There is little doubt that the Allies will determine that their first priority must be to protect the lives of their soldiers.

The Americans should urge Iraqi civilians to move away from military concentrations, and warn them that if they remain they do so at their own peril.

They can then rightly insist that if Iraqi civilians die the responsibility rests entirely with those who cynically exploit them as human shields. Of course, irrespective of efforts undertaken to minimize civilian casualties, the Iraqis will fabricate situations in order to fuel anger and hostility against the allies.

Kofi Annan’s recent sanctimonious statement expressing concern for the “humanitarian casualties in the conflict” was outrageous. As head of the organization that only a few months ago elected Iraq to chair its disarmament committee, and having said nothing about Saddam’s monstrous actions against his own people, his remarks represent the ultimate in cant and hypocrisy.

But for us as Israelis it was truly d j vu because Annan’s one-sided condemnations merely exemplify the moral equivalency the UN chief executive continuously applies when he relates to the so called “tragic cycle of violence” between us and the Palestinians, and blurs over distinctions between actions in which we defend ourselves from suicide bombers and terror attacks.

It is of course not surprising to have Annan, the UN, the French humanitarians, and all other bleeding hearts condemning the Americans for killing innocent civilians. But fortunately, unlike Israel, the US as the superpower will be able to shrug off such criticisms as long as its home front believes in the justice of its cause and supports it.

And if they are aware of the reality, the vast majority of Americans will agree that while they should continue all efforts to minimize civilian casualties, the first priority must be to win the war and protect the life and limb of their own fighting forces. It should also be understood that failure to act decisively will, in the long run, only increase casualties on both sides, and would also be misread as weakness by the Iraqis and their Arab supporters.

When Saddam has been defeated and this awesome war is over, we would hope that, having now had firsthand experience of what we Israelis have been confronting over the years, our American friends will have a better understanding of what we still face on our doorstep.

They will realize that we too battled barbaric terrorists who were in fact financed by Saddam and that many of our soldiers also lie in graves because of our thankless efforts to minimize Palestinian casualties.

Perhaps this will encourage the Americans to resist the efforts of their British allies to offer us up as a sacrificial lamb after the war in order to rebuild bridges with the Europeans and the Arab world.



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