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Truth, it's often noted, is the first casualty of war. This time isn't any different, even though a shot has yet to be fired. Here's a reality check on some of the whoppers circulating in the lead-up to conflict. War will cause 500,000 casualties(David Silverman/Getty Images)...







Distracting lies muddy the ground before the missiles start flying

March 6 2003

Myths, duplicity and simplistic overstatement are distorting rational debate about Iraq, writes Tony Horwitz.

Truth, it's often noted, is the first casualty of war. This time isn't any different, even though a shot has yet to be fired. Here's a reality check on some of the whoppers circulating in the lead-up to conflict.

War will cause 500,000 casualties.

Doomsayers have emerged before every recent military action - Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan - and proved wildly alarmist each time. Apocalyptic predictions are invariably effective because no one wants to appear inhumane by minimising potential casualties.

But in this case, we have a very useful guide: the last Gulf War. Few of Saddam Hussein's soldiers put up a fight then, and now his army is much weaker. Fifteen of Iraq's 18 provinces rose up in revolt against Saddam: is he more popular now? Despite heavy bombing in 1991, the only site of mass civilian casualties was a shelter in Baghdad where 400 Iraqis died.

Western weapons are much more accurate now, and the Bushies know that weak public support will wilt, and international anger explode, if images of civilian carnage start appearing on CNN and Al-Jazeera.

Anything is possible - Saddam could unleash the chemicals he insists he doesn't have - but there's no credible basis for predicting that casualties will be 10 times the number of Australian dead in all of World War I.

We are still seeking a peaceful solution.

Short of Saddam going into exile, or getting a bullet in the head, George Bush is determined to make war. No amount of weapons inspections or Iraqi disclosures can ever prove that Saddam is absolutely clean ("Absence of evidence," Donald Rumsfeld memorably declared, is not "evidence of absence.")

Nor does Bush give a fig about the objections of other nations, except as speed bumps on the road to Baghdad. The Bushies have been planning an attack for months - years in the case of several mega-hawks - and won't back off because of a few bulldozed missiles or eloquent French speeches at the UN.

We're committed to a democratic Iraq.

This claim has helped bring idealistic Americans on board with the promise of liberating Iraqis and sowing freedom across the region.

But US actions already suggest the democratic dream has been compromised. Turkey wants a large troop presence in northern Iraq, ostensibly to control the refugee flow but also to ensure that Kurds don't achieve too much autonomy.

And the State Department has undermined the democratic Iraqi opposition by announcing plans for a transitional US military governorship aided by bureaucrats from Saddam's regime.

If the US goes to war largely on its own, the temptation to act expediently by opting for security rather than democracy, i.e. by deferring elections or even installing a more palatable leader - will be all the greater.

It's all about oil.

America already has the West's lowest petrol prices, a decades-old detente with Persian Gulf sheikdoms, and ample oil sources outside the Middle East.

Why would the US risk its soldiers, spend up to $US2 trillion ($3.25 trillion) on the war and its aftermath, and alienate much of the world to secure more oilfields? Is that why Tony Blair and Vaclav Havel want to topple Saddam? Oil is a factor in any Middle East equation, but attacking Saddam is just as likely to endanger the petrol supply by destabilising Saudi Arabia or causing oilfields to be set alight - as it is to guarantee a steady flow for America's bloated cars.

It's all about Israel (whose crimes compare to those of Iraq's).

This notion appeared on banners at anti-war rallies ("Torture, Murder, Ethnic Cleansing!!! Welcome to Israel"), but it more commonly thrives in the closet.

Typical was the outburst of a NSW state MP who became impatient when I lingered on Saddam's use of poison gas. "I'd never say it publicly because I'd be called anti-Semitic," the MP finally told me, "but Israel has used poison gas on Palestinians many times so what's the difference?"

There is no evidence of Israel having done this - none. Nor is the "Jewish lobby" in America pulling Bush's strings. While many prominent American hawks are Jewish, they were just as hawkish in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Mid-East peace will never come without a just resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Sharon's Government is obstructing this, most notably with its unconscionable settlement policy.

But equating Israel's sins to those of Saddam is grotesque, particularly given the Ba'ath Party's pro-Nazi inception and the Iraqi regime's echo of the Third Reich: the gassing and machine-gunning of Kurds into mass graves, the genocidal assaults on entire religious groups ("No More Shiites After Today" was the sign on tanks suppressing the 1991 uprising), and biological weapons experiments carried out on political prisoners.

By all means, let's have a vigorous debate about the pros and cons of war in Iraq. But let's leave the Big Lies out of it.

Tony Horwitz is a former Middle East correspondent and author of Into the Blue.


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