Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Mar 26, 2003
Iraq: The war on air waves
AS THE equity markets surged during the first few days of the US-led forces beginning the heavy bombardment of Iraq, a colleague commented that the financial markets' behaviour was nothing short of macabre. But financial analysts will tell you that this was only to be expected, for two reasons:
One, the markets were cheering the devastation of the brick and mortar, concrete, steel and glass structures of Baghdad and other major cities of Iraq, looking forward to the huge economic opportunity this would provide the global construction giants as they move into Iraq to rebuild the country. That is the irony of the modern concepts of power play and justice first destroy and then you rebuild.
The second reason for the markets going gung-ho was the propaganda war launched by the Western media. The "embedded" journalists of TV news channels travelling with the various army units as well as the various anchors and experts invited on their 24-hour news coverage of the war, led the entire world to believe that the coalition strikes on Iraq would be akin to the war teenagers play on computer screens.
Adding to the propaganda machinery was the confusion created by both the print and the electronic media, on the "target of opportunity" with which this war began targeted strikes on the building where the Iraqi President, Mr Saddam Hussein, was supposed to be huddled with his two sons and the top leadership.
Were Saddam Hussein and his sons dead; were they seriously wounded; was Mr Saddam Hussein in command of the situation? To all such frenetic questions from the media, all that the Pentagon would say was: "We don't know." In all fairness to the BBC, it must be said that while on the first day, it had also joined the American media bandwagon, it was back to its more balanced self. Soon it was presenting diverse opinions and getting in voices of reason and experience from experts on West Asia who cautioned that the war against Iraq would hardly be the cakewalk that a section of the media had predicted.
During the weekend, top American leaders, particularly the US Secretary of Defence, Mr Donald Rumsfeld, and the Secretary of State, Gen Colin Powell, hopped studios and appeared on various TV and radio shows in the US further confusing world opinion on how well the war was going, how fast the coalition forces were making inroads into Iraq and how they were "not sure" about the fate of Mr Saddam Hussein.
Mr Rumsfeld appeared deliberately vague on whether the strike on the building where Mr Saddam Hussein and his sons were on Wednesday night, had really got them. All he would say is that he had reports from eyewitnesses who said they thought they saw Saddam Hussein being removed from the bombed building on a stretcher. He was delightfully vague when he told CBS' Face the Nation: "We had people on the ground who have opined and I'm sure very honestly and accurately reflected what they think they saw." All this was on Sunday. Dawned Monday and news agencies started flashing reports that Mr Saddam Hussein would soon appear on Iraqi television.
This was enough to take the fizz out of the Asian markets, which were by then well into a few hours of trading. Soon the Iraqi President came on television, with his usual rhetoric on teaching the coalition forces a lesson and the rest of the talk on jehad. The content was expected but, more significantly, he was alive and delivering a long-winded speech.
In the last couple of days the Western forces have taken casualties in more ways than one, some of them as bizarre as unfortunate. Two British helicopters collided, an American Patriot missile downed a British aircraft, and an American unit was subject to a grenade attack from one of its own soldiers. Then a vehicle carrying American technicians took a wrong turn and was ambushed, some members were killed and those captured were paraded on Iraqi television.
This triggered yet another debate on how Iraq should handle its prisoners of war (POWs). Of course, in the first flush of success, as some Iraqi troops surrendered and were taken prisoners, the Western channels happily showed their faces and the body searches conducted on them. So the war has been going back and forth; on the ground and through the propaganda machinery both on the Iraqi/Arab channels such as Al Jazeera as well as Western channels and publications, interspersed with wry comments from experts on BBC that the "Americans" need to make a difference between occupying the deserts of Iraq and real cities such as Nasiriyah or Basra. A subdued Gen Tommy Franks, commander of the Allied forces, admitted on Monday during the press briefing in Doha, that the allied forces were meeting with stiff resistance.
Basra has been a difficult story for the American led forces so far. They have circled the city, but going in may meet with stiff resistance from the Fidayeen (suicide squads) and the Republican Guards, as fierce as loyal to the Saddam Hussein family. True, the majority of people in Basra are Shias and the US had hoped, rather naively, that its troops would be welcomed in this port city, as the Shias hate their Sunni President. But this has not happened so far, and the reason for this was contained in a Reuters report.
Quoting Mr Mohammed al-Hariri, a representative of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the report said that the Shias and some of the Kurds may, in fact, turn their guns on the US "if Washington behaved as an occupying power in Iraq".
The Lebanon-based leader said they had reason to suspect that the US planned to install a military government in Iraq after the war. ``Until now, we consider the war between the United States and the (Iraqi) regime as a war over interests. This war is not a honourable one and is not for the sake of democracy. If there is no role for the forces representing the Iraqi people (SCIRI and Kurdish groups), then it is an act of occupation, an act of hegemony and it will be confronted politically and militarily by several sides," he said. So much for the operation to "liberate" Iraq. In a rare political comment, Vietnam's state-run news agency VNA said on Tuesday that the US might win the war in Iraq but will not avoid a massive political failure. ``With a huge war machine, the US will gain victory in military terms. However, they cannot avoid political failure. War means death and sorrow, running counter to mankind's aspiration. Nobody wins in the conflict between war and peace. A regime established by violence will not exist for a long time."
In the US, the belief, particularly after 9/11, that it is anti-national to criticise their government when American men and women in uniform are laying down their lives for the nation, is abating. In a column in The New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote: "Now that U.S. strikes against Iraq have begun, we should get rid of one canard immediately... the notion that criticism of the Bush administration and opposition to this invasion imply lack of support for the men and women who are under arms. The names of too many of my friends are recorded on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial for me to tolerate that kind of nonsense."
Raising vital questions, he asked, "Are Americans ready to pay the cost in lives and dollars of a long-term military occupation of Iraq? To what end? Will an occupation of Iraq increase or decrease our security here at home? Do most Americans understand that even as we are launching one of the most devastating air assaults in the history of warfare, private companies are lining up to reap the riches of rebuilding the very structures we're in the process of destroying? Companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Bechtel Group understand this conflict a heck of a lot better than most of the men and women who will fight and die in it, or the armchair patriots who'll be watching on CNN and cheering them on. It's not unpatriotic to say that there are billions of dollars to be made in Iraq and that the gold rush is already under way. It's simply a matter of fact.".
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