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Starvation as strategy

March 30th, 2003

Ten days into the war, the high moral standards proclaimed by the Coalition leaders are rapidly being replaced by the brutal reality that this is going to be a war much like most others, with both sides committing grave crimes, and nobody really winning in the end. It’s already become clear that nothing said by either side can be trusted (I won’t resume the futile debate over which side is lying more). And, as the Pentagon has quietly dropped or relaxed restrictions on targeting civilian areas and civilian infrastructure, we can expect a steadily rising civilian death toll even before large-scale urban fighting begins. Of course, if Saddam had only surrendered peacably, or fought out in the open as the US wanted him to, none of this would have happened – the same is true of every war in history where one side has an overwhelming advantage in conventional terms.

Until now, I haven’t seen anything as disturbing as this Washington Post report which approvingly quotes the use of food aid as a weapon, not in the general sense of ‘winning hearts and minds’, but in the same way Saddam has long used it, with food being given as a reward for co-operation and withheld as a punishment for resistance.

Two trucks laden with food and water pulled up in front of a school this morning on the southern edge of this dusty industrial town where paramilitary fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein have roamed the streets since shortly after the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq.

There was nothing random about the choice of this neighborhood for the first humanitarian effort by Special Operations forces. A local Shiite Muslim religious leader had been identified by a team of Green Berets as pro-American. …U.S. forces gave the Shiite notable a microphone to let the swelling crowd know that he, and not the soldiers, would determine who got the food. And, he said, more would follow in coming days.

The crowd applauded and a U.S. campaign to win political allies in southern Iraq through selective favors began in earnest….

“We have to give this guy legitimacy and let his people see that he’s the man that can get what his community needs,” said one Special Operations major of today’s operation at Zubair, a crossroads 10 miles southwest of Basra. “We have to find friends who can help us build support. There’s a purpose behind where we unload.”

An interpreter working with the Americans told the crowd over a microphone that they must be orderly or “we won’t come back.” …

The payback for such handouts, according to the major, is more than goodwill. With access to community leaders, the United States can obtain intelligence to target Hussein’s irregulars who are turning the 10-day-old war into a guerrilla campaign.

At a water treatment plant just outside Basra, for instance, workers who had been provided with food pointed out a hidden weapons cache to a Special Operations civil defense team after a second day of aid. (emphasis added)

And this is called a war of liberation.

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