After war, humanitarian disaster?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 November 2002

The United Nations (UN) inspection process is now getting under way with the arrival of Hans Blix and his team in Baghdad. But an absence of four years means that there will be several weeks of preparation in order to provide adequate logistical support in Iraq. There may be some ‘trial’ inspections within two or three weeks, but the main process will take much longer, not least as the enlarged inspection teams are expected to set up bases in Basra and Mosul, as well as the existing location in Baghdad.

While the inspection programme is directed by Hans Blix, the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), it is actually a joint operation that also involves the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headed by Mohammad el Baradei. The division of labour is that the IAEA is examining Iraq’s nuclear capabilities whereas UNMOVIC looks for chemical and biological weapons (CBW) systems and ballistic missiles. In the whole inspection process, though, UNMOVIC is essentially the lead agency.

Given that nuclear weapon and missile production facilities are generally large-scale affairs, inspection is relatively straightforward, whereas uncovering detailed information on CBW is much more difficult and could take six months or more to be reasonably conclusive. On 8 December, Iraq is due to make a full declaration of its weapons capabilities, and this will form much of the basis for the future work of UNMOVIC.

Where does this leave the risk of war? The first point to make is that US preparations are continuing. As reported in an earlier article, it would be possible to have at least four carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf by the end of the year, and a major command centre for Central Command is currently being established in the region. Pre-positioning of supplies, combined with regional troop dispositions and training exercises means that the actual process of building up to 200,000 or more troops could be done in about one month from the orders being given, and there are extensive preparations underway across the United States.

Furthermore, the Pentagon currently has teams in a number of countries in the region assessing the extent of likely cooperation. US forces are already operating in Kurdish areas of Iraq, and possibly in the western desert close to Jordan as well. Finally, the US Air Force is now organised in such a way that very substantial forces can be moved to pre-prepared bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman at very short notice, and intensive production of a range of bombs and missiles means that the shortfalls left over from the war in Afghanistan have been overcome.

All this tells us that US forces could go to war very early in 2003. One recent estimate from an informed Washington source is that 5 January is the earliest likely date at which it would be possible to have everything in place. This would probably be on the presumption that the Iraqi declaration to the UN about its weapons, due on 8 December, would be so limited as to convince the Bush administration that an early recourse to war was essential.

The prehistory of nuclear inspections

The problem for the US is that it is simply not as simple as that. Now that the inspection process is under way, Washington is no longer fully in control of the situation. That this is causing annoyance among the more hawkish advisers is shown by the recent attempts to denigrate Hans Blix. One issue, in particular, is that when he was head of IAEA in the 1980s, his organisation failed to uncover the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme.

While there is some truth in this, there are three important points to remember. First, the IAEA process only involved the regular inspection of agreed sites – it was not in a position to undertake intrusive inspections in the manner of the UN inspection process after the Gulf War.

Secondly, the IAEA’s work at the time was being conducted in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty where there was a widespread belief outside the existing nuclear powers that the whole process was somewhat hypocritical. In this way of thinking, the IAEA was in the process of helping to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states, while the existing nuclear powers could get on with developing the advanced nuclear arsenals in any way they chose.

Thirdly, the Middle East situation was regarded as an example of particular hypocrisy, with Israel, in the heart of the region, completely unaffected by the entire inspections process yet with an arsenal of at least a hundred nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

Iraq’s response, before and after war

Such issues are not sufficient to stop the attempts of the US hawks to criticise the inspection process, and in any case much of what will now happen depends on how the Iraqi regime responds in the next two months.

The regime has stated firmly that it does not have CBW, is not developing nuclear weapons and does not have missiles of a range of over 150 kilometres (shorter-range systems are allowed). It may moderate this position when the 8 December declaration is made, perhaps arguing that some of its facilities could be used for such weapons but are intended for civil use only.

Most independent analysts do not believe this, not least because all the indications, throughout the 1990s, were that the regime believed that CBW were necessary for its survival – able to act as a deterrent to US intervention.

If this assessment is true, then the regime will endeavour to maintain some CBW capability in the face of increasingly rigorous inspections, hoping to delay US military action until well into next year when conditions become far less favourable for an invasion.

For the regime, though, the bottom line remains survival, and it is just possible that a calculation may be made that full disclosure is in its own best interests, a process that would be directly against the interests of the more hawkish advisers in Washington and might still not be enough to avoid war.

If war comes, in whatever circumstances, how then would the Iraqi regime respond to the US action that still seems most likely – full-scale invasion and regime termination?

The first point to make is that the great majority of the Iraqi armed forces remain ill equipped and poorly trained, but that there are substantial elite elements that are far more effective.

The Republican Guard number about 60,000 in six divisions (three armoured, one mechanised and two infantry). Their reliability is less certain than twelve years ago and they would most likely be used primarily for the outer defence of Baghdad. There is some recent evidence that elements have been based in Basra in the south-east and Mosul in the north, headed by loyal officers and capable of some resistance to US forces in both regions.

The forces likely to be employed within greater Baghdad include four brigades of the Special Republican Guard, five brigades of commandos and two special-forces brigades. There are, in addition, five different intelligence and security organisations, all of which depend on the survival of the regime for their own security.

In all, there may be as many as 80,000, excluding the Republican Guard, who can be considered reliable, meaning that the regime does have the possibility of a drawn out war fought largely in the Baghdad region.

The humanitarian impact: three prospective outcomes

The human consequences of large-scale war could be massive, with three recent assessments being relevant.

First, a detailed analysis of conflict with Iraq has been written by three analysts at the Brookings Institute and is published in the current issue of Survival, the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. In a war that does not involve use of CBW, it considers it likely that there would be perhaps 10,000 Iraqi military killed and a similar number of Iraqi civilians also killed. Any use of CBW could increase this substantially.

A second report, by the London-based MEDACT medical charity looks at the health-orientated consequences of a war. The MEDACT assessment covers a much wider range of up to 50,000 casualties but its real contribution is to point to the longer-term effects of a war on the provision of health services to the population as a whole, as well as for the more immediate and frequently forgotten issue of refugees.

The last point is crucial, in that there are indications that the deaths among refugees in Afghanistan have been very much higher than those due to the direct effects of the bombing.

The other point that comes from MEDACT is that the existing health status of ordinary Iraqis is so much lower than before the 1991 war, as a direct result of that war and of the subsequent sanctions regime.

This line of argument is supported by the third recent assessment, produced by one of the foreign charities that has operated in Iraq for many years, the European organisation Caritas with its UK affiliate, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). There are about 800,000 Christians in Iraq and Caritas has worked for years with many of them, sending a team there recently to assess the health and humanitarian consequences of a war.

The report, available on the CAFOD website, points out that there are currently 14 million Iraqis dependent on food aid, about two-thirds of the total population. Any breakdown of this distribution system, itself highly likely in the event of war, would lead to immediate major problems of malnutrition as well as many long-term effects. In a remarkably blunt conclusion, CAFOD states that: ‘from a humanitarian perspective, a war against Iraq would be a catastrophe that would bring shame on the world community.’

Proponents of the war argue that what is most likely to happen is that the regime itself will collapse at the onset of an invasion, and that none of these casualties or health impacts will happen. Perhaps the most reliable indicator that this is hardly certain comes from a number of reports that the United States may be planning to use less than 100,000 troops in the actual invasion, but plans to have at least another 100,000 in the immediate region as reinforcements for a longer war.

It is still possible that war might be avoided, but it is frankly unlikely. What is becoming apparent is that there is a very high risk of a humanitarian disaster as a consequence of military action, an aspect that does not seem to be factored into any of the current political discussions in Washington.

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