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     Volume 5 Issue 87 | March 24, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

When Publicity Becomes Propaganda

Farah Ghuznavi

That propaganda is not the sole domain of dictators was brought home yet again by recent coalition activities in Iraq. Against the background of exploding sectarian violence, and petty internal bickering between Iraqi politicians (those ungrateful beneficiaries of democracy and freedom!), the Bush-Blair axis is desperate to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nothing else could explain the cynical timing of "Operation Swarmer" - billed as "the largest air assault operation" since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 (coming soon to a war theatre near you…). All this, even as the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion is marked by widespread global protests.

So let us evaluate the claims being made by the US Army about this offensive. "This was an operation to achieve military aims. This was not a PR exercise" according to Lt. Col. Edward Loomis. Listening to this, one is reminded of the old Bangla proverb: "Thakurgharey key rey?" "Ami kola khai na" (which is hard to translate, but in effect refers to a degree of defensiveness that stinks to high heaven…)

In November 2004, the US launched a major "counter-insurgency campaign", which effectively demolished the town of Fallujah, at the cost of thousands of Iraqi lives - though officially those are not counted by the US military. Fortunately, others such as the Iraq Body Count, DO keep track! On that occasion, the considerable might of the US military machine was unleashed on a densely populated area, with predictable consequences.

By contrast, "Operation Swarmer" was basically a routine exercise in a sparsely populated desert area. The only thing exceptional about it was the number of troops - in particular Iraqi troops - involved. While one may be singularly grateful for that particular contrast between the two offensives, and what it implies in terms of the relative losses of human life - and I, for one, am very grateful! - it nevertheless reinforces the suspicion that "Operation Swarmer" is little more than a PR exercise…

Another interesting contrast between the two operations is over the issue of aerial bombardment. The attack on Fallujah saw dozens of heavy air strikes in 2004. "Operation Swarmer" however involved no airstrikes, despite being described somewhat misleadingly, as an aerial assault operation. All the aircraft used were in fact troop-carrying helicopters. But given the considerable liberties with the truth regularly taken in the use of terms like transparency, justice and democracy, this must be counted as a minor fib…!

While the assault on Fallujah saw the deployment of around 17,000 American troops, only a few hundred were involved in "Operation Swarmer". In fact, by the second day of the operation, the total fighting force i.e. Americans and Iraqis, had already been scaled down to only 900 - hardly what one would consider required troop numbers for a major offensive!

Nor were the results of the operation anything to write home about. The first three days saw no clashes and no casualties among Americans or Iraqi troops (so where were all these dangerous insurgents??). While several caches of weapons and explosives had been recovered, most of these were the kind of small arms one might expect to find the homes of rural Iraqis, who have been increasingly engaged in protecting their homes and families.

All this points to the inevitable conclusion that the main purpose of this much-publicised "assault" was to distract attention from the opposition to the war as the third anniversary of the invasion approached, as well as to highlight the ability of Iraqi troops to operate independently (UK Independent). Indeed, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, was at pains to point out that "this operation is Iraqi-led, something that on this…scale would not have been possible 12 months ago". This, even as he was forced to concede that Iraqi troops were not capable of taking control yet in any of Iraq's 18 provinces!

Nevertheless, he insisted that the army was growing in strength, claiming that there were now 240,000 troops, with 59 battalions capable of taking the lead operations. One can only hope that his calculations do not include the "ghost battalions" previously identified by the veteran Iraqi politician Mahmoud Othman. These are units in which officers pocket the pay of non-existent or long-absent soldiers. Dr. Othman mentioned knowing at least one unit supposedly consisting of 2200 men, where the real figure was only 300! Therefore, he earlier estimated that although the US talked about 150,000 Iraqis in the security forces, the actual numbers were closer to 40,000…If that total figure has now been raised to 240, 000, one would not have to be a mathematician to figure out that the actual numbers might be considerably lower!

Separating the truth from propaganda becomes even more difficult when it appears that coalition spokespersons are determined to out-do each other in making claims regarding progress. Thus, while President Bush recently mentioned that his (modest) aim was to have Iraqis control more territory than coalition forces by the end of 2006, a few days later Lt. General Peter Chiarelli - the second-ranking US commander in Baghdad - went even further, claiming that Iraqi troops would control about three quarters the country as early as this summer! This kind of "informational update" presents the listener with tough choices. Who (if anyone) should we believe??

While Mr. Bush faces difficulty in finding a delicate balance between playing down the seriousness of the situation in Iraq, and facing pressure to pullout American forces, the future of Iraq actually hinges on the setting up of a sustainable government of national unity. Sooner rather than later! Western leaders have acknowledged the importance of this, as the formation of such a government remains "in process" more than three months after the elections. Even the ebullient Dr. Reid warns of the dangers of a political vacuum that allows "people of malevolent intent…to step into that vacuum". The fact that President Bush and his allies are reduced to appealing to Iraqi leaders to achieve a consensus makes clear the limits of their influence.

Meanwhile, faced with a constantly worsening security situation, many Iraqis fear civil war, but are still aware of what they are owed by the occupying forces. In the words of one Basra resident, "Whether we like them or dislike them, the majority want to keep a British presence - not because they are kind or because they are friends, but because with the collapse of our former regime we witnessed a political vacuum and our security forces are still fledgling" (UK Independent).

Sadly, a similarly clear-eyed view of reality is not evident among the occupying forces. Despite the signs that Iraq may be headed for a full-scale civil war, the White House remains unapologetic about the decision to invade based on the fictitious threat of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the latest update of the administration's National Security Strategy gave a positive spin on the war, despite polls indicating that a clear majority of Americans now believe that the invasion was not worth it, and that the US is less safe as a result of it. Perhaps this then, is the greatest danger of propaganda - you might start believing your own publicity…

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