'Baghdad Hitler' obsession has gone too far

The Israeli writer Uri Avneri once delivered a wickedly sharp open letter to Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who sent his army to defeat in Lebanon.

Enraged by Begin's constant evocation of World War 2 - likening Yasser Arafat in Beirut to Hitler surrounded in his Berlin bunker in 1945 - Avneri entitled his letter: "Mr Prime Minister, Hitler is Dead". How often I have wanted to repeat his advice to George Bush and Tony Blair. Obsessed with their demonisation of Saddam Hussein, both are reminding us of the price of appeasement.

Bush thinks - or thought just before Christmas - that he was the Churchill of America refusing the appeasement of Hussein. Now the United States ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, has compared Hussein to Hitler.

"You had Hitler in Europe and no one really did anything about him," Rockwell lectured the Europeans in Brussels a week ago. "We knew he could be dangerous but nothing was done... The same type of person (is in Baghdad) and it's there that our concern lies." Schnabel ended this infantile parallel by adding unconvincingly that "this has nothing to do with oil".

How can a sane human being react to this pitiful stuff? One of the principal nations which "did nothing about Hitler" was the United States, which enjoyed a profitable period of neutrality in 1939 and 1940 and most of 1941 until it was shamed into joining Britain's war after being attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour.

And when the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance decided that they would only accept Germany's unconditional surrender - a demand that shocked even Churchill when Roosevelt suddenly announced the terms of Germany's demise at Casablanca, Hitler was doomed. Not so Hussein, it seems. For last week Donald Rumsfeld offered the Hitler of Baghdad a way out: exile, with a suitcase full of cash and an armful of family members if that is what he wished.

Funny, I don't recall that Churchill or Roosevelt ever suggested that the Nazi Fuehrer should be allowed to escape his fate. Hussein is Hitler - but then suddenly, he's not Hitler after all. He is - according to the New York Times, the Bush administration's most faithful client - going to be put before a war crimes tribunal. But then he's not. He can scoot off if he wants to Saudi Arabia or Latin America. In other words he's not Hitler.

Even if he was, are we prepared to pay the price of so promiscuous a war? Arabs who admire Hussein - and there are plenty in Jordan - believe Iraq cannot hold out for more than a week. There are those who are convinced the American Third Infantry Division will be in Baghdad in three days, the British with them as well as in Basra. It's a fair bet that hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis will die. But in the civil unrest that follows, what are we going to do? Are American and British troops to be deployed defending the homes of Baath party officials whom the mobs want to hang?

Far more seriously, what happens after that? What do we do when Iraqis - not ex-Baathists but anti-Hussein Iraqis - demand our withdrawal? For this will happen. In the Shiite mosques of Kerbala and Najaf, they are not going to welcome Anglo-American forces. The Kurds will want a price for their co-operation. A state perhaps? A federation? The Sunnis will need our protection. They will, in due time, demand our withdrawal. Iraq is a tough, violent state, and General Tommy Franks is no General MacArthur.

For we will be in occupation of a foreign land. We will be in occupation of Iraq as surely as Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And with Hussein gone - or vanished - the way is open for Osama bin Laden to demand the liberation of Iraq as another of his objectives. How easily he will be able to slot Iraq into the fabric of American occupation across the Gulf. Are we then ready to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries?

It seems the peoples of the Middle East - and of the West - realise these dangers, but their leaders do not, or do not want to.

Travelling to the US often, visiting Britain at the weekend, moving around the middle East, I have never been so struck by the determination of so many Arabs and Europeans and - increasingly - Americans to oppose a war. Did Tony Blair, I ask myself, really need that gloriously pertinacious student at the Labour Party meeting on Friday to prove to him what so many Britons feel?

That this proposed Iraqi war is a lie, that the reasons for this conflict have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, that Blair has no business following Bush into the America-Israeli war? Never before have I received so many readers' letters expressing the same sentiment: that somehow - because of Labour's majority, because of the Tory party's effective disappearance as an opposition, because of parliamentary cynicism - British democracy is not permitting British people to stop a war for which most of them have nothing but contempt.

From Washington's pathetic attempt to link Hussein to al-Qaeda, to Blair's childish "dossier" on weapons of mass destruction of which only 15 of the 50 pages were about such weapons - to the whole tragic farce of United Nations inspections - people are just no longer fooled.

The denials that this war has nothing to do with oil are as unconvincing as Colin Powell's claim last week that Iraq's oil would be held in trusteeship for the Iraqi people. Trusteeship was exactly what the League of Nations offered the Levant when it allowed Britain and France to adopt mandates in Palestine and Transjordan and Syria and Lebanon after World War 1. Who will be running the oil wells and exploring Iraqi oil reserves during the generous period of trusteeship? American companies, perhaps? No, people are not fooled.

Take the inspectors. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and now, alas, Powell don't want to give the inspectors more time. Why not, for God's sake? Let's go back to last September 12 when Bush, wallowing in the nostalgia of September 11, demanded that the UN act.

They must send their inspectors back to Iraq. They must resume their work. They must complete their work. Bush, of course, was hoping Iraq would refuse permission for inspectors to return. Iraq welcomed the UN. Bush was waiting for the inspectors to find hidden weapons. They found none. They are still looking. And that, needless to say, is the last thing Bush wants.

Bush said he was "sick and tired" of Hussein's trickery; what he meant was he was sick of waiting for UN inspectors to find the weapons which will allow America to go to war. He who wanted to get inspectors back to work doesn't want them to work any more.

"Time is running out," Bush said last week. He was talking about Hussein but was actually referring to UN inspectors, to the whole UN institution so laboriously established after World War 2 by his own country.

It's interesting that the only other nation pushing for war - save for some Australian soldiers en route to the Gulf and the ever-grateful government of Kuwait - is Israel.

Listen to the words of Zalman Shoval, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's foreign affairs advisor last week. Israel, he said, will "pay dearly" for a "long deferral" of a US strike against Iraq. "If it were postponed on political rather than military grounds," he said, "we will have every reason in Israel to fear that Saddam uses this delay to develop non-conventional weapons."

As long as Hussein is not sidelined, it will be difficult to convince the Palestinian leadership that violence doesn't pay and that it should be replaced by a new administration.

There can be no "regime change" for the Palestinians until there is "regime change" in Baghdad. By going along with the Bush drive, Blair is, indirectly, supporting Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (since Israel still claims to be fighting America's "war on terror" against Arafat).

Yes - an essential part of any such argument - Hussein is a cruel, ruthless dictator, not unlike the Dear Leader of North Korea, the nuclear megalomaniac with whom Americans have been having "excellent" discussions but who doesn't have oil. How typical of Hussein to send Ali "Chemical" Majeed - the war criminal who gassed the Kurds of Halabja - to tour Arab capitals last week, to sit in his business suit with President Bashar Assad of Syria and President Lahoud of Lebanon as if he never ordered the slaughter of the women and children of the Kurdish village.

But Bush and Blair uttered not a word about Majeed's Middle East tour - either because they did not want to offend the Arab leaders who met him or because the link between gas and war crimes and Washington's original support for Hussein is becoming an ever more sensitive issue.

Instead we are deluged with more threats from Washington about "states that sponsor terror". Our western journalists play a leading role in this propaganda game. Take Eric Schmitt in the New York Times a week ago. He wrote about America's decision to "confront countries that sponsor terrorism". His sources? Just listen to the list of them in what is only a 15-paragraph report. "Senior defence officials", "administration officials", "American intelligence officials", "military officials", "some officials", (yet again), "terrorist experts", and "defence officials". Is this journalism? Why not let the Pentagon write its own reports in the New York Times?

But that is what is changing. More Americans - aware that their president declined to serve his country in Vietnam - realise that their newspapers are lying to them and acting only as a conduit for the government. More Britons are tired of being told to go to war by newspapers, television stations and politicians. Indeed, I'd guess far more Britons are represented today by the policies of President Chirac of France than Prime Minister Blair of Britain. - Independent Foreign Service

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