Why Desert Fox 'degrades' us all

The operation to take out Iraqi 'weapons of mass destruction' has also twisted truth, judgment - and even language; THE WAR GAME
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The Independent Online
So now military targets include the Basra oil refinery, do they? Messrs Clinton and Blair had promised us, of course, that only military targets would be hit in the Anglo-American bombardment of Iraq. But the refinery, bombed on Friday night, has allegedly been used to smuggle oil and thus - bingo! - becomes a military target. Maybe we'll be told that oil refineries are weapons of mass destruction. It's all on a par with the other equivocations we've been sold these last few days.

In Washington, we were informed that impeachment hearings against President Clinton were delayed because "American forces were in harm's way" - when the only people apparently in real danger are Iraqis. The lads firing the hundreds of Cruise missiles at Iraq from the safety of warships in the Gulf are about as much in harm's way as a car bomber. Even when the RAF joins in the bombardment, we're treated to an excited newsreader on the BBC World Service announcing that British aircraft have been "in action" over Iraq - as if this was the Battle of Britain rather than the bombing of an Arab country already crushed by sanctions which are killing thousands a month.

It's a truly weird phenomenon, the war game. Saddam has been our favourite beast for so long that we've lost touch with our own sense of proportion, let alone reality. Just 1,500 miles from Baghdad, for example, lives a man who has even more blood on his hands than the awful Saddam. His name is Slobodan Milosovic. He is responsible - along with the Serbian thugs among whom French Nato troops are happy to take coffee - for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and, more recently, hundreds of Kosovo Muslims. But we're not bombing Belgrade because we need Mr Milosovic to help us keep the "peace" in Bosnia.

Just as, back in 1980, we didn't bomb Baghdad for invading Iran because we supported that invasion and remained silent even when Saddam used gas on Iranian troops. I've even met the German arms dealer who brought the photo-reconnaissance maps of the Iranian front lines from the Pentagon to Baghdad so Saddam's boys could fire their gas shells more accurately.

But memory, like historical facts, has been erased in the last five days. We are now out to "degrade" Saddam. We are seriously "degrading" his weapons of mass destruction. And now we are "degrading" the infrastructure we said we wouldn't hit. And not just politicians but journalists are spouting this repulsive word as if they invented it. I've even heard that old obscenity "collateral damage" over the airwaves.

Yes, there are threats in the Middle East. Iran has new missiles that can reach the Gulf, Israel, even Russia. Israel itself has a minimum of 250 nuclear warheads in the Negev desert. Syria probably has chemical- tipped weapons. Further east, Pakistan and India have actually exploded nuclear weapons. But we're hearing nothing about their weapons of mass destruction.

Despite all this, the targets of our bombers last week, it seems, are missiles and weapons that no one has seen, aircraft and rockets and laboratories which the inspectors failed to discover in all of seven years. Last week, we were even told that Osama bin Laden - the Saudi dissident who was Washington's "most wanted man" until we started bombing Iraq - had been on the telephone to Saddam.

Now it happens that I discussed Saddam with Mr bin Laden when I last met him on the top of a mountain in Afghanistan. And while he expressed support for ordinary Iraqis, bin Laden had nothing but contempt and hatred for Saddam. Indeed, I suspect bin Laden would be as revolted at the idea of talking to Saddam as he would by the idea of talking to Bill Clinton.

But fantasy has become reality. Saddam and Osama have been chatting together. British aircraft are replaying 1940 in the skies over Iraq. Oil refineries are weapons. All we can do is keep our eye on Washington where, in the coming days, Mr Clinton is likely to be seriously degraded.