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POLITICS-U.S.: Halloween Tidings from the ‘War on Terror’

Analysis - By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 2004 (IPS) - U.S. President George W Bush is fortunate indeed that so much of the electorate has already made up its mind on its vote next Tuesday, because this week’s news from the ”war on terrorism” has been unrelentingly bad.

While the apparently looting – apparently right after last year’s U.S.-led invasion – of nearly 400 tonnes of high explosives from an enormous weapons cache south of Iraq’s capital Baghdad dominated the media and the presidential campaign all week, other reports painted an equally dismal picture that tended to confirm Democratic charges of a misconceived and incompetent war and occupation.

A week that began with reports of the missing munitions and a high-level leak that claimed the Bush administration had passed up an early chance to assassinate or apprehend arch-terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ended with the airing of a video-tape by arch-enemy Osama bin Laden, the first to surface in more than two years, as if to remind the U.S. public that Bush had not gotten him either ”dead or alive”, as the president had pledged shortly after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Bin Laden’s dramatic appearance – perhaps the long-feared ”October surprise” that might yet determine Tuesday’s electoral outcome – immediately overshadowed both the munitions story and Friday’s publication by Britain’s premier medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, of a new study that estimated as many as 100,000 more Iraqis have died or been killed since the invasion than would otherwise have been expected, a number at least three times greater than other independent estimates put forward to date.

Most of the additional victims were women and children, according to the report, and attributable to military action by U.S.-led coalition forces, particularly air strikes, of which even Iraq’s U.S.-backed leaders have complained bitterly.

Those leaders were also in the news this week, and not in a way the administration might have wished. Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who had profusely thanked Bush for his ”liberation” of Iraq during a high-profile trip here just a few weeks ago, charged that U.S. forces had committed ”major negligence” in failing to protect 48 freshly trained Iraqi soldiers, who were apprehended and executed by insurgents last weekend.

If that was not enough, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced Thursday it is opening a criminal inquiry into allegations by a top government contracting official that the Halliburton company, previously headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, had gained favourable treatment from the army in violation of Pentagon rules.

And as U.S. troops and warplanes were reportedly preparing to launch a major assault, as early as next week, on the insurgent-dominated city of Falluja, the ‘New York Times’ published a front-page story reporting that Falluja’s ”strategically more important” neighbour, Ramadi, is itself collapsing into chaos.

Overall, the picture painted by the week’s news could only be described as bleak, despite Cheney’s own assurances during campaign stops that Iraq is ”a remarkable success story” – an assessment that, in light of the latest reports, was called ”downright spooky” by Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

”He already got his persona for Sunday”, noted Dowd, referring to Halloween, the holiday when children dress up as ghouls and goblins to extort candy from their neighbours. ”He’s the mad scientist in the haunted mansion, fiddling with test tubes to force the world to conform to his twisted vision”.

Of course, that image, horrifying enough, could only be eclipsed by the Halloween-eve appearance of the bearded and apparently healthy bin Laden, the ”monster” behind the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people and triggered Bush’s ”war on terrorism”.

While the al-Qaeda leader’s words on the 18-minute tape were still being translated and analysed by government officials and media commentators, the impact of his dramatic intervention just four days before the election, in a way that appeared at least in part aimed at mocking Bush, remains to be seen.

While the tape itself underlined what Kerry has been saying for weeks – that Bush took ”his eye off the ball” in the war on terrorism by invading Iraq before thoroughly destroying al-Qaeda – if it is seen as an endorsement of Kerry, it could very well work to the president’s advantage. The spin doctors will now take over.

But neither Cheney’s ”mad scientist” nor the apparition of bin Laden himself can truly compare to the very real horror of the conclusions of the ‘Lancet’ study, which was conducted by field surveys of Iraqi doctors and conceived by a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, just 50 kms north of the U.S. capital.

Its conclusion – that 100,000 more Iraqis have died, most as a result of military action, since March 2003 than would have been expected if the invasion and subsequent occupation had not taken place – attacked the very heart of the Bush administration’s last remaining justification for the war: that Iraqis are better off today than they were under former President Saddam Hussein.

The study was based on surveys in September of 30 randomly selected households in each of 33 neighbourhoods throughout the country.

Of nearly 1,000 households visited by investigators, 808, representing nearly 8,000 people, took part. Each household was asked how many people lived in the home and how many deaths had occurred since January 2002, 15 months before the invasion. In most cases, death certificates were made available to the researchers.

Although the sample appears small in a country of roughly 25 million people, its size and the way it was carried out are considered standard for household surveys by social scientists working in developing countries. Moreover, because Fallujah, which was the site of major battles last April and has since been the target of numerous U.S. air strikes, was among the neighbourhoods surveyed, it was excluded from the final estimates because the death toll there was so high.

The investigation found that the most common causes of death before the invasion were heart attacks, strokes and chronic diseases. But after the invasion, violence had become the primary cause of death in Iraq, 58 times more likely than in the 15 months before the U.S.-led attack.

Of violent deaths, about 95 percent were attributed to bombing or fire from helicopter gunships. Most of the victims, according to the study, were women and children.

The estimated number killed is far beyond the 10,000 to 30,000 people suggested by independent groups, such as the Iraq Body Count project or the Brookings Institution, evoking incredulity by Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon, who called the findings ”preposterous and politically driven”.

But the head of the Body Count project, Scott Lipscomb, said he has always believed his tally – almost 17,000 – was far too low. ”I am emotionally shocked but I have no trouble in believing that this many people have been killed”, he told the ‘New York Times’.

”The Iraq Body Count project provides an indicator of trends, but only can count deaths where journalists are present”, said Richard Garfield, one of the Lancet authors.

”Most deaths occur where journalists no longer dare to go, so population-based research like this cluster sample survey is a much better source.But even we were surprised by the magnitude of deaths due to violence and the fact that most violent deaths resulted from air strikes”.

Happy Halloween.

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