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For the past quarter century, the Iraqi people have served as a convenient geopolitical punching bag, used to justify unfounded racist fears and massive military budgets. The callousness with which successive Canadian governments have treated Iraqi lives as less than human is reprehensible and -- rhetoric aside -- Justin Trudeau is proving no different, waging an intensifying air war against that country with 47 separate air strikes since he won the election last October.
Canada has been dropping 500-pound bombs on the Iraqi people since November 2014, and yet there has been little public dissent beyond quibbles over mission timelines and objectives. And while Trudeau defenders claim it's not that easy to issue an order to ground Canada's warplanes, the military has been very clear, indicating at a December 17 press conference: "We'll do that when the Canadian government directs us to do so."
But Canada's "bad-ass" War Minister Harjit Sajjan, who was directed "to do so" in his ministerial mandate letter over two months ago, is either incompetent or just plain cowardly in refusing to issue a grounding order to his brothers-in-arms. It's not as if Canada's bombing allies are concerned. The day after Trudeau was elected, he immediately called the White House and then told reporters Obama "understands the commitments I've made about ending the combat mission." Trudeau also spoke with NATO officials during his first overseas trips in November and met with no resistance, while later that month a prime ministerial adviser told CBC there was "absolutely no pressure for Canada to continue its contribution to the bombing mission."
On December 6, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion told Canadians that bringing an end to the bombing would be "a matter of weeks, not months." Meanwhile, Canadian bombers dropped their load over the Iraqi people on Christmas and New Year's, and over one-and-a half months later, the bombing continues.
While the Liberals may seem in disarray, it's more likely that they are simply being dishonest: they clearly want to stay in the fight because of the bizarre belief that, by bombing people, they have a right to be "at the table" where discussions about the future of the region will eventually be carried out. That also translates into being part of the marketplace for fellow bombing countries to purchase new weapons systems through the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the global death merchant that brokered the $15-billion armoured brigade vehicle deal with the beheading regime of Saudi Arabia.
A laboratory for warfare
Iraq has long been a laboratory for modern warfare, in which weapons merchants try out their destructive products against real people and real buildings courtesy of a mutually beneficial arrangement with agencies like Canada's own War Department. That symbiosis also plays out in efforts to push weapons systems on potential buyers. As the Ottawa Citizen reported last week, Canada rents out its soldiers to play the role of catwalk models in corporate sales pitches of Canadian weaponry. Between 2012 and 2014, such Canadian Forces demonstrations were used to promote armoured brigade vehicles produced by London, Ontario's General Dynamics Land Systems to the regimes in Kuwait (which was not at the time on the registry of countries eligible to receive Canadian war materiel) and the U.A.E. (which for 17 months has illegally detained and tortured Canadian citizen Salim Alaradi with barely a whimper of concern from Ottawa).
Hence, continued Canadian bombing is as much an economic as a political investment for the Trudeau Liberals. What Dion, Sajjan and Trudeau have failed to acknowledge, however, is that every time their CF-18 bombers take to the air, people are killed by these bombing sorties, both civilians or conscripted fighters in Iraq.
Clearly, Canadian officials do not care about this human cost. That's not surprising, given this country's historic, ongoing, profitable role in destroying the Iraqi nation, killing well over two million people, and banishing a number of generations to intense poverty, environmental degradation, daily violence from the air and on the ground, and depleted-uranium weapons-induced cancer.
That stunning disregard for human life was illustrated perfectly by Canadian attempts to cover up the CF-18 slaughter of some 30 Iraqi civilians in January 2015, an air strike that only came to light eight months later when The Globe and Mail reported on documents released not by Ottawa but by the Pentagon. They indicated that:
"[t]he Canadian military made it clear to the United States shortly after the alleged incident that it felt no obligation under the Geneva Conventions to probe what happened, the Pentagon records show. 'It should be noted that Canadian Joint Operations Command [legal advisers] opinion is that, under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) there are no obligations for the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct an investigation.'"
The War Department's meticulously compiled, anodyne datebook of terror strikes against Iraq, Operation Impact, proudly touts that since it began, the Air Force has flown some 2,017 "sorties," while "delivering some 20,522,000 pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft." There are no human casualties listed whatsoever. That work is left to people such as the tireless researchers at airwars.org, who continue trying to piece together bits of information to show the true tally of the bombing campaign's victims (estimates of up to 2,400 civilians killed, and over 35,000 bombs and missiles dropped).
What's remarkable is that anything is left standing after 25 years of almost constant warfare and devastating, Canadian-enforced economic sanctions that the UN's former Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, called genocidal. While those who committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Iraq do book tours and appear as talk show guests, people who resisted the sanctions by providing food and medicine were criminalized. Among the most glaring cases are those of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a Syracuse oncologist, still behind bars as part of a 22-year sentence for a "crime of compassion" (sending humanitarian aid and medical supplies to the Iraqi people), and Dr. Shakir Hamoodi (jailed for three years because he sent money to his own and 14 other impoverished families in Iraq).
While Saddam Hussein was certainly a loathsome dictator, he was not loathsome enough to prevent arms dealers around the globe from supplying him with their deadly wares. And when it appeared the fall of the Soviet Union would leave the weapons industry in a shambles, Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait was greeted with jubilation in the offices of the war industry. A new enemy was proclaimed, Hussein was suddenly Hitler, and he had to be stopped. Ratcheting up war fever was assisted by the blood-stained Hill & Knowlton PR group (which created the myth of Kuwaiti babies being ripped from incubators). Hill & Knowlton's Canadian arm was then run by David MacNaughton (appointed this week to be Trudeau's ambassador to the U.S.).
While the Mulroney government was quick to utter self-righteous pieties about illegal occupations of sovereign territories, the Conservative government of the day did the exact same thing that summer by sending in 2,600 Canadian troops to occupy sovereign Mohawk land during the Oka crisis. Their armoured vehicles, helicopters, aerial surveillance equipment, miles of barbed wire, and countless other means of firepower served to enforce the same kind of sanctions the Iraqi people were about to face, cutting off power and trying to deny the entry of food, water, medicines, and clothing to the Indigenous resisters behind the wire. The military bolstered an additional 4,000 paramilitary SQ members, numbers that dwarfed the initial commitment of 900 Canadian troops sent to take on Hussein.
In a "post-Cold War" world, Canada's military and its war industries welcomed a new enemy, and while Indigenous resistance has always provided a major raision d'etre for Canadian Forces and related state security agencies (witness the massive, barely reported Gustafsen Lake crisis of 1995), having an overseas target proved invaluable.
Indigenous lands were the first testing ground for weapons systems used against the Iraqi people, from fighter bombers who dropped 1,000-pound "dummy" bombs over the Innu territory of Nitassinan to cruise missiles tested on Cree Territory. Canadian universities helped with the more horrific forms of firepower to be employed. For example, fuel air explosives, known as a "poor man's atom bomb," invert gravity and are designed to suck people out of air raid shelters; they were researched at McGill University, which continues to be a major war research contributor. Canada's chemical weapons testing field at Suffolk, Alberta, had been used by a Belgian company to experiment with long-range artillery shells that were sold to the Iraqis during the 1980s.
From the moment Kuwait was invaded, Canada was eager for war, taking every conceivable step to prevent a negotiated solution while lobbying UN Security Council members to authorize force. Then foreign affairs minister Joe Clark said Parliament need not be recalled if the need to go to war was imminent. And while the narrative of sanctions as a tool to force Hussein out of Kuwait was trumpeted by the U.S.-led coalition, the Toronto Star reported that "when Canada was committed to no more than enforcing a trade embargo against Iraq, Ottawa was calmly setting aside funds for a full-blown war." Some $500 million in federal cuts to social programs were initiated to help pay for the war, and the government resurrected legislation allowing it to control wartime production, with General Motors in London (the predecessor to General Dynamics Land Systems) announcing it could switch from civilian work to military production of armoured personnel carriers at a moment's notice.
Clark also distinguished himself by naming as "counterproductive" any pledges that Allied forces would not use nuclear weapons against Iraq. On October 26, 1990, he declared Canada would go to war whether the UN authorized it or not. In November, the government ordered 800 body bags (with a weak-kneed NDP only questioning the high number of the bags). With the outbreak of war, General John de Chastelain cheerily declared, "We are now at war and the distinction between whether our roles are offensive or defensive is immaterial."
CF-18s deadly, destructive
Canadian bombers began their runs over Iraq on January 20, 1991, with General Gerard Theriault reminding Toronto Star readers "the destructive ability of one CF-18 [is] as great as an attack by hundreds of bombers during World War II." After the equivalent of one and a half Hiroshima bombs was dropped on Baghdad the first night of the war, the NDP's John Brewin stood and declared: "The first feeling is one of concern for the safety of the pilots and sympathy for them. We admire the courage they will need in a very difficult assignment." Keeping in mind the Iraqis had little anti-aircraft capacity and half the country's population was under the age of 15, Brewin's remarks were hardly a voice of principled opposition.
Meanwhile, Joe Clark proclaimed, "Some wars can be a point of principle; this is one of those wars." He insisted that the Geneva Convention protocols to which Canada was a signatory (concerning "excessive loss of civilian life") were not being violated. Clark then fumbled his way through another statement, the like of which he was quite famous for, when he declared: "If there is one priority, one lesson, which the world must learn from this war, is that an unrestricted arms trade in the region is no longer acceptable and constitutes a threat to all members of the United Nations." Fine words, perhaps, but not matched by the actions of a government that would very shortly change the Criminal Code at the behest of arms manufacturers Diemaco (Colt Canada now) and General Motors to allow for the import and possession of automatic weapons (crucial to the signing of the first Saudi armoured brigade vehicles contract in 1991).
One of the strongest NDP stands during the slaughter of the Iraqi people urged people across the land to send Valentine's messages to the troops. Meanwhile, Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae, despite closing hospital beds due to budget cuts, opened several up for troop casualties, while his government discussed security measures to deal with "terrorist" threats. Needless to say, anti-Arab sentiment and violence ran high (as documented in Zuhair Kashmeri's book, The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, & The Gulf War).
The horrific war crimes against the Iraqis continued directly for a good three months, followed by a 12-year-long daily grind of aerial warfare termed enforcement of no-fly zones, and sanctions that killed over one million people (leading to Madeleine Albright's infamous statement about the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children: "we think the price is worth it"). Then came the 2003 escalation of the war: a bloody invasion and occupation with major Canadian participation that continues in various forms to this day.
Canada's victims of the Gulf War
As much as Canada has refused to acknowledge the many victims of its foreign and military policy of the past 25 years -- rendering the Iraqi people invisible unless we need them for photo-ops -- they have equally refused to recognize the humanity of Gulf War One veterans who have returned to die slowly, painfully, and largely in silence. Canada does not keep statistics on Gulf War Syndrome (a horrific condition marked by exposure to depleted uranium, a whole slew of neurotoxic and biological warfare chemicals, and an over-the-top vaccination regime that followed no proper protocols). Among those vets suffering is former navy Lieutenant Louise Richard, who recalls being in touch with at least 400 veterans suffering symptoms similar to hers, a number of whom have since died.
A nurse and former triathlete who entered the war in top form, she returned a completely different person, as she testified in 2013:
"The Gulf War veterans and modern combat vets as a whole have been made to feel like toxic waste that has been disposed of and dumped…We are released from DND undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all. We're left untreated. We're left on our own to find our own doctors, civilian doctors, specialists, therapists, psychiatrists. Canadian vets have been totally abandoned. Our symptoms, illnesses, and concerns have been minimized, belittled, ignored -- stress. As for the doctors and specialists we do find who are willing to take us on, VAC [Veterans Affairs Canada] has the nerve to challenge their diagnoses, their treatments, and their credentials. Veterans Affairs dictates to us how many treatments, and the distance we can travel on our claims. Policy always overrules the needs of the ill veteran."
Just as the seeds of violence Canada planted with the 1991 slaughter of Iraqis continue to yield horrific crops, so veterans like Louise Richard continue to suffer from a war-produced chemical brew that will occupy their own bodies in perpetuity. She is not allowed to give blood, and she shocked committee members when she challenged them thusly:
"This is in our blood supply. Depleted uranium, as we know, goes all over the body, to the organs. Does anyone here want an organ of mine if you're in a car crash tomorrow?"
Stunned MPs said no, but then proceeded on to other business.
Next steps for Canada
As for what Canada should do next, there are no easy answers, but there is a clear conclusion: the strategy of military engagement has time and again proven itself a deadly failure that inevitably sows the seeds of next year's and next decade's brutalities (just as militarist adventurism, support for dictatorships like those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and proxy wars of the past 40 years have left us at the current impasse). The only way to end the spiral of violence is to stop adding to it. It would not be a crime for Canada to step back, take a pause, examine how we can end our own contributions to the spiral of violence, and proceed from there.
Canadian policymakers would also do well to read the expert writings of Andrew Cockburn, who points out in Harper's Magazine that the ever-shifting allegiances in the region essentially have "Western" powers cozying up with Al-Qaeda front groups as the preferred alternative to ISIS. Al-Qaeda? You remember them, don't you? Aren't they supposed to be bad guys that we created and funded in Afghanistan during the 1980s who had something to do with that 9/11 thing? Canadians should also be aware that news of "progress" against ISIS is generally poppycock; indeed, some 50 high-level Central Command intelligence analysts wrote a letter of protest last year, concerned that their intelligence was being manipulated to transform ISIS strength into ISIS defeats, making Obama and company look like they were in charge.
Canada is also a less-than-honest player in the region given its utter silence on the brutal Turkish military crackdown on Kurds, surrounding and starving whole communities in the southeast of the country, cutting off power and denying sustenance. On the one hand, the Kurds are portrayed as heroic fighters against ISIS, but the minute they talk about self-determination, they are labelled terrorists by the Turks and Canadians (Canada has labelled the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, a terrorist entity.) And yet, as the hardly radical Wall Street Journal points out, "The PKK and its Syrian affiliate have emerged as Washington's most effective battlefield partners" against ISIS.
In addition, the government of Iraq, on whose behalf the Canadian government is ostensibly fighting, was one of the subjects of a damning United Nations report released January 19. While ISIS justifiably comes under condemnation for the "staggering" number of civilian casualties in 2015, it also documents "alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law by the Iraqi Security Forces and associated forces, including militia and tribal forces, popular mobilization units, and Peshmerga," all of whom are technically Canadian allies. Such crimes include "unlawful killings and abductions," governmental restrictions preventing civilians from fleeing conflict areas, and arbitrary arrests. Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, Ján Kubiš, called for the international community to "enhance its support to the Government of Iraq's humanitarian, stabilization and reconstruction efforts in areas liberated from ISIL," so that "all Iraqis displaced by violence can return to their homes in safety and in dignity and that affected communities can be re-established in their places of origin."
Canada should also come clean about its role in recruitment and facilitation of travel for young people to join ISIS. In a story that has disappeared from any discussion, Turkish authorities last spring arrested an apparent asset of Canadian spy service CSIS, who was nabbed escorting young women across the border into Syria to join ISIS.
As the Trudeau government fidgets about its next steps, calls for an end to the bombing seem too narrow, and provide Trudeau with the cover he needs to wage the war in a different fashion (something he has clearly indicated he wishes to do). These narrow calls fail to ask how, exactly, Canada (along with the rest of NATO) can contribute anything positive to the region after applying so much direct and indirect violence. The calls could be stronger if they demanded that Trudeau must also include an end to any military "assistance" in the air (one proposal being considered is keeping refuelling and reconnaissance aircraft in the area, making Canadians simply bombers by proxy. Indeed, Canada's War Dept. proudly says these aircraft "fuel the fight."). He should also cancel the current and proposed expanded role for Canadian Forces on the ground. The idea that the armed forces of the Canadian state have anything to offer in this situation (apart from their experience in repressing Indigenous communities and their design of hierarchical institutions in which violence against women is at epidemic levels) is completely without foundation. As in Afghanistan, a Canadian approach based on militarism leaves behind a toxic legacy of hatreds, trauma and violence.
Perhaps a period of non-intervening reflection and consultation with grassroots groups on the ground, or massive investments in food security, clean water and reparations for all the misery we have caused would be a far better choice. An end to the production and export of Canadian weapons would help too. Working to stop the flow of arms into the region from Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be a step forward. Investments in groups that work for reconciliation and the conditions needed for true justice on the ground would be a bonus. There are groups in the region who have been doing this work on a small-scale level for years, such as Muslim Peacemaker Teams along with numerous women's groups who, in the heart of ISIS territory, have organized protests and won demands. But in classic colonial fashion, Canada refuses to listen to the voices on the ground, seeing our role as a "protector" and wise parent. As German politician Jürgen Todenhöfer wrote last November after spending 10 days embedded with ISIS, "we have to finally start treating the Muslim world as true partners, and not as a cheap petrol station we can raid when we feel like it."
Ultimately, as we focus on how to end the Canadian bombing of Iraq, we need to take into consideration the broader picture, the lengthy history, the significant amount of blood on our hands, and what we can do to prevent Canadian corporations and political careers from profiting off the lives of people halfway around the world from us.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.
Photo: Alex Roy/flickr
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