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Saddam Hussein: Master of Disinformation - 2003-01-31


In December 1998, U-N weapons inspector Richard Spertzel asked Rihab Taha, an Iraqi specialist in biological warfare.

"You know that we know you are lying. So why do you do it,"

She replied: "It is not a lie when you are ordered to lie."

That candid exchange opens a discussion of Iraqi disinformation activities that have been compiled by the U.S. Government. It is a long and impressive indictment.

Above all, says the report, Saddam Hussein's Iraq has aimed at misleading the media with considerable ingenuity and some success. A favorite ploy is the dead body parade. Instead of burying children who have died, their bodies are preserved in cold storage to be exposed on the appropriate occasion.

In June 2002, the B-B-C reported that 60 coffins of dead children were displayed in Martyr Square in Baghdad, allegedly the victims of depleted uranium left over from U.S. munitions in the Gulf war.

At this mass funeral, mourners shouted anti-American slogans and demanded an end to U.N. economic sanctions. All this was duly reported by the foreign press.

They were taken in, says the U.S. report. It was later revealed the children's bodies had been in storage for months in different parts of the country and were transported to the funeral. The causes of death were multiple.

Herb Romerstein, who served as a disinformation specialist in the U.S. government, recalls a comparable deception during the Gulf war.

"The fact that there was a factory that had a sign in English 'baby milk factory' got picked up by the press all over the world as if it were an authentic story, and of course, it was totally phony," Mr. Romerstein said. "Now we know from people who worked there that it was a chemical factory."

Mr. Romerstein says an alert press might have noticed the anomaly of a sign in English and reacted with more prudence.

The new report notes the Iraqi claim that 1.7 million children have died because sanctions deprived them of proper nourishment. But under the Oil-for-Food Program, which was started in 1996, the caloric intake of Iraqis has almost doubled. Medical supplies have also increased.

The report says the fault for childhood deaths lies with the regime, which exports much of the food it receives to earn hard currency for less worthy projects. For example, the more than 2 million dollars that Saddam Hussein has spent on 48 new palaces complete with gold-plated faucets and artificial waterfalls.

Mr. Romerstein says the Oil-for-Food Program has obviously not worked as intended.

"The idea of allowing him to sell oil for food was to alleviate whatever effect the sanctions had on ordinary people," he said. "The sanctions then would only affect Saddam Hussein and his government. But he has taken the money and instead of using it for food for his own people, has used it to build palaces and to build his weapons."

Warren Bass, an analyst of the Middle East for the Council on Foreign Relations, said Saddam Hussein's propaganda efforts are intended to lay all the blame for Iraq's troubles on the United States.

"There is no question that Iraq in humanitarian terms has some really serious problems to deal with, and those are the result of sanctions that the United States has pushed to keep on," Mr. Bass said. "But there is also no question that Saddam Hussein has always transferred all of that pain directly down to his populace, while still continuing to keep himself and his own ruling clique in pretty cushy luxury."

Iraq has also blamed an increase in cancers and birth defects on the depleted uranium used for U-S armor-piercing ammunition in the Gulf war. Gruesome photos of the diseased and deformed people are widely distributed. Iraq has hosted international conferences on the subject and sent envoys abroad to spread the word.

But the report notes the upsurge in these health problems has occurred in a region of Iraq where chemical weapons were used in the war with Iran. The mustard gas that Iraqis employed is known to cause cancer and possibly birth defects.

In the northern town of Halabja, a site of chemical attack, the number of cancer victims and congenital malformations were five to ten times greater after the poisonous warfare. Doctors who have visited the area say future generations will continue to suffer.

In preparation for a possible war, says the report, the Iraqis have resorted to another ruse. They have placed air defense missile systems and other military equipment close to civilian areas like parks, mosques, hospitals, hotels, shopping centers and even cemeteries. Rocket launchers adjoin soccer stadiums. Satellite imagery shows Iraq has constructed several military emplacements near a school in the town of Sarabadi, not far from Baghdad. This ensures that any attack on these facilities would lead to civilian deaths and to the discrediting of the United States.

All told, how well have Saddam Hussein's deceptions worked? Mr. Romerstein says it varies with different parts of the world.

"He has not been terribly successful in the West," he said. "He has been successful in the Arab world, but now he has supporters in the West, some of them supporters actually of the North Koreans, such as the Workers World Party here, who disseminate this disinformation as if it were real."

The report says these various deceptions feed into the ultimate effort to conceal weapons of mass destruction. The White House says Saddam Hussein remains defiant and is not telling what he knows, though it admits the truth is not all that easy to come by.

An administration official told The New York Times that evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is highly inferential, drawn from thousands of tiny clues pieced together by the C.I.A. Someone in intelligence can make sense of it, but others would miss the forest for the trees - hundreds of seemingly unrelated trees.

Warren Bass says the Bush administration has the problem of convincing publics as well as policy makers at home and abroad.

"Part of the challenge for the Bush administration, in the absence of a smoking gun, is to try to paint the pattern of Iraqi defiance in a way that adds up to a material breach of the U-N Security Council resolution," Mr. Bass said. "That is a very tricky thing to thread, particularly because in Europe at least, traditional American friends are deeply, deeply skeptical of this administration and see them as cowboys, arrogant, unilateral and willing to go alone."

That is where this new report fits in, says Mr. Bass. It is intended less to inform than to persuade what in many cases is a skeptical audience. "It is not an attempt to break new ground, although there may be some new tidbits in it, as it is to bring everything together and try to convince the American and European and other publics that Iraq is in flagrant violation of its disarmament obligations," he said. "It is a way of laying the predicate for the military action that the Bush Administration seems to be steering towards."

Mr. Romerstein says the U-S report is useful in cataloguing the Iraqi deceptions, and by appearing on the Internet, it is available to anyone in the world.

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