In November last year, as many as 24 Iraqi civilians – among them 11 women and children – were killed by US marines in Haditha, western Iraq. The New York Times has described the atrocity as possibly “the gravest case involving misconduct by American ground forces in Iraq”. Initial US army reports had suggested the Iraqis died from a makeshift bomb, a lie that was swiftly replaced by another: that the civilians had been killed in crossfire between marines and ‘insurgents’.
In fact, the evidence indicates that the victims were killed during a “sustained” attack by US forces lasting between three and five hours. Deaths occured “inside at least two homes that included women and children”. The slaughter was “methodical in nature”. (Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt And Richard A. Oppel Jr., ‘Military Expected to Report Marines Killed Iraqi Civilians,’ New York Times, May 25, 2006)
Many of the victims were killed “execution-style,” shot in the head or in the back. One US government official said that the US marines had “suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results”. (Tony Perry and Julian E. Barnes, ‘Photos Indicate Civilians Slain Execution-Style,’ Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2006)
Eman Waleed, 9, a survivor of the atrocity, was interviewed by Time magazine. Eman lived close to the site of the roadside bomb that killed a marine. She “heard a lot of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes.” US marines then entered her family’s house:
“First, they went into my father’s room, where he was reading the Qur’an,” she said, “and we heard shots.”
Next, the marines entered the living room:
“I couldn’t see their faces very well – only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.”
Eman says the troops fired towards the corner of the room where she and her younger brother, Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding. The other adults were killed shielding the children from the bullets:
“We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much. Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting, ‘Why did you do this to our family?’ And one Iraqi soldier tells me, ‘We didn’t do it. The Americans did.'” (Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘Marines may face trial over Iraq massacre,’ The Guardian, May 27, 2006)
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told US news channels that the allegations are being investigated thoroughly and would be handled “in the normal order of things”. (Al-Jazeera, ‘US troops killed Iraqis “in cold blood”,’ May 19, 2006; http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/ exeres/887CEBF0-DF83-4D99-9BD2-9F14BAC4DA7C.htm)
The Times (London) notes that: “the damage limitation has already begun.” The paper explains:
“Lawyers who have talked to the Marines emphasise the extreme pressure that they were facing that day. The insurgents had mounted a wave of attacks, and the town was one of the most dangerous in Iraq for US troops.” (Ali Hamdani, Ned Parker, Nick Meo and Tom Baldwin, ‘The Marines and a “massacre” in Iraq,’ The Times, May 27, 2006)
Damage limitation includes shifting blame back on to the Iraqis:
“Marine officers have long been worried that Iraq’s deadly insurgency could prompt such a reaction by combat teams.” (Perry and Barnes, op. cit.)
Andrew Murray, chair of the Stop the War Coalition, said:
“It’s clear that what happened in Haditha is a war crime. It would be idle to think this is the first war crime that has been committed in the last three years. It must be assumed that more of this is going on.” (Raymond Whitaker, ‘The massacre and the Marines,’ Independent on Sunday, May 28, 2006)
For example, independent journalist Dahr Jamail wrote recently:
“On March 15th, 11 Iraqis, mostly women and children, were massacred by US troops in Balad. Witnesses told reporters that US helicopters landed near a home, which was then stormed by US troops. Everyone visible was rounded up and taken inside the house where they were killed. The victims’ ages ranged from six months to 75 years.” (Jamail, ‘How massacres become the norm’, April 4, 2006; http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/040406Z.shtml)
Readers will recall our recent media alert highlighting a BBC Newsnight film, based on the testimony of US veterans, that provided evidence for the routine killing of Iraqi civilians. To our knowledge, the film generated no coverage in the British press. (‘You Could Kill Whoever You Wanted To’, April 19, 2006; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060419_you_could_kill.php)
Media Amplification of the Mythology of ‘Mistakes’
As we have repeatedly noted in our media alerts, the ‘news’ is often what powerful leaders want it to be. Consider an online BBC news article which channelled President Bush and Prime Minister Blair’s hand-wringing pronouncements on their “mistakes in Iraq”:
“The two leaders have never admitted their mistakes in such frank terms, the BBC’s Jonathan Beale says… BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus says Iraq has cast a shadow over the leaders’ careers and both were seeking to play up the potential for change afforded by the new democratically-elected government in Baghdad.” (‘Bush and Blair admit errors,’ BBC news online, May 26, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/5016548.stm)
The vital missing context from this report, and BBC news programmes generally, is as follows. The UK (though not the US) is a signatory to the treaty that set up the International Criminal Court (ICC). Underpinning the ICC are the Geneva conventions and the 1945 Nuremberg charter. The latter states clearly:
“To initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” (http://www.counterpunch.org/herman05112006.html)
The BBC tells us that Bush and Blair now admit “mistakes” in Iraq and that “Iraq has cast a shadow over the leaders’ careers.” But the publicly-funded broadcaster has yet to report that Bush and Blair have committed crimes; in fact, “the supreme international crime” as defined at the Nuremberg trials.
What does the British press have to say on the matter? On May 26, 2006 we conducted a newspaper database search covering the period since the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. We searched for articles addressing the possibility that Tony Blair might have committed the “supreme international crime”. We could find only six such articles; two of those were by John Pilger.
Certainly, there have been newspaper reports that mentioned moves to impeach Tony Blair, a campaign led by Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price. A few reports in January 2006 noted that General Sir Michael Rose, the British UN commander in Bosnia, had called for Blair to be impeached. The news reports that mentioned the grounds for impeachment were couched in terms of the Prime Minister having “misled the country in the run-up to war.” But the more damning indictment of having committed the supreme international crime of launching a war of aggression, and the context of the Nuremberg judgement, is entirely missing. Of the 190 press reports in over three years that mention the impeachment campaign, we could not find even one report that included this basic context.
There have also been newspaper reports about Malcolm Kendall-Smith, the airforce officer who was jailed in April for eight months for refusing to serve in Iraq. The press reports explained that Kendall-Smith had challenged the legality of the invasion and occupation. “Nuremberg” was mentioned in a total of 34 of these news stories as the basis for Flight Lieutenant Kendall-Smith’s defence. But details and context were once again lacking. In particular, not one press report explicitly stated that Bush and Blair could be charged with the “supreme international crime” of conspiring to launch a war of aggression under the Nuremberg charter.
The closest approximation to the truth was in press reporting of the RAF’s legal argument in Kendall-Smith’s court case. The argument was that no “individual service personnel could be implicated in ‘crimes of aggression’ [because] these were a ‘leadership crime’ which the Nuremberg trials established could not be committed by an individual not in a position to dictate state policy.” (Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, ‘RAF doctor refused Iraq return because “invasion was unlawful”,’ March 16, 2006)
This tortuous wording avoided any direct indication that Bush and Blair are culpable for the supreme international crime.
The “Bad Argument” That Launched An Invasion
In his book, Lawless World, Philippe Sands QC comments on the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith’s, legal advice, dated March 17, 2003, giving Blair the green light to go to war without a second UN resolution:
“It is a bad argument, and very few states and virtually no established international lawyers see its merits.” (Sands, Lawless World, Penguin, 2006, p.189)
Just ten days earlier, the Attorney General had issued a carefully worded document which had been full of caveats about the possibility of any legal case supporting an invasion of Iraq. Sands told the BBC that he had consulted with fellow barristers and they had concluded:
“This 7 March document is written by a man who, in his heart, recognises that, without a second resolution, the war would be unlawful.” (John Silverman, ‘Was this a man under pressure?’ [referring to Lord Goldsmith], BBC news online, April 28, 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/vote_2005/frontpage/4492093.stm)
As Sands noted in his book:
“A little-noticed passage of the Attorney General’s 7 March advice pointed out that ‘aggression is a crime under customary international law which automatically forms part of domestic law’. Those most closely associated with the initiation of recent events in Iraq may also want to avoid holidays in those countries that have criminalized the planning, preparation or conduct of aggressive war.” (Sands, op. cit., pp. 282-283)
Critical comments about Blair and Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq have, of course, been made by newspaper columnists. But we have not seen anyone who has explained that Bush and Blair would be found guilty by the standards applied at Nuremberg.
One columnist who has at least called for Blair’s impeachment is the Independent’s Andreas Whittam-Smith:
“[Bush and Blair] cannot admit failure. Their periods in office are ruined. Their reputations are tarnished. In theory they could use Saturday’s announcement of a new Iraqi government as a reason to get out. But they are trapped. And more lives will be unnecessarily lost before the agony is over.
“The US President and the British Prime Minister really should be impeached, but I don’t suppose they will be.” (Whittam-Smith, ‘Now the US and Britain can declare victory in Iraq and bring their troops back home,’ The Independent, May 22, 2006)
It is entirely unsurprising that Bush and Blair are not under sustained pressure to face impeachment – the establishment media and political system, virtually en masse, has rejected even the possibility.
Despite overwhelming legal opinion on the illegality of the war, and huge public opposition to the invasion and occupation, not a single editorial in any British national newspaper has, as far as know, ever stated that western leaders ought to stand trial before the International Criminal Court. Not one newspaper in its leader column has called for Blair to be impeached for war crimes. The editorial silence from the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, The Times and the rest is shameful.
A British Prime Minister may launch a war of aggression, cause death and suffering on an unimaginable scale, and +still+ not be held to account by the supposed ‘watchdogs’ of democracy.
Further proof, if any were needed, that the British media is indeed a guardian of brutal and destructive power.
David Cromwell is co-author, with David Edwards, of the recent Media Lens book ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media’. For further details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here: