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Mesopotamian treasures get extreme care

Kuwait, April 6: To many in the Arab world, the speed with which the American invasion of Iraq has reached Baghdad is an example of brute force by the most powerful military.

The American forces’ command itself says that so far Operation Iraqi Freedom has proved to be a precise, surgical, culturally-sensitive, armed expedition.

Authoritative casualty figures are not available yet. In the years preceding the war, Iraq was impoverished. With a war like the one that is taking place, there can be little doubt that we are witness to an artificial humanitarian disaster in the making.

The Telegraph presents here two versions of the way in which the war has been carried out.

The first by officers of the “coalition forces’ land component command”. The second by a spokeswoman of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Major Christopher Varhola and Lieutenant Colonel John Kuttas are on the civil affairs staff of the US army. It is their job to contribute to the US strategy on “military targeting of cultural heritage centres”.

The assumption here is that if the forces are so sensitive about targeting monuments and places of worship, they must be acutely conscious of not taking civilian lives.

“Priceless,” says Major Varhola. “Priceless,” he repeats when asked to estimate the value of the treasures of Mesopotamia, the world’s oldest civilisation bounded by the Tigris and the Euphrates.

He was in the field of combat a week ago. “Iraq has tens of thousands of archaeological sites. I am a cultural anthropologist, not an archaeologist, but I can tell you how sensitive we are about carrying out operations in such places.”

At Najaf and in Karbala, US forces angered local people who thought they would enter the mosques.

“There is an intentional use of archaeological and cultural sites by the Iraqi forces to target the US army,” says Varhola. “Our troops will never enter a mosque. There are exceptions for Muslims among our soldiers.”

“We do everything humanly possible,” adds Kuttas. “We rely heavily on precision-guided munitions. We only take out that portion used by the Iraqi forces and insist on positive identification. We do not believe in shooting in the dark.”

An example cited is from the 1991 war. US forces saw a military target in a jet aircraft parked next to a ziggurat. The ziggurat was not touched.

Commanding officers of the US forces in the field, they say, are adequately briefed and familiar with the ground that they tread.

Has there been any conflict between what the commanding officers on the field have wanted to do and what the civil affairs officers have advised' “I do not accept that we represent the good intentions of the army but we are unable to prevent damage. It is not a one-shot deal,” says Kuttas. “I cannot comment on specifics of operations.”

Does he mean that in a combat situation, the leader of a platoon caught in a firefight with the Iraqi forces is actually able to make an assessment on whether a site is of historical and cultural value'

“Yes” is the answer. “The commanding officer makes a split-second cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes it is even putting our own troops at risk.”

In the Shia uprising of 1991, the officers say, the tomb of Hussein and the mosque at Karbala were partially destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s forces.

What will the American forces do if, say, they are being fired at from a minaret' “The commanding officer decides. We are always concerned about not what we may do but about what we may cause Saddam Hussein to do,” says Kuttas.

Women & kids fill hospitals

Tamara Al-Rifai, a Syrian, is spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. She is waiting for a clearance to get into Iraq since the war began.

“I am able to tell you that we do have six international workers and about 25-30 workers in Baghdad. In Basra, we have four international workers and about 20 Iraqis working with the Red Cross. However, for the last two days, our workers in Baghdad have not been able to venture out.

“I do not know the situation in Basra where the battle has intensified today. The only other city where we have access is Erbil in North Iraq. We are not in a position to make a complete assessment of the situation either in Baghdad or Basra and certainly not in the other cities like Najaf and Nasiriyah,” she says.

Baghdad has 33 hospitals. The Red Cross team led by Marcus Dolder was able to reach four of them.

“Our team in Baghdad is very very worried. In the four hospitals that they could visit, more than 80 per cent of the casualties were civilian. A big number of them were women and children.

“In Basra, in the first week of combat, each of the three hospitals was admitting at least a 100 casualties every day. Last week, this figure was between 50 and 100 in each of the hospitals. This week, fighting is bitter. We do not know what is happening.”

How do Red Cross workers travel and access hospitals' “We refuse any escort. We seek clearances independently from either side and only then we can go in. We have been working in Iraq for 23 years -- since the time of the Iran-Iraq war — and are fairly familiar with the processes.”

In the run-up to the war, the Red Cross had pre-positioned stocks in warehouses in Iran, Jordan, Syria and Kuwait. About 30 workers of the Red Cross in Kuwait have been waiting for a fortnight to gain access to Iraq.

There is enough food in Baghdad and Basra. Basra needs blankets and water. The water supply pumphouse is up and running but pipelines are choked.

“The Iraqi population is much weaker now, more vulnerable now than it was in 1991,” Al-Rifai says. “We need to get intravenous fluids and anaesthetics in quickly.”

The US forces have been claiming that civilians were not being deliberately targeted.

“We cannot give figures. Our teams are very worried. In Baghdad, they are very worried. Our main worry is that the hospitals are full of non- combatants, of civilians,” she says.

After being given the impression that the invaders of Iraq comprise a sensitive faculty of learned archaeologists, anthropologists, social scientists and humanists, Al-Rifai’s worry sounds alarmist.

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