| More than purely emotional
In Britain, one might be forgiven for imagining that the invasion and occupation of Iraq produced no casualties until the militants seized a 62-year-old British engineer, Kenneth Bigley. He is alive at the time of writing, for which I am truly glad. I hope he survives the war. If he does not, it will be only because Arabs refuse to let the West trample on their rights. Meanwhile, the media circus recalls the American journalistic gag that '1,000 deaths in Nepal equal 100 deaths in Wales equal 10 deaths in West Virginia equal one death next door.'
Bigley's plight presents Tony Blair, deep in his own domestic intrigues of survival, with another difficult choice. Should he yield to the terrorists, as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines did, and save a fellow national' Or should he resist like George W. Bush, no matter how many lives are squandered' Blair probably has no choice, being almost as dependent on the United States of America as Iyad Allawi, Iraq's so-called prime minister who needs 138,000 American troops to keep him in office. The controversy over releasing three Iraqi prisoners, including two women scientists, Rihab Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Amash, which was expected to lead to Bigley's freedom, exposed the myth of Allawi's sovereignty. Iraq's national security adviser, Kassim Daoud, announced the release, which the justice ministry confirmed. But Bush refused, which Blair promptly echoed. Allawi's puppet regime may not even be aware of the numbers, categories and other details of prisoners. The shameful depravity of Abu Ghraib proves that the Americans are a law unto themselves.
The uproar over Bigley's trauma exposes the British media's shallowness. Newspapers either feast on scandals about each other or go berserk over the rage of the moment ' Princess Diana, fox hunting or Bigley's ordeal. Laced into the shrill hysterics is the frustration of a fallen empire that finds it painful to exorcise the memory of such imperial highlights as the Don Pacifico incident and gunboat diplomacy. The British were not so exercised when the Iraqis beheaded two American hostages for the simple reason that they did not arouse memories of a faded Pax Britannica.
Here and there amidst the cacophony one does hear a voice recalling Margaret Thatcher's warning that publicity is oxygen for terrorists, and wondering what purpose is served by the outpouring of grief, anguished messages, and frantic appeals that hung like a pall over the muted struggle for future power at the Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton. Public protests also suggest that significant numbers of people are acutely aware that the only way of ending such barbarities is to withdraw from a country where the British and Americans had no business to be in the first place and where they are bitterly resented by all save a small and discredited coterie of collaborators.
Clearly, the captors ' believed to be the Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his gang ' played on British sensitivities to manipulate public opinion by releasing Bigley's emotional video appeals. They helped to personalize the crisis. Their actions induced two distinguished leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain to fly to Baghdad and plead there that Bigley should not be blamed for Britain's 'crimes' and to promise forgiveness for 'all wrongdoings' if his life was spared. The pop singer Cat Stevens, reborn as Yusuf Islam, issued a statement that Bigley should be released 'for the good name of our religion and according to the sayings of Allah in the glorious Quran'.
Ironically for this PR war, the Americans played into Iraqi hands with a third bombing strike on Fallujah in 24 hours on the very day the British Muslim emissaries were in Baghdad. It killed eight more Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and wounded 17, though the American military claimed that its 'precision' bombing was aimed at a meeting of 10 militants.
Hundreds of ordinary Iraqis have perished ' at least 700 in Fallujah alone ' though the US refuses to release numbers, and Britain follows suit. These deaths have not touched the conscience of the occupying forces and their distant compatriots.
Concern for Bigley's plight may not be the British Muslim delegation's only motivation. The urge to build bridges to the native white community and demonstrate that Muslims are not indifferent to the national mood must also play a part. Estrangement should not be dated only to the opposition of British Muslims to invading Iraq or to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Uneasy communal relations and Muslim representations about discrimination led to the appointment of a Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (a telling word) whose 60 recommendations were released by Jack Straw, then home secretary, in 1997. Grievances persist, and Baroness Uddin, a Labour life peer of Bangladeshi origin, talks of the 'huge problem of social exclusion'. She has in mind exclusion from national prosperity and institutions that generate wealth, but the Muslim Council is probably also trying to tackle the problem of psychological exclusion which cuts both ways.
Given the Bigley family's gift of dramatic rhetoric, it is not difficult to depict Blair as the hardhearted politician who can but will not save an innocent life. This simplification involves the maximum demonization of Abu Musa and other such fighters. They are the brutes with whom Allawi claimed during his recent visit to London to be involved in 'a civilizational struggle'. But the Iraq impasse has other ramifications. Ariel Sharon's tearing up of the road map to peace, his annexation of much of the West Bank and massive offensives in the Gaza Strip, and the recent Israeli murder of a Hamas leader in Damascus, as well as mounting US pressure on Syria, all have a bearing on the resistance in Iraq. Robin Cook, Blair's former foreign secretary, admits that there were no terrorists, domestic or foreign, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They surfaced only after the Anglo-American conquest.
Everything goes back to an unjust war that Kofi Annan calls 'illegal'. The UN security council did not authorize an attack. Its Resolution 1441 did not sanction force. The chief UN inspector, Hans Blix, did not complain of non-cooperation by Saddam Hussein. The West's own evidence has proved conclusively that even the fabled weapons of mass destruction were of tangential interest. Blair told the Brighton conference that the intelligence services were mistaken. The invasion did not follow the New York Twin Towers attack. Nor was it a sequel to the Afghan campaign. Bush's neo-conservative cronies, led by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, were already determined to topple Saddam Hussein and take over his country. They wanted the oil, and they wanted a base in the heart of west Asia from where they could reshape the politics of the entire region. Iraq is, therefore, more closely connected with the denial of a Palestinian homeland than with any terrorist threat. Only the self-serving Allawi trots out a west Asian variant of the discredited old domino theory to make common cause with Russia (Chechen violence) and Spain (Madrid underground bombing) and accuse global terrorists of desperately seeking a foothold in Iraq.
'This could be their flagship in the Middle East, spreading out into other countries,' he says. It could indeed, but only if the Americans, with the British in tow, try to retain their stranglehold on a free people. As Sir Ivor Roberts, the British ambassador in Rome, said undiplomatically, Bush is al Qaida's best recruiting sergeant. A protracted foreign occupation would be a standing invitation to more foreign terrorists. It would also mean more hostages and more innocent deaths. Kenneth Bigley must be saved. If he cannot, that should at least force the US and British governments to acknowledge that the age of Western imperial control of Asian nations is past.