[A few minutes after I posted this memo to Howell Raines, I learned that he had just resigned as executive editor of The New York Times over the Jason Blair controversy. The previous executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, has been asked to return on a temporary basis, so I would hope he would give this memo seriously attention.]
Memo To: Howell Raines, NYTimes executive editor
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: All those bodies
Over the last several weeks, Howell, your paper has run several accounts of “mass graves” being unearthed in Iraq. Because it is now becoming clearer by the day that Iraq had no “weapons of mass destruction,” when our government decided to incinerate roughly 25,000 Iraqi civilians and soldiers, mass graves now seem one of the new justifications for our pre-emptive war. And the Times has been leading the charge in discovering them. You of course realize by now that I have been correct in warning you that Iraq has had no WMD since 1991, and may not have actually had any before that. I’m not expecting you to say I was right, but I do hope you will take my advice in urging your reporters in Iraq to be more careful in their reports of “mass graves.”
The very first report, as I recall, was of mass graves that turned out to be cemeteries. But because the news accounts on CNN repeated incessantly that they were “mass graves,” it simply confirmed the public’s predisposition to believe that Saddam Hussein was a genocidal maniac. Ever since, the Times has been reporting on bodies being turned up by the hundreds or thousands in one place or another, and in each instance the dispatch suggests that these were the result of Saddam’s brutality.
My caution is the result of having consulted experts in the history of Iraq, who tell me there are most certainly mass graves all over the country, because it has been at war since 1958. That is, “Nineteen Fifty Eight,” when the monarchy fell. I’m advised that most of the slaughter that occurred over this period was in these early years of civil war, when there really were men and families lined up along ditches, machine-gunned or in other ways executed. There are also stories of “mass graves” that followed the 1991 Gulf War, when the USA urged the Shi’ites in the South and Kurds in the North of Iraq to take up arms against the Baghdad regime. I think even Human Rights Watch would have to say that “rebels” who are trying to kill “loyalists” should expect to either succeed or pay the consequences, as they did when the USA was nowhere around to back them up.
In an e-mail I received a few days ago from Joost Hilterman, the lawyer for Human Rights Watch who for the last decade has been the most insistent in arguing Saddam committed genocide. There has been a conflict with our intelligence agencies on this matter, as they have acknowledged there has been no evidence that Saddam Hussein used WMD against his own people. It has been Hilterman’s position that when the regime ended and a search could begin, mass graves containing upward of 100,000 Iraqi Kurds would be found in mass graves. He and Human Rights Watch originally believed they had been “gassed,” but now contend they were rounded up in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war, trucked to remote areas south of Kurdistan, machine-gunned to death, and buried in mass graves. As far as I know, these are the only alleged “acts of genocide” by the Baghdad government over the years, as Hilterman has acknowledged that the Iraqi Kurds who died at Halabja in March 1988 were caught between the warring Iraqi and Iranian armies. You may recall the CIA’s senior analyst covering that war at the time, Dr. Stephen Pelletiere, on Jan. 18 this year wrote an article for your editorial page asserting the official finding that the while both sides used gas, the deaths that caused such an uproar when they were shown in photographs were actually killed by the gas the Iranians possessed.
Now if Hilterman is right, and the mass graves he believes are waiting to be discovered are soon found, that will end this matter at least in my mind once and for all. I would be most surprised if they are found and verified by forensic experts as victims of machine-gunned genocide 15 years ago. If they are not found, I’d have to conclude that the assertions of genocide that President Bush cited again and again to justify war in his own mind will be as false as the assertions about hidden weapons of mass destruction. Wouldn’t you?