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Drums of war

KALPANA SHARMA

ONCE again we hear the drums of war. Any normal person would shudder at the thought of another round of muscle flexing, of carpet bombing, of planned assassinations, of the terror of war — all in the name of "war against terror". But not those playing those drums.

The hundreds of questions being asked about the justification for the U.S. build up to declare war against Iraq are hardly being heard above the din from the White House. President Bush thunders forth in the United Nations — and the world listens. Condaleeza Rice, his loyal assistant, handles tough questions without emotion and with chilling precision as she justifies the need for a "pre-emptive strike" on Iraq.

If you ask for proof that Iraq is going to attack America, you are told that proof is not needed. If you say that weapons inspectors have found no evidence that the country has a nuclear arsenal, you are told that they were fooled and that Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction. If you say, so do many countries, including India and Pakistan, you are told that they are not germaine to the current threat that the U.S. faces from Iraq, and only Iraq. And so the war drums continue to beat — louder, ever louder.

The pounding of the drums is also drowning out the cries of thousands of Iraqi children, who continue to die every single day with frightening regularity. Thanks to the U.N. imposed sanctions since the Gulf War, around 5,000 Iraqi children are dying every month. Within 42 days that the U.S. dropped 80,000 tons of explosives on Iraq in 1991 — the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas — it killed not just tens of thousands of civilians, it also destroyed the water supply in many parts of Iraq, the sewerage and power generation. The bombing and the sanctions directly hit transport, health care, agriculture and the communication systems. Furthermore, the 300 tons of depleted uranium, used in armour piercing ammunition, have contributed to a five-fold increase in the incidence of cancer since 1991.

Before 1991, health care in Iraq reached 97 per cent of the urban and 71 per cent of the rural population. Today, there are few hospitals, a desperate shortage of medical supplies, and a massive health crisis. According to UNICEF, in the south and central regions of Iraq, the number of underweight children under five has doubled. The majority of pregnant women suffer from anaemia. The children born to them are underweight and will probably die before they reach the age of five because of a lack of food, or a lack of medicines, or both.

And what about women? Iraqi women played an active role in politics in the past. The General Federation of Iraqi Women (GIFW), a wing of the ruling Ba'thist party, was in the forefront of pushing ahead with women's literacy and skill training programmes. In 1982, its membership was 2,00,000 with 18 national branches. Under the Ba'thist Party, Iraq reformed its laws so that sex discrimination in the workplace and sexual harassment were prohibited. It had laws that worked towards creating gender parity in voting, divorce, taxes and land ownership.

In the years since 1991, women's status has also suffered a grievous fall. Although Iraqi women are still the beneficiaries of these laws, their economic conditions have forced many of them to abandon their education and to take up whatever jobs are available to feed their families. A recent article in the New Statesman mentioned an Iraqi woman professor who earned more begging on the streets of Baghdad than she did in her job. The preoccupation of the majority of women in the country is to find enough money to buy food for their families.

Unlike the conditions of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iraqi women are not whipped in public if they don't cover their faces, their wrists and their ankles. Although many voluntarily wear the chador, nothing happens to those who do not. A viewer asked an American television reporter, who has been reporting from Iraq in the last few weeks, why she was not covering her head while reporting from there. Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC said, "There is no rule for wearing the hijab here. And we should also tell you that Iraq is considered very advanced when it comes to women's rights when compared to the other Arab countries. Women can drive here. They can work in positions of management. They are able to divorce. They're able to inherit money. They can also serve in the military here. In some cases, family or tradition comes into play and sort of skews that all a little bit, but when it comes to actual law, those are the laws."

So there we have it, Mr. Bush and Ms Rice, please take note. One of your own is saying this about women under the dreadful dictator who you want to remove. But do Bush and company really care about the status of women in Iraq or the health and chances of survival of the children of Iraq? It was convenient to talk of the status of women in Afghanistan.

It is not so convenient to do so in the case of Iraq. So no one talks about the women. Instead, they concentrate on Saddam Hussein, a man the U.S. supported when he fought Iran (just as it supported Osama bin Laden when he fought the Soviets), who, according to them, is the new repository of all that is evil in the world.

So as Bush and company beat their war drums once again, they refuse to acknowledge that war is about people, about killing people. Bombs don't just make craters, they kill people. Sanctions don't kill dictators, they kill children. To quote an Iraqi woman, "Missiles and bombs do not think, they hit and explode — whether you are military or civilian, sick or well, old or young, men or women, you die. Where do you go to hide?"

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