Last August, the defence minister John Spellar described the no-fly zones over Iraq as "international zones, designed by the international community". This is false. Imposed and enforced only by the United States and Britain, these zones have never been ratified by the United Nations and have no basis in international law. The official reason for them is the protection of the Kurds in the north and Shi'a in the south from Saddam Hussein's military. This, too, is false.
During the Gulf war, far from protecting Kurds and Shi'a, the American-led coalition slaughtered them. Most of Saddam's conscript army were Shi'a and Kurds. Reporting from the carnage of the American "turkey shoot" on the Basra Road, Kate Adie noted that "those who fought and died for Iraq here turned out to be from the north of the country, from minority communities, persecuted by Saddam Hussein [such as] the Kurds".
Two weeks later, in February 1991, the Shi'a in the south responded to George Bush's call that they should rise up against Saddam Hussein. The rebels soon controlled most of the area around the holy Shi'a city of Najaf, and would have taken all the south had the American military not intervened on the side of their oppressor - Saddam Hussein. "We had the message that the Americans would support us," said a rebel brigadier. "But I saw with my own eyes the American planes flying over [the regime's] helicopters. They were taking pictures. They knew what was happening."
The American planes circled overhead as the regime's helicopter crews poured paraffin on fleeing refugees, then set them alight with tracer fire. US Marines stopped the rebels from taking arms and ammunition from captured army depots and refused them fuel for their tanks. As many as 30,000 Iraqis were killed by Saddam's Republican Guard, which General Schwarzkopf's troops had encircled then let escape.
Today, says Tony Blair, British pilots "policing" the no-fly zones "perform vital humanitarian tasks". Such a lie helps sustain, in its tenth year, the most ruthless economic embargo in modern history, of which bombing is an integral part, while the real motives are seldom examined. Most of Iraq's oilfields, the second biggest on earth, lie within the no-fly zones. Whenever there is a bombing blitz, the price of oil goes up and last week reached $30 a barrel, the highest since before the Gulf war. The international oil market understands American motives: above all, the protection of Washington's jewel, Saudi Arabia, which has more than a quarter of the world's oil and whose political and economic stability is not as it used to be; and, in the longer term, the establishment of a vast new American oil colony stretching from the Gulf to the Caucasus. When Madeleine Albright was asked if the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying for sanctions, she replied: "We think the price is worth it." She might have said the price of oil.
Saddam's threat is not his so-called weapons of mass destruction. This, says Scott Ritter, a former chief UN arms inspector, is "zero". His real threat is that he still enjoys considerable support in the Arab world, where he is seen as a symbol of resistance to the west's historical project of subjugating and humiliating the Arabs while relieving them of their natural wealth. This is not to say the Americans wish to overthrow their demon in Baghdad. They would simply prefer that he did as he was told, as in the old days when they and their allies supplied him with everything he wanted, including seed stock for biological weapons of mass destruction.
Today, Saddam Hussein continues to serve western "interests" by keeping in check the Kurds and Shi'a, whose dreams of independence are anathema in Washington and London. As the New York Times suggested recently, the last thing the Americans want is for a new crop of UN weapons inspectors to confirm that he is no longer a threat, because then sanctions might have to be lifted and an internal opposition might emerge.
In New York last December, I met Peter van Walsum, the Netherlands' ambassador to the UN and the current chair of the sanctions committee of the Security Council which authorises everything going to Iraq, from baby powder to oil industry parts. What struck me about this diplomat with life-and-death powers over millions of people was that he seemed to associate Iraq, a society, with Saddam Hussein, a tyrant, as if they were one and the same. When I asked if he agreed with punishing innocent people for the crimes of a dictator, over whom they have no control, he replied: "It is a difficult problem. [Sanctions] obviously hurt . . . they are like a military measure [and] you have the eternal problem of collateral damage." The implication that a whole nation is "collateral damage" is astonishing, yet it accurately reflects the moral and intellectual contortion common in United Nations Plaza, the US State Department and the Foreign Office, as a justification for the destruction of a country.
The complicity of the Blair government is the British political class's great unspoken shame. Only 21 MPs signed Alan Simpson's early day motion calling for an end to sanctions that are largely responsible for the deaths of 200 children every day, and to a bombing campaign that has cost the British taxpayer £60 million (almost exactly the amount the Blairites took from single mothers). Since May 1998, the Americans alone have flown 36,000 sorties, including thousands of bombing missions over heavily populated southern Iraq, yet this is not considered news. Why?
John Pilger's film about Iraq, "Paying the Price", is on ITV on Monday 6 March at 9.30pm