Whatever the Defence Secretary says, the killing of 82 Iraqi civilians is a crime, which has achieved nothing

The New Statesman last week published a letter from the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, who took exception to my description of his government's recent actions in Iraq as murder. The government sent 14 pilots to join the Americans in a wholly illegal adventure over Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of at least 82 innocent people. In international law, that is a crime. Craven military euphemisms, such as "surgical strikes" and "collateral damage" are understandably preferred in government and media circles in this country. That does not make it any less of a crime. Nor does Saddam Hussein's reputation make it any less of a crime.

Should Robertson doubt this, he might visit the grieving family of 25-year-old Fadila Amier. A bomb exploded near her home in Baghdad. A journalist described how she "lay on the ground clutching her stomach, blood pouring from abdomen and thighs". She was pregnant. She was peppered with shrapnel. Her sister said, "We got Fadila to the nearest hospital, but they had no facilities so they could not operate on her. All they could do was put her on a drip."

The hospital she was taken to had no facilities because sanctions imposed on Iraq by the British and American governments, behind a UN veil, ban the import of the most basic medical equipment. Operations are performed without anaesthetics; X-ray machines no longer work; antibiotics, even bandages, are denied to ordinary people.

To Robertson and his generals, Fadila was "collateral damage". It is not known what she thought of Saddam. Robertson and the generals did not ask her. Certainly, many Iraqis regard Saddam as the brutal tyrant he is, and dream of his demise. During the Gulf slaughter in 1991, these people suffered disproportionately under the Anglo-American-led bombardment. The Shi'a and Kurdish minorities, Saddam's implacable opponents, were conscripted into his army, only to become the targets of American "turkey shoots"; many were buried alive by armoured American bulldozers.

Robertson complains that I omitted to write what a monster Saddam is. I have written it over and over again. I wrote it when Douglas Hurd flew to Baghdad in 1981. Hurd was then a junior Foreign Office minister and his assignment was to celebrate with Saddam the anniversary of the coming to power of the Iraqi Ba'athists in 1968, one of the bloodiest events in modern Middle Eastern history. Like British emissaries before and after him, Hurd knew the man to whom he offered his government's congratulations was renowned as the interrogator and torturer of Qasr-al-Nihayyah, the "Palace of the End". But Hurd had another mission; he was, reported the Guardian at the time, "a top-level salesman" who had tried to sell the tyrant an entire British Aerospace air defence system which "would be the biggest sale of its kind ever achieved".

Robertson conducts similar missions with equally monstrous tyrants. The list is long. Consider the gang running Indonesia. Here is more of the letter he wrote to Robin Cook last year, which I referred to in my last column.

Dear Robin,

I understand that you have reservations concerning an export licence application submitted by Courtauld's Aerospace to export six armoured Land Rovers to Indonesia . . . The vehicles are specifically for use by Group 5 within Kopassus . . . The head of Kopassus is General Prabowo, the son-in-law of President Suharto. The general is recognised as an enlightened officer, keen to increase professionalism within the armed forces and educate them in areas such as human rights . . ."

Yours,

George

What Robertson left out was that Kopassus was the Waffen-SS-style force that spearheaded the invasion of East Timor, that murdered five journalists including two Britons, that is responsible for the worst atrocities in that illegally occupied territory. The documentation is available. As for the "enlightened" General Prabowo, with his passion for "human rights" and Land Rovers, his name so reeks that, when his father-in-law Suharto was toppled from his throne (if not from power), the general was also fired, as a sop to the "new democracy". In at least one of Kopassus's massacres, Land Rovers were observed filled with the dead and wounded.

The most serious omission from Robertson's indignant letter to the Statesman is that Saddam Hussein - like Generals Prabowo and Suharto - would not exercise such power today were it not for the backing and weapons he received from Britain and the United States. Saddam survived the 1991 "war" because the Americans and British wanted to keep his regime intact. They could well imagine the "chaos" in his wake, with Kurds wanting to secede and democrats wanting democracy. The Anglo-American objective is to install not a democrat in Baghdad, but another, less uppity, Saddam Hussein.

So tell us, George Robertson, how do you justify the killing of Iraqi civilians? You and Tony Blair have prattled about having "caged" Saddam. The news last week from the "no-fly zone" suggests he is anything but caged. On the contrary, by seeing off a great and powerful enemy, his tyranny is reinforced; he may even be more popular. You have ensured that UN weapons inspectors almost certainly will not be allowed back. You have ensured that British citizens are now targets for attack. What you achieved was the violent death of the Fadilas and their unborn children. And that, as I say, is a crime.