The predictable slaughter

"Shock and Awe" killed very few Iraqis, but the inept implementation of regime change has let loose

There is that moment when the snackering sound of a rifle being cocked makes you pay attention. And three camouflage-uniformed members of the new Iraqi National Police had just cocked their AK assault rifles. The half-dozen grey-patterned US soldiers standing protectively in front of the man in the grey shirt were now paying attention. Later, they said they thought they were about to get into what the US military calls an "escalation of force situation". But, with a lot of shouting and pushing, and a deal of finessing by Lieutenant Ford and his interpreter, the situation was eventually defused.

Last weekend, Channel 4 News's Nick Paton Walsh and I were in the district of Shula, right beside the famous Umm al-Mahare ("Mother of All Battles") mosque in north-western Baghdad, travelling with a search patrol as it cleared the half-built villas dotted over the marshy land around the mosque. The morning's work had been un event ful. Around eleven, the Iraqi police patrol accompanying the platoon from the US 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment announced that we had to look for a car. Apparently, there were "terrorists" in an Opel or Mercedes-Benz on the other side of the mosque. The joint patrol rapidly set off across sheep-riddled wasteland. Within minutes, the lead Humvee had stopped an Opel. Inside were two men, well dressed in the smart casual clothes of the Iraqi middle classes.

It quickly became obvious from the shouting and waving of weapons that the Iraqi National Police felt these two should be terminated. Realising this, the American lieutenant moved his men into defensive positions around the detainees, having to extricate one of them from a pasting being administered by several police officers. This quickly put him at odds with his comrades-in-arms. Later, he said he had feared there was a moment when they were about to be attacked by the police patrol.

At the time, I felt sure that the only people in danger were the detainees, but the US soldiers were really spooked. The lieutenant explained that the Iraqi police had become agitated when the men, on being questioned, produced documents showing that they worked for US intelligence. They were also Sunni. In a Shia area. And had been apprehended by an INP patrol that was completely Shia.

That is why this little incident is so revealing and showed the problem of Iraq in a microcosm. I have been reporting from Iraq since the Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties, but more recently during the latest upheaval since 2002. I witnessed the "Shock and Awe" air campaign from a balcony of the Palestine Hotel. That extraordinary display of firepower killed hardly anyone, and the actual war itself killed very few.

But the evil genie unleashed by an inept execution of regime change in Iraq has been horrifying to watch. Since I was last here in December, the Shia-dominated government has rushed Saddam Hussein to his ignominious end and the place now seems somehow hollow.

I would never mourn the old killer, but it seems obvious that he and his Ba'ath Party thugs held this secularised Arab nation together, as well as in thrall. Now the nastiness is barefaced, the bitterness of the oppressed is expressed in their revenge, and criminality is given free rein.

As is now commonly acknowledged, the invaders have found themselves in something of a quandary. Resistance to the "liberation", initially laid at the door of the former Ba'athists and al-Qaeda, changed subtly after the White House forced Iraq into an election that returned a Shia majority. The newly legitimised authority of the majority has since allowed the age-old fight between Sunnis and Shias to flare up - to the point where a death toll of "only" 1,531 in February this year is seen as an improvement on the monthly figures for the second half of 2006.

As the incident last Saturday showed, increasingly, most Sunnis need the US to stay so that the democracy the Bush administration bequeathed the country doesn't turn out to be a death sentence for them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolas, commander of the 2nd Battalion, says the Baghdad security plan designates Shula as a quiet neigh bourhood requiring only an "economy of force" to police it. But then it is not run by the US troops who patrol there daily, nor by the INP, nor by the Kurdish Iraqi army battalion stationed there. Shula is run by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia, who, for the moment, have hidden their weapons and changed out of their black fatigues while the Baghdad security plan proceeds.

Time is on their side. They need the plan to give the US the sense that things have calmed down. They also need the US to beat the Sunni groups, such as al-Qaeda, which fight both of them, while they consolidate their turf. Then, when the US begins to withdraw, they can finish the job of making sure that the Sunnis are completely broken.

Lieutenant Colonel Nikolas is under no misapprehension. He knows he is being used. But he's an officer with the lives of his men at risk and a job to be done, so he's going "hammer and tongs to sort out this area" south of Shula, along the Jordan-Syria highway out to Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. Every day, one of his companies patrolling the area comes under attack. They believe they have dislodged resident al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents from the blocks of shoddily built middle-class villas, but the attacks, although reduced, have not stopped.

At the same time, Nikolas has stabilised a "creeping front line" where the Mahdi Shia militia was pushing south from Shula into Ghazaliya in a spate of ethnic cleansing.

"They [the Sunnis] needed us to stop them being pushed out by the Shias from the north. We're doing that. But their brethren to the south make it real difficult," he says referring to the insurgent attacks from near the highway.

Thus, at every level, Americans are having to come to terms with the reality they have created. From Lieutenant Ford, protecting two men on the ground in the salt marshes of Shula, through Colonel Nikolas, working in an area where whole districts have to be protected, to the president in the White House, who has to juggle the complexity of power politics between Sunnis and Shias at an international level, the problem remains the same. It's only the scale that differs.

"It seems we're caught right in the middle of this," said Lieutenant Ford.

No kidding.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of "Channel 4 News". He is embedded with the US military in Iraq, in part of the Baghdad Security Plan

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war