By Munir K. Nasser
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was challenged in public Monday on the mounting number of Iraqi casualties from US air attacks over Iraq.
Speaking on a call in talk show on National Public Radio, Albright denied that the US air attacks target civilian. She claimed that pilots fire back in self-defense. “The only time we bombed is when we have been illuminated by their radars which can endanger our pilots,” she said.
When pressed to respond to the latest reports in the US media about the escalating numbers of civilian casualties, she said she did not know the answer to that question. “But when our pilots are in danger, which is the only time they bomb, then I think that our responsibility is to care about the lives of our pilots,” she answered.
Albright said the bombing happens over the no-fly zones in the North and in the South to protect Saddam’s own people, the Kurds, “who were gassed during the Iran-Iraq war,” but denied that the US was making mistakes and bombing civilians.
Albright was reacting to a front-page story in the Washington Post last Friday, which documented that civilian deaths and injuries are a regular part of the little-discussed US and British air operation over Iraq. The story was based on a week of conversations with wounded Iraqis and the families of those killed, around Najaf and in northern Iraq around Mosul. The Post said the Iraqi death toll has been substantiated in part by a UN survey that examined some incidents independently and accepted Iraqi reports on others. “While not conclusive on the overall toll, interviews and observations during lengthy drives through the regions where air strikes have often been reported backed up the government's contention that civilian casualties have become routine,” wrote the Post.
The Post was able to visit a dozen air strike sites, which showed that air attacks have occurred in vast, open fields or grazing grounds, with no signs of any military target present or having been present near the sheep and the boys who tend them. The mounting toll averages one civilian death every other day by Iraq's count.
Albright claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is to blame for the suffering of his own people, adding that he has to abide by UN resolutions to make sure that he has no weapons of mass destruction. She denied that there is an embargo on food and medicine to Iraq. “Saddam Hussein has been able to buy food and medicine, and we in fact created a program of oil for food, whereby he was able in the last six months to buy $8 billion worth of food,” she noted. “He has money. He has built 50 or so palaces since the end of war at a cost of over a billion dollars. The way this will end is when Saddam Hussein lives up to his responsibilities under the sanctions,” Albright stressed.
When asked about the Middle East peace process, and her meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat last week, Albright said she is going to the Middle East within the next ten days to try to see whether there is a basis for a three-way summit in Washington.
She added that the US is working very hard to reach an agreement by September 13th. “With President Clinton, there is a unique opportunity,” she said. “He is someone among American Presidents, who is not only trusted by the Israelis, but by the Arabs. He has developed over the years a relationship with Chairman Arafat. I think there is an opportunity here to do something. Prime Minister Barak wants to move, and so does the Chairman. So we are going to keep pushing,” she explained.
Commenting on the Syrian-Israeli track, Albright said the dispute between the two sides focus on a 200-yard strip of land. She added: “It is not a lot. But what the Israelis would like to have is a strip of land around lake Tiberius because they feel that provides an amount of security for their ability to continue to have water. This has become an enormously important strip of land. The Israelis now are on the Golan Heights and in order to feel secure, they say they need to be able to have a strip of land around the lake.”
Albright also denied reports in the press that there was tension between herself and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger over foreign policy issues. She explained that President Clinton is a very strong foreign policy president, adding that the National Security Advisor is his foreign policy staff, who is very close to him and whose job is to coordinate national security policy with the President who makes the decision. “I am however, the chief diplomat of the United States,” she noted, “Sandy and I get along well. We disagree on certain things, the President expects us to have differences, because if we all agreed, there will be something wrong. Basically, when there is a disagreement, it goes to the President. He needs the benefit of a lot of different opinions,” she said – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)