There were compelling reasons to go to war against Saddam Hussein – but John Howard had better ones of his own.

Yesterday, Alan Ramsey offered a typically scathing assessment of the Prime Minister’s dissimulations over the war with Iraq here.

“In Parliament two days ago Mark Latham pointed out that four in every
five pieces of ‘intelligence material’ the Howard Government relied on
in making war on Iraq a year ago had come from ‘untested sources’,” he
wrote.

Was it cranky old Unca Alan pissed off at the PM and looking after his favourite nephew, Mark? Maybe.

But someone else is looking at “untested sources” and the Iraq war – and John Howard features prominently in their work.

Someone far removed from Australian politics.

Someone somewhere that should have a fair bit of credibility in Howard’s world.

Remember this paragraph from John Howard’s address to the nation of 20
March last year, the address in which he formally explained his reasons
for war on Iraq:

“This week, the Times of London detailed the use of a human shredding
machine as a vehicle for putting to death critics of Saddam Hussein.
This is the man, this is the apparatus of terror we are dealing with.”

You can just imagine the joy with which some wedge wonk on Howard’s
staff grabbed the yarn. They had something to justify a quiet
break web surfing.

Well, now the impeccably pro-war, impeccably conservative Spectator magazine in London has had a look at the claim.

The title is a bit of a giveaway: “Not a shred of hard evidence”.

“Forget the no-show of Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Even George Bush no longer
believes that they are there. Ask instead what happened to Saddam’s
‘people shredder’, into which his son Qusay reportedly fed opponents of
the Baathist regime.” Journalist Brendan O’Neill writes.

He traces the story of the “human shredding machine”:

“Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley and chair of Indict, a group
that has been campaigning since 1996 for the creation of an
international criminal tribunal to try the Baathists, wrote of the
shredder in the Times on 18 March – the day of the Iraq debate in the
House of Commons and three days before the start of the war. Clwyd
described an Iraqi’s claims that male prisoners were dropped into a
machine ‘designed for shredding plastic’, before their minced remains
were ‘placed in plastic bags’ so they could later be used as ‘fish
food’. Sometimes the victims were dropped in feet first, reported
Clwyd, so they could briefly behold their own mutilation before death.”

And then John Howard appears:

“Not surprisingly the story made a huge impact. Two days after Clwyd’s
article was published, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard
addressed his nation to explain why he was sending troops to support
the coalition in Iraq; he talked of the Baathists’ many crimes,
including the ‘human-shredding machine’.”

That timing is interesting in itself.

Clwyd’s article appeared in the Times on March 18. In other
words, it turned up on the Times website late in the morning of that
day, Canberra time.

John Howard made his address to the nation on the evening of March 20.

How much checking was done during those, what, 48, 55 hours, to establish the veracity of the claim?

It doesn’t look as if anyone – in Canberra or London or wherever did much.

Back to O’Neill:

“The shredding machine was first mentioned in public by James Mahon,
then head of research at Indict, at a meeting at the House of Commons
on 12 March. Mahon had just returned from northern Iraq, where Indict
researchers, along with Ann Clwyd, interviewed Iraqis who had suffered
under Saddam’s regime. One of them said Iraqis had been fed into a
shredder. ‘Sometimes they were put in feet first and died screaming. It
was horrible. I saw 30 die like this…. On one occasion I saw Qusay
Hussein personally supervising these murders.’ In subsequent interviews
and articles, Clwyd said this shredding machine was in Abu Ghraib
prison, Saddam’s most notorious jail.

“What was done to corroborate the Iraqi’s claims? Apparently nothing.
Indict refuses to tell me the names of the researchers who were in Iraq
with Mahon and Clwyd; and, I am told, Mahon, who no longer works at
Indict, ‘does not want to speak to journalists about his work with us’.
But Clwyd tells me: ‘We heard it from a victim; we heard it and we
believed it.’ So nothing was done to check the truth of what the victim
said, against other witness statements or other evidence for a
shredding machine? ‘Well, no,’ says Clwyd. ‘[Indict researchers] didn’t
have to do that; they were just taking witness statements.’

“But surely, before going public with so shocking a story, facts ought
to have been checked and double-checked? Clwyd clearly doesn’t think
so. ‘We heard it from someone who had been released from the Abu Ghraib
prison….I heard his account of what went on in the prison. I was
there when [Indict’s] cross-examination of the witness took place, and
I am satisfied from what I heard that shredding was a method of
execution. We knew he wasn’t making it up.’

“This is all that Indict had to go on – uncorroborated and quite
amazing claims made by a single person from northern Iraq. When I
suggest that this does not constitute proof of the existence of a human
shredder, Clwyd responds: ‘We heard a victim say it; who are you to say
that chap is a liar?’ Yet to call for witness statements to be
corroborated before being turned into the subject of national newspaper
articles is not to accuse the witnesses involved of being liars; it is
to follow good practice in the collection of evidence, particularly
evidence with which Indict hopes to ‘seek indictments by national
prosecutors’ against former Baathists.”

There’s more:

“An Iraqi who worked as a doctor in the hospital attached to Abu Ghraib
prison tells me there was no shredding machine in the prison. The
Iraqi, who wishes to remain anonymous, worked at Abu Ghraib in late
1997 and early 1998; he left Iraq in 2002… He describes
Saddam’s regime as ‘very, very terrible, one of the worst regimes
ever’, and Abu Ghraib prison as ‘horrific’…

“Did he ever attend to, or hear of, prisoners who had been shredded?
‘No.’ Did any of the other doctors at Abu Ghraib speak of a shredding
machine used to execute prisoners? ‘No, no, never.’ He says: ‘The
method of execution was hanging; as far as I know that was the only
form of execution used in Abu Ghraib. Maybe sometimes there were
shootings, but I think these were rare.’ However, the doctor tells me
that he did once hear a story about a shredding machine, from a friend
who had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib – but in the version he heard,
the shredder was in ‘one of Saddam’s main palaces’. Does he think this
was a rumour, or an accurate description of a method of execution used
in Saddam’s palaces? ‘Because of what the Saddam regime was like,
anything is possible,’ he says. ‘It might be a rumour, it might be
true.’

Cryptically, Ann Clwyd tells me: ‘I heard other people talk about a
shredding machine, but I can’t tell you who they are.’ However, one
other person who talked about a shredder was Kenneth Joseph, an
American who claimed to have visited Iraq as an antiwar human shield
before concluding that he was wrong and the war was right. Joseph’s
Damascene conversion was first reported by United Press International
(UPI) on 21 March. He told Arnaud de Borchgrave, UPI’s editor-at-large,
that what he had heard in Iraq had ‘shocked me back to reality’, that
Iraqis’ tales ‘of slow torture and killing made me ill, such as people
put in a huge shredder for plastic products, feet first so they could
hear their screams as their bodies got chewed up’. He also claimed to
have ‘made it across the border’ with 14 hours of uncensored video
containing interviews with Iraqis.

“Yet many have since questioned Joseph’s claims. When Carol Lipton, an
American journalist, investigated his story in April for CounterPunch,
she reported that ‘none of the human shield groups whom I contacted had
ever heard of Joseph’. She also noted that ‘incredibly, nowhere has a
single photo or segment from [Joseph’s] 14 hours of interviews been
published’. These discrepancies led some to speculate whether the
Reverend Sun Myung Moon played a part in ‘the Joseph story’. Moon, head
of the Unification Church (Moonies), owns UPI. Private Eye suggested
that Joseph’s story was ‘a propaganda fabrication by right-wingers
associated with the Revd Moon’s Unification Church’. Even Johann Hari,
a pro-war columnist on the Independent who wrote a sycophantic account
of Joseph’s conversion, has since declared that Joseph ‘was probably a
bullshitter’.”

“Clwyd insists that corroboration of the shredder story came three
months after her first Times article, when she was shown a dossier by a
reporter from Fox TV. On 18 June, Clwyd wrote a second article for the
Times, describing a ‘chillingly meticulous record book’ from Saddam’s
notorious Abu Ghraib prison, which described one of the methods of
execution as ‘mincing’. Can she say who compiled this book? ‘No, I
can’t.’ Where is it now? ‘I don’t know.’ What was the name of the Fox
reporter who showed it to her? ‘I have no idea.’ Did Clwyd read the
entire thing? ‘No! It was in Arabic! I only saw it briefly.’ Curiously,
there is no mention of the book or of ‘mincing’ as a method of
execution on the Fox News website. Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for
Fox News in New York, tells me: ‘That story does not ring a bell with
our foreign editor here, and it is something you expect would ring a
bell. It sounds like something we would have gone to town with, in
terms of promotion and PR.'”

And O’Neill’s conclusions about “the long and short of the available evidence for a human-shredding machine”.

Simple. He lists them:

“An uncorroborated statement made by an individual in northern Iraq,
hearsay comments made by someone widely suspected of being a
‘bullshitter’ (who, like the Australian Prime Minister, made his
comments about the shredder shortly after Clwyd first wrote of it in
the Times), and a record book, in Arabic, that mentions ‘mincing’ but
whose whereabouts are presently unknown.”

And as they say in the classics, wait, there’s more:

“Other groups have no recorded accounts of a human shredder. A
spokesman at Amnesty International tells me that his inquiries into the
shredder story ‘drew a blank’. ‘We checked it with our people here, and
we have no information about a shredder.’ Widney Brown, deputy
programme director of Human Rights Watch, says: ‘We don’t know anything
about a shredder, and have not heard of that particular form of
execution or torture.'”

It’s hard not to agree with his final par:

“It remains to be seen whether this uncorroborated story turns out to
be nothing more than war propaganda – like the stories on the eve of
the first Gulf war of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait taking babies from
incubators and leaving them to die on hospital floors. What can be
said, however, is that the alleged shredder provided those in favour of
the war – by no means an overwhelming majority in Britain last March –
with a useful propaganda tool. The headline on Ann Clwyd’s 18 March
story in the Times was: ‘See men shredded, then say you don’t back
war’.”

There were compelling reasons to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s
regime. So why did John Howard, Alexander Downer and Robert Hill
– along with some bigger names like George W Bush and Tony Blair – have
to invent others?

Why did they lie to us – and why are they still lying?

The full story is available at http://www.spectator.co.uk under Back Issues for 21 February.

Peter Fray

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