Tuesday 22 May 2018

Be sceptical of those who claim to know exactly what is happening on the ground in Syrian war

Governments have form for not always telling the truth, especially when the truth hurts, writes Patrick Cockburn

Fog of war: Syria’s Assad. Photo: Reuters
Fog of war: Syria’s Assad. Photo: Reuters

Patrick Cockburn

During the bombing of Baghdad in January 1991, I went with other journalists on an Iraqi government-organised trip to what they claimed was the remains of a baby milk plant at Abu Ghraib which the US had just destroyed, saying that it was really a biological warfare facility.

Walking around the wreckage, I found a smashed-up desk with letters showing that the plant had indeed been producing "infant formula" milk powder. It had not been very successful in doing so, since much of the correspondence was about its financial and production problems and how they might best be resolved. It did not seem likely that the Iraqi government could have fabricated this evidence, though it was conceivable that in some part of the plant, which I did see, they might have been manufacturing biological weapons (BW).

I was visiting a lot of bombed-out buildings at the beginning of the US-led air campaign and I did not at first realise that "the Abu Ghraib baby milk factory" would become such an issue. I was more impressed at the time by the sight of a Cruise missile passing quite slowly overhead looking like a large black torpedo. But, within hours of leaving Abu Ghraib, the true purpose of the plant there had become a topic of furious controversy. The CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who was on the trip, had reported that "whatever else it did, it [the plant] produced infant formula". He saw a lot of powdered milk and, contrary to the Pentagon claim that the place was guarded like a fortress, we could only see one guard at the gate. Arnett did not deny the US government version that the place was a BW plant, but he did not confirm it either. He simply reported that "it looked innocent enough from what we could see".

Please sign in or register with Independent.ie for free access to Opinions.

Sign In

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss