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21-31 March 2003

30 MarGulf War II Kaleidoscope
28 MarWar Propaganda; War Crimes
27 MarGreen "camouflage" in Iraq
27 MarSchools Closed due to SARS? paranoia?
26 MarSARS in Singapore
25 MarPOWs
23 MarBid for street signs
23 MarThe North Korea standoff
21 MarGulf War II: Singapore's stand
21 MarGulf War II: Day 2

Gulf War II Kaleidoscope

30 March 2003 10:02 PM SGT (link)

I could never hope to match or even surpass the coverage of the war from all the blogs and news sites around, so I'll just give some links pertaining to issues I last talked about, & some new ones.

War Propaganda; War Crimes

28 March 2003 12:21 AM SGT (link)

It has been slightly over a week and the media coverage of the war against Iraq has been extraordinary in many senses. For the first time we have journalists "embedded" in American and British combat units, travelling with the soldiers, experiencing the hardships and perhaps with crucial roles to play in verifying initial claims of finding chemical or biological weapons, or war crimes committed by Saddam's regime (more on this later). Blogs are streaming near-constant updates with links to news sites, frontline reports from soldiers or military experts' commentary; I've been fixated on Command Post, mostly, and InstaPundit, not a war blog but mostly that these days. More "talking heads" on television than ever, not to forget Al Jazeera and some other Arab news channels. Unprecedented worldwide attention on a war that some say is illegal and others protest for the sake of peace.

Some biases have emerged amidst the confusion and fog of war with regard to the conduct of war by the Americans/British vs. the Iraqis. The BBC, especially, has come under fire (figuratively) by Andrew Sullivan and others - as I see it, they give a lot of airtime to the latest battles with Iraqi forces and paramilitaries, complaints about humanitarian crises in Basra and Umm Qasr, peace protests in the Arab world and Iraqi government press conferences (side note: they made a big deal about the UNHCR refugee camps in Jordan awaiting Iraqi refugees, but so far only African foreign workers have turned up).

The Iraqi Information Minister can rail all he wants against the Americans and British, & make all kinds of wild allegations, and it's shown ad verbatim and regarded as the truth, whereas when the U.S. Central Command has press conferences in Qatar the BBC correspondent there is careful to preface claims with "they say". I saw on CNN - but it could easily have been the BBC too - a correspondent who analysed with a sceptical tone what the Americans wanted to show to the world with these conferences where they show videos of the precision of bombs and cruise missiles on military targets while leaving nearby civilian facilities, like water purification plants, intact. The implicit lesson we're getting here is that this is an illegitimate war causing needless suffering (supposedly all Iraqis are pissed about bombings or lack of running water, not a tad pleased that Saddam is about to be removed from power) and the coalition forces are getting "bogged down", whereas the picture at U.S. CentCom or elsewhere never seems nearly so desperate. Saddam's regime's legitimacy is never questioned despite its numerous acts that should offend any decent human being (see later).

War crimes

Around the time when the first U.S. POWs were captured by Iraqi forces, there has been an exchange of accusations and counter-accusations of war crimes, specifically violations of the Geneva Conventions (my post on POWs). One case was when the coalition forces bombed the Iraqi TV station - organisations like Amnesty International and the International Federation of Journalists protested (Guardian: TV station attack could be illegal, Hoon: TV stations can be targets). Yesterday 15 Iraqi civilians died when a bomb exploded in a busy market, but as usual, initial reports are conflicting, and the Pentagon denies it targeted Iraqi market, saying it could have been an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile.

Anyway, what I want to address is the persistent bias against the coalition - simply because Americans and British possess and use precision weapons, they are expected to minimise civilian casualties - certainly to avoid targeting them - and as a result when any deaths occur due to the inevitable missile malfunction, or indeed, something else, it's splashed everywhere & the coalition is blamed (CNN, Iraq: 'Civilians are being bombed'). The Iraqis, however, are free to sabotage the Umm Qasr port with mines, preventing emergency aid from being shipped in; use civilians as human shields in Basra, shooting at them with mortars; merge into the populace or team up with paramilitaries to harass coalition forces, plan ambushes, take POWs - even shooting soldiers who have surrendered (Report Says Slain U.S. Soldiers Tried to Surrender, Reuters); pretend to surrender to attack Marines; staging attacks from a hospital - all these, despite many of them being open violations of the Geneva Conventions, passes with nary an outcry from either peace activists or news commentators. And Saddam's government claims that the coalition is deliberately targeting civilians! Juxtapose this with the restraint the coalition forces have shown - e.g. not levelling the hospital near An Nasiriyah with Fedayeen inside because there might be civilians inside too - and the possibility that less Americans or British might have died needlessly if they had responded with full force. Then the BBC says "Britain and the US are now seen by ordinary Iraqis as having made victims of those they say they want to liberate." This is outrageous.

...Ignoring, for the moment, AI's bogus claim at TV stations are immune from attack under international law let's look at how this document is constructed, shall we? The press release has a total of 8 paragraphs, 2 are general condemnations of attacks on civilians, 5 condemn the attack on Iraq's TV station, and 1 (yes, only one) paragraph condemns Iraq's "reported" flagrant violations of the Geneva Accords. I find this absolutely amazing that AI would have the unmitigated gall to condemn the TV attacks (which is in no way a violation of any accord) with six times the verbage as the blatant (read that as a "plain text" not an invented construct) violations of Saddam's Fedayeen. It gives credence to Glenn Reynolds' fear of international law becoming "all-purpose tool of anti-Americanism."

- Sgt. Stryker: Amnesty International Press Release

Read the whole post - it has links to the specific part of the first Protocol relevant to the Fedayeen's behaviour. It's not merely against the Geneva Conventions, it's a clear sign of what kind of regime allowed these thugs to roam about imposing Saddam's rule and harassing the people:

Art 37. Prohibition of Perfidy
1. It is prohibited to kill, injure or capture an adversary by resort to perfidy. Acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy. The following acts are examples of perfidy:

(a) the feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender;
(b) the feigning of an incapacitation by wounds or sickness;
(c) the feigning of civilian, non-combatant status; and
(d) the feigning of protected status by the use of signs, emblems or uniforms of the United Nations or of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict.

- Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.

Some news commentators, though, are openly pissed; see Sgt. Stryker again:

Dan Abrams of MSNBC is pissed. It's kind of weird to see a television anchorman displaying frustration and disbelief at certain things going on. The whole thing about the Iraqis dressing in civilian clothes and shooting from protected sites has really stuck in his craw. First he hammered Gen. Trainer about it, and the General explained LOAC and all that good stuf, but Abrams just wasn't buying it. It looked to me that he just wanted to blurt out, "Why can't we blow up that mosque, if they're killing Marines?"

Then he had a retired JAG on and hammered him about the same thing. And then I heard something I thought I'd never hear an "objective" journalist say, and I paraphrase, "So our guys have to check with lawyers before they fire back? So we have these self-imposed rules that lawyers impose on our troops and the government imposes on itself and now Marines are dead because of it." That last line was a statement, not a question. The JAG guy's trying to explain about PR and the rest of it, but Abrams was on a roll. "Those Arab TV networks are going to show us supposedly targeting and killing civilians no matter what we do while we follow the Rules of War." It was nothing short of astonishing to hear that. I don't know what prompted all this. Perhaps he saw the tape of the Americans executed and exploited on TV. Who knows? But man, it was something to see.

- Sgt. Stryker: Media Coverage

You can almost hear the capital letters being pronounced: "Rules of War." I want to correct what I said previously: I think international law is in grave danger if we are going to allow this kind of crap to continue.

Green "camouflage" in Iraq

27 March 2003 11:46 PM SGT (link)

As always, Slate's Explainer column gets to that question at the back of your mind that you wanted to ask but never did: Why Are U.S. Troops Wearing Dark-Green Camouflage? The American soldiers concerned are apparently from the Army's 4th Infantry Division. I thought it might be because the terrain was more green in the area around Baghdad, but amazingly Slate exposes it as a logistics screw-up. Interesting reading.

Schools Closed due to SARS? paranoia?

27 March 2003 10:51 PM SGT (link)

It is the largest closure of primary, secondary schools, and junior colleges in 45 years since the 1958 polio outbreak.


Singapore's universities, polytechnics and institutes of technical education, however, have stayed open.

The Government says these students are older and can take necessary precautions, but students are unhappy.

Polytechnic students have started an online petition to protest the decision not to close the tertiary institutes. [Also see Channel NewsAsia, Students start online petition to close polytechnics over SARS fears, and The "Closure of Universities in Singapore due to SARS" petition]

"What's the difference between poly and JC students? JC, poly and ITE students are at the same age and level," asked one polytechnic student.

- Channel NewsAsia, SARS: Singaporeans deal with school closures and child care alternatives

My question yesterday has been answered i.e. this kind of nation-wide school closures haven't happened in quite a while, nor with so many people affected. But I found it interesting that poly & uni students have already started the outcry; this afternoon I heard a student make the following points on NewsRadio 93.8, all valid:

Rationale for closures, or lack thereof: The government has truly changed tact after the deaths - Lim Boon Heng says steps to curb SARS in line with 'better to be safe than sorry' later. But as what I've said above, it's highly doubtful that this mass school closure can achieve much, when nobody has shown that SARS is more virulent among the young or in the particular age groups affected by these closures. There has been no compelling evidence that any student, group of students or school has propagated SARS. It seems more and more likely that the government wanted to prevent public outcry over the deaths by showing that they're doing something; even if in the end it proves futile, at least they have that action to back them up. What we should be looking at is the possible ways SARS could have spread, either from the original three carriers from Hongkong, Tan Tock Seng Hospital staff, or friends and relatives, & not cause panic or disruption unnecessarily as they've done now just because previously-identified patients took a turn for the worse. You might have reassured a few vocal parents, but the rest of the population has been upset too.

Role of the media: "Why are you closing schools only if SARS hasn't proven to be particularly virulent or deadly among students?" "Why not the polys or universities - really?" These are questions the media should be asking the ministers, not only because they're newsworthy but because they need to be asked, they are matters of grave public interest. But were they asked? Of course not. The media as usual reported the various calls from ministers, including our PM (PM Goh says handling SARS outbreak openly will give people confidence, Channel NewsAsia), and acted as the government's unquestioning news distribution channel. The most it would do is point to the existence of petitions and ground unhappiness. Am I alone in thinking that this kind of head-in-the-sand attitude from the media is totally unhelpful in allaying people's concerns?

Conclusion: The real reason this closure is not implemented for polys, unis & ITEs is probably because it's more difficult to reschedule classes under their system, compared to JC & below. This is the prevailing theory for me - unfortunately, it cannot address the concerns of the aggrieved poly or uni students. Instead an unconvincing reason is offered, and any chance the government had of reassuring the nation now seems to be a last-ditch desperate PR move. If it saves lives, then good, otherwise, who would lose? That's the calculus we're looking at now.

SARS in Singapore

26 March 2003 10:48 PM SGT (link)

For weeks now the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has spread in Singapore, but we all thought that it was contained to three women who had caught the disease while in Hongkong, as well as hospital staff and their friends and relatives. Our Health Minister said as much in Parliament. Soon after the two deaths here were reported today, MOE & MOH suddenly changed tact and decided to close the schools - child-care centres, pre-primary, primary, secondary, junior colleges and centralised institutes - until April 6 (a period of 10 days). See Schools to close for a week to contain Sars infection (ST), SARS: Second death confirmed, all schools up to JC level to close till 6 April & All Singapore schools up to JCs to be closed until 6 April: Education Minister (Channel NewsAsia) and Deadly bug shuts Singapore schools (CNN).

What I find strange was that all along we have known that SARS is not especially virulent among children or teenagers, like the hand, foot and mouth disease of a few years ago was (among toddlers), yet this unprecedented (I believe) closing of schools, affecting 600,000 students, is supposed to be an effective precaution. It doesn't seem logical to target the schools as opposed to, say, the universities. If the disease is only spread to those coming into close contact with patients, then either they suspect that a large group of students have been exposed - and mind you, 740 [were] ordered to stay home (ST) just a few days ago - or, that this age group is somehow more susceptible to SARS.

For some speculation outside of public health concerns, this seems more like a public relations move, unthinkable as that might be coming from a PAP government, to reassure parents that their kids will be safe. Anyway the lost time will be recouped in June, and if there are no additional cases then everyone will see this as effective - that's the cynical point of view. Something like the colour alerts the U.S. Department of Homeland Security puts out when they feel there is a heightened risk of terrorist activity.

Aside: SARS is believed to be related to the spread of atypical pneumonia in Guangdong that caused a panic, which I wrote about a month ago. It seems that the Chinese authorities either did not take the outbreak seriously or did not have effective measures to deal with it spreading to Hongkong and other places.


25 March 2003 3:04 PM SGT (link)

On Day 6 of the conflict there have been numerous Marines taken prisoner by the Iraqis and being shown on TV; Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, complained that this was "humiliating" and illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The Iraqis subsequently said that they were not violating the conventions. Slate, among other sites, analyses Rumsfeld's claim:

Both Rumsfeld and Human Rights Watch base their charges on Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention. Article 13 says nothing specific about videotaping of prisoners - intrusive or otherwise - because the convention was approved in 1949, long before the advent of portable video cameras, satellite uplinks, and news around the clock. Article 13 concerns itself primarily with merciful treatment of prisoners. The relevant section reads:

Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. ... [P]risoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity. [Emphasis added.]

- Slate, POW TV: Why Rumsfeld should be careful about lecturing Saddam about the Geneva Conventions

Apparently it's not too clear whether showing POWs on worldwide TV constitutes a real violation, also because journalists and not the Iraqi military were responsible for this "public curiosity". Slate's sub-headline about Rumsfeld being careful refers to the time when he justified the U.S.'s incarceration of prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, indefinitely and without military or civilian due process, by saying they were "enemy combatants" and not POWs.

Still I find it encouraging that both sides have felt it necessary to avail themselves of the "legal cover" of international law under the Geneva Conventions, not only because it's good for public opinion but because these Conventions are something we can agree on. Indeed I believe this war has not been illegal and could instead be beneficial to the system of international law and justice, simply because a terrible dictator who has concealed WMDs will soon be toppled for his non-compliance.

Bid for street signs

23 March 2003 9:38 PM SGT (link)

Saw this in the ST yesterday ("Forget rings, take this as a sign of my love", page H6), when they reported that someone had bought the road sign of his wife's old address as a wedding gift for her. You know the black-on-white street signs that have mostly been replaced by white on green ones recently? The Streets of Singapore e-Auction was organised by the LTA and Community Chest as a means of getting rid of the old signs and also raising money for the needy. Rules: one sign for each road, minimum bid of $50 with increments of $1, auction begins tomorrow and ends on 30th April. Unfortunately, some of the most well-known signs have apparently been snapped up by companies already:

...Landmark department store Tangs, for example, is willing to pay $5,000 for the Orchard Road sign.

- ST 22 Mar 2003, "Forget rings, tak this as a sign of my love"

Quirky as it might be to own an actual street sign, I think it's a fabulous idea. Too bad Michael Fay and his pals didn't wait for this, because they wouldn't have had to do time & endure the ratan for their street signs now ;-) Although I have some ideas for sentimental street signs for myself (like where I lived when I was young, Marsiling Lane), I don't think I'll bid for any myself.

The North Korea standoff

23 March 2003 9:18 PM SGT (link)

One of the reasons people are opposed to attacking Iraq now is because of the bigger problem of North Korea, which has recently expelled IAEA inspectors and threatened to restart its nuclear-reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, which could allow them to churn out small nuclear weapons for the highest bidder. The Bush administration's stance at this moment seems to be quiet diplomacy, trying to get countries in the region to reopen negotiations with the North Koreans rather than the bilateral ones they want. Jonathan Rauch writes in the National Journal (reproduced in the Atlantic) - Yes, Bush Has a Policy on North Korea. It Might Even Work. - that bilateral negotiations ending up in a second Agreed Framework would be disastrous, and the current stance to push, even force, countries like China, South Korea and Japan to take a pro-active role in dealing with North Korea might prove a better solution. Worth reading as a contrast to the usual editorial calling for the Americans to open direct talks to resolve the dispute.

Gulf War II: Singapore's stand

21 March 2003 11:24 PM SGT (link)

"When the term 'coalition of the willing' was used there was some implication that this implied including countries which would contribute military forces in the war against Iraq. I think the US has clarified now and we have a new term -- the coalition for the immediate disarmament of Iraq," Dr Tan said.

"We allow US aircraft to over fly Singapore, we allow US military assets and ships and aircraft to call at Singapore to use our military bases. We have made these facilities available to the US during this campaign as we did in the campaign in Afghanistan. We have no troops in the theatre of operation and we do not expect that we will send any troops there," he said.

- Channel NewsAsia, S'pore backs Iraq war but not sending troops: DPM Tan

Some of my friends have some misgivings about our nation's support for the US. So I guess not everyone is the kind of Singaporean I described here who's only interested in when it ends so that supposedly the storm clouds will lift and our economy gets back on track.

Due to the confines of my primitive blog, this will seem like a monologue, but bear with me: being in the list of the "coalition of the willing" doesn't mean, as our Defence Minister was quick to say, that we are committing combat troops or even anything to the battle fronts (refer to this ST article for some details on who's committing what). We will probably contribute by providing access to our airspace and naval bases to the Americans, which we've been doing in peacetime anyway. The list primarily serves a political purpose, to show that this coalition has broad international support despite the very obvious objections from France, Russia and China and the fact that an estimated 85% of the troops are American. So I wouldn't get too worked up over our inclusion or exclusion in it. Of course, it's easier for me to accept because I generally support that the war is necessary; note: I'm not for war without justification - who is? maniacs? - but this war seems to be the result, and hopefully the beginning of a resolution, of a long-running problem.

Gulf War II: Day 2

21 March 2003 9:49 PM SGT (link)

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