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COLUMN LEFT : Sifting for the Truth on Both Sides : War brings propaganda, all designed to protect government.

<i> Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. </i>

Truth is the first casualty, people always say gloomily at the prospect of war. True enough (though even at the best of times truth hobbles around with its leg in a cast) and just how rapidly this happens can be illustrated by the case of the premature Kuwaiti babies, supposedly left to die last August by Iraqis who then removed the incubators to Baghdad. It has become the tale used by the Kuwaiti government in exile, as well as by President Bush, who invoked Iraqi horrors inflicted upon the innocent children of Kuwait in his speech Wednesday night.

It should be said right away that there are thousands of examples of such Iraqi brutality and denial of elementary human rights, not just in Kuwait but in Iraq. But the story of baby mass murder is untrue.

The charges received the imprimatur of Amnesty International in a December report. Reviewing what it termed extra-judicial executions, Amnesty International said, “In addition, over 300 premature babies were reported to have died after Iraqi soldiers removed them from incubators, which were then looted.” The report quoted an unnamed Red Crescent doctor as saying that 312 premature babies at Maternity Hospital in al Sabah Medical Complex died after being taken from incubators and that he personally had buried 72.

The Amnesty report also quoted October testimony (to a U.S. congressional human-rights caucus) of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl who had been working in the second week in August as a volunteer at al ‘Addan Hospital. She said she had seen armed Iraqi soldiers go into a room where there were 15 babies in incubators: “They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die. It was horrifying.”

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One final incident noted in the Amnesty International report concerned a woman who had had quadruplets at al Razi Hospital, who had gone home and then returned to find them out of their incubators. They died a day later at home.

Amnesty International was remarkably offhand in offering news of what would be one of the most gruesome crimes of the age. More than 300 babies! Is it likely that any hospital in Kuwait would have so many incubators? L.A.County-USC Medical Center, for example, has 13. Is it plausible that doctors and nurses at al ‘Addan Hospital would have stood by when those babies were dying on the cold floor?

Other human-rights organizations are cautious about the allegations. In detailed testimony on Iraqi abuses in Kuwait offered to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 8, Andrew Whitley, director of the New York-based Middle East Watch, made no mention of the babies. Aziz abu Hamad, a Saudi consultant researching abuses for Middle East Watch, interviewed the Red Crescent doctor, who by then denied having used the 312 figure and spoke only of burying 72 babies.

This doctor had no way of knowing whether they had been in incubators, nor the cause of their deaths. When interviewed he was living in the Sheraton hotel in Taif, headquarters of the Kuwaiti government in exile, and was an employee of that government.

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Kuwaiti doctors and nurses now in exile, some of them formerly in senior positions, dispute the story. One recollects that in September about 20 babies at Maternity Hospital were in incubators, and that some empty incubators still remained. (The highest figure offered for incubators at Maternity Hospital before the invasion is 80.) A senior staffer who left al ‘Addan Hospital at the start of October discounted the story of the Kuwaiti girl, saying no incubators had been taken.

Al Razi Hospital, where, according to the Amnesty report, the quadruplets were supposedly lodged has neither maternity ward nor incubators and is an orthopedic hospital. In mid-October, a Kuwaiti doctor told essentially the same story, but the victims were twins.

Aziz abu Hamad says that as yet no credible eyewitness or testimony has surfaced to sustain the charges of mass murder of babies in incubators.

Does it matter that the Iraqis, amid their looting and murders, did not kill scores if not hundreds of babies by stealing their incubators? Does it matter then, that according to Middle East Watch, they probably killed between 500 to 600 people in Kuwait, not the 4,000 to 7,000 claimed by the Kuwaiti government in exile? It does matter. Human-rights organizations should have higher standards than the yellow press; otherwise they add to the lies that, in this crisis, are already shoulder-deep, starting with Bush’s early pledge that U.S. troops were going to the gulf purely to defend Saudi Arabia. War brings a deluge of propaganda designed to gull us and to protect government. The incubator myth shows how quick we are to believe something when it grabs so savagely at our instincts.


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