Operation Ali Baba

January 20th 2005
There is no doubt at all that it was the duty of the occupying power to prevent looting. In Baghdad there was a spectacular failure to do this, which appeared to be a policy decision. The traditional way to prevent looting after an invasion and occupation is (1) to publish a declaration, visible on posters written in large letters in all the languages the inhabitants are deemed to be familiar with, posted in every street and broadcast by any means available  including loud speaker vans, that looters will be shot on sight and (2) to start shooting them on sight all over town. The sooner you start, the fewer have to be shot. This is the only method that has been known to work but clearly, in light of the fact that the invasion of Iraq was to remove a regime that would operate in this way even in peacetime, it was not considered appropriate.

The Geneva Convention has not been tested in either the traditional world or the current circumstances, so nobody can say if there is an effective way of stopping looting within the Geneva Convention. However, that is exactly what was attempted in Operation Ali Baba. Unfortunately we are now told that the commanders got it wrong; that the order to 'Work them hard" was illegal, even if it had been interpreted in a way that did not include sexual or physical humiliation. Personally I would have thought the only way to stop looting would be to either shoot, imprison or scare the living daylights out of offenders, so I am not impressed by those who expect them to be treated with kid gloves.

The really extraordinary part of this is that  it was not appreciated that humiliation was never the right tactic, and to put individuals in humiliating circumstances and then photograph it was an invitation to disaster. All photographs get published eventually if their publication has value. The publication of photos of this sort undermine the entire mission. I can only deduce that there was no operational post created for the individual who should have foreseen and prevented this. The individuals who took the pictures are guilty of stupidity. That is not yet a criminal offence. I do not know the current regulations about the use of cameras by serving soldiers on operations and the ownership of the results, so I shall hold my comments on the guilt of senior officers until more is revealed.

I do not feel constrained by the court martial judge's remarks so far as the whole purpose of this entire web site is pre-judgment. No judgments are made here with the benefit of hindsight, even if they are made after the events.

JANUARY 22nd 2005
We have now been told two things of importance. First that the locals wanted the looters shot, but this was deemed inappropriate for reasons I have touched on already. Second that photography was part.of the policy of Ali Baba, to establish the identity of looters and, to show them being 'worked hard' as a deterrent to others. This was obviously sensible and if the Geneva Convention forbade it, or the 'hard working' of the looters, then the Convention was correctly ignored. We have known since the beginnings of civilisation that the law is for the guidance of wise men and the literal obeyment of fools.

But what is becoming even more obvious is that in these circumstances all those dealing first hand with the looters should have had a clear briefing that covered the details of what 'working hard' did not mean, under any circumstances, and what rules applied to the use of cameras and the photographs taken with them. Once again we come back to the view that there seems to have been an important post in the military structure which was not created - that of an officer in charge of ensuring that the mission's entire legitimacy and logic was not at risk of public destruction by inappropriate actions, either in front of the world audience or in secret. The Major in charge of Operation Ali Baba may have done all he could under pressure at the time, but where was the support and guidance that should have come from a specialist officer to whom this situation and its dangers should have rung all the warning bells there are and who should have produced at short order the required instructions and the way to impart them? How is it possible that this was not foreseen when most observers were worrying about little else? When responsible governments take international law into their own hands because the UN is corrupted, they take on an awesome responsibility. They are bound to make mistakes, but this type of mistake indicates a structural failure.

FEB 26th 2004
We now have the results of the Court Martial, and the sentences, which cannot be faulted, sad though it is. The reputation of the Army must be restored and upheld. The defendants were found guilty. If unpunished, the suspicion that such actions were to be tolerated would have been reinforced, and the defence of some of the accused was exactly that.

It is easy for armchair critics to forget the pressure that all ranks were under in the period of the build up to the invasion, when ambiguity reigned supreme. On the one hand, the threat to Saddam had to be real, on the other hand it was politically impossible to commit the full resources till the die was cast, as the hope remained that Saddam would realise the game was up and flee to sanctuary abroad. Presumably it is for this reason that clear instructions for the postwar scenario were not prepared or issued, including how to handle looters.

General Jackson was right to apologise sincerely on behalf of the army, as responsibility does go higher that the accused. These men were foolish and used their authority wrongly and interpreted their instructions inappropriately, but the situation was not properly prepared and this can be seen, as I suggested earlier, as a structural fault in the army.

How to deal with looters under the Geneva Convention should have been the subject of careful consideration within the military the moment the invasion was inevitable. One can only assume that it would require their official arrest and detention pending due legal process. The army was in no way equipped at the time to do this as the situation was extremely precarious. The UK government was at fault as some of its key players in postwar reconstruction such as Claire Short had abandoned or not exercised their responsibilities. The instructions for Ali Baba to catch looters and 'work them hard' was therefore the only option at the time, but that should have made it even more vital to define the methods accurately, since they they were temporarily in breach of the strict interpretation of the Convention. As for any contention that this was a 'collective punishment' forbidden under the Convention, that is wrong. A collective punishment is one where the innocent are punished along with the guilty. There is no claim that those being made to work hard were not looters.

Finally we should note that while those who suffered from the treatment have not had their lives or their health permanently affected, those who abused them have had their careers and reputation totally and publicly destroyed. Punishment does not come much greater than that. If we weigh up the merits and demerits of peoples lives and their punishments and rewards, it might appear we expect very much more of some than of others. I have no doubt that in postwar Iraq there are those without food, money, hope or ethics. The temptation to rob a supply camp was probably considerable. Against that force of nature we set soldiers under strain who have carried out a tough campaign, with instructions to teach them a serious and deterrent lesson. Then, in hindsight, the world demands justice. How is that possible? The results of the Court Martial will stand. There will no doubt be others. All we can expect is that all do their best as events unfold. Life proceeds by a process of trial and error, and we attempt to keep records and learn from the past while technical progress advances the capabilities.