April 16, 2008

On the 12th anniversary of Mansouri: Robert Fisk

13 April 2008

Another Anniversary Americans Have Long Since Forgotten

The children of Abbas Ali Jiha; Mansouri, Lebanon, 13 Apr 1996.

Just listen to this sabre-rattling, delivered in a speech by our President and reported in the Washington Post in January 2007:
This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

Syria and Iran are allegedly supplying our enemies in Iraq, and we won't stand for it. That's justification enough for us to "seek out and destroy".

Oh really?

Today is the 12th anniversary of Israel's bombardment of south Lebanon. I know it's difficult to keep up with which Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon is which, but the one whose anniversary falls today is the one known as Operation Grapes of Wrath.

This is what happened in south Lebanon, 12 years ago today:

"All morning the Israelis had shelled the villages of southern Lebanon. The sky was alive with the sound of supersonic F-16 fighter bombers, while Apache helicopters hovered like wasps over the villages. Israel's Voice of the South radio had ordered residents to abandon their homes; if they fled, the radio promised, they would not be hurt.

Four days earlier, a fourteen-year-old Lebanese boy had been killed by a booby-trap bomb; the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia, accusing Israel of responsibility, fired Katyusha rockets across the border, wounding several Israelis; in response, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres -- vainly seeking reelection by portraying himself as a soldier-statesman -- ordered the mass bombardment of southern Lebanon from the air, sea, and land.

In the Lebanese village of Mansouri that morning of April 13 last year, Abbas Jiha, a farmer who volunteered as an ambulance driver for the town, packed his family and several residents into the ambulance and fled the falling shells. He crammed thirteen terrified passengers into the vehicle. Abbas Jiha says that just as he was putting his children into the back of the ambulance, he saw two helicopters. "They were low, and the pilots seemed to be watching us."

Abbas remembers that by the time he left Mansouri, part of the village was on fire, the smoke curling over the fields. "We left in a convoy of tractors and cars and headed for Amriyeh, where there was a U.N. post with Fijian soldiers on the main coast road to Tyre."

It was then, as the ambulance was approaching U.N. Checkpoint 1-23, that Abbas Jiha heard the women in the back of the ambulance shouting at him. "One of them was crying out to me, 'The helicopter is coming close to us--it's chasing us.' I looked out of the window and I could see the Apache getting closer. I told them all: 'Don't be afraid. Just say "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great").'. .. I had told them not to be afraid, but I was very frightened."

A videotape by a Reuters camerawoman at the scene shows what happened next. Milliseconds after the ambulance cleared U.N. Checkpoint 1-23, a missile exploded through the back door, engulfing the vehicle in fire and smoke and hurling it some fifty feet through the air and into the living room of a house.

All that passenger Fadila al-Oglah remembers was a "great heat in my face, like a blazing fire. Somehow I was outside the ambulance, and I found a big barrel of water and started to wash my face from the heat. It was all I could think of, despite the screaming and smoke, this terrible heat."

Abbas Jiha recalls hurling himself from the door of the ambulance just before it crashed into the house. The videotape shows the immediate aftermath: wounded in the head and foot, Abbas Jiha stands in the road beside one of his dead daughters, weeping and shrieking "God is great" up into the sky, toward the helicopter.

The camerawoman, Najla Abujahjah, recalls running toward the ambulance. "I couldn't get the doors open because the vehicle was wedged in the room. But there were three children inside who were clearly in the last seconds of their life." Najla then heard a strange scraping sound. "The missile had set off the windshield wipers, and they were going back and forth against the broken glass, making this terrible noise. It will haunt me the rest of my days"."

Click here to watch an extract from the video, but be warned it is graphic; towards the end of the second minute, you will literally be watching small children die.

"In all, six people were killed, including Abbas Jiha's wife, Mona, and three of his children. Overwhelmed with grief, he tore at the vehicle with his bare hands, soon followed by the U.N. Fijian troops from the checkpoint. The Israeli helicopter remained in the sky over U.N. Checkpoint 1-23 for another five minutes. Then it flew away.

Within hours the Israelis admitted that they had targeted the ambulance, but they claimed that it was owned by a member of Hezbollah and was carrying a Hezbollah guerrilla. Both charges were untrue. There were no apologies.

Among the fragments of shrapnel and twisted steel, a young U.N. officer soon discovered a hunk of metal bearing most of a nameplate. It contained the logo "AGM 114C" and a manufacturer's number: 04939.

...[He] duly handed over to me the fragment containing the codes. They were scratched and in some cases illegible, but they included a National Stock Number in a 42-34 digit sequence, "141001-1920293". The second section of the sequence - '01' - would prove to be of vital importance. The missile's Lot No. was "MG188J315534." ...

The U.N. officer knew that AGM stood for "air-to-ground missile," and the 114C coding identified the five-foot-three-inch projectile as a Hellfire anti-armor missile, jointly manufactured by Rockwell International and Martin Marietta. According to Jane's Defense Weekly, Rockwell--now owned by Boeing--had its headquarters on Satellite Boulevard, in Duluth, Georgia. Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed, was in Orlando, Florida. How would these missile manufacturers respond to the horror of the ambulance attack?

I drove to a campus of discreet two-story buildings and tall trees and manicured lawns. "Boeing Defense and Space Group," the sign at the gate said. It was to be a disturbing afternoon. A tiny, green-painted model of the Hellfire stood on a shelf in the room where Algarotti introduced me to two executives intimately involved in the production of the missile. They were highly intelligent men; both had been officers in Vietnam, and both would request anonymity after talking to me.

I explained that I was interested in writing about the abilities of the missile and also about its specific use in the Middle East. After handing me a brochure, the executive on my right--whom I'll call the Colonel, for that was his former rank--listed those countries that had purchased Hellfires. First on the list was Israel ("They take soldiering pretty seriously," the Colonel explained), but Egypt, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates were also included.

I asked what checks Rockwell, the original company, carried out on how the Hellfire had been used by those nations that purchased it. They read the papers, both executives said. I asked about Israel. "We do not get information from the Israelis about what they've done," one of the men replied. "They don't give much information."

From my camera bag I then produced the missile fragment. I laid the shard of iron on the table. I told the men the date of its use, the location, and the results.

Bob Algarotti said, "I'm getting a little uncomfortable." But the Colonel was angry. "This is so far off base, it's ridiculous," he said. I begged to disagree. They manufactured the missile. Didn't they bear some responsibility for its use--at least to ensure that it was used responsibly by their clients?

I agreed to lay down my pen while the three men discussed how they could frame some statement of their feelings. Both executives clearly felt deeply troubled by the events that I described. But they didn't want Boeing involved. One man said to me, twice and in identical words, "Whatever you do, I don't want you to quote me as saying anything critical of Israel's policies."

I pulled from my bag photographs of the aftermath. The executive to my left looked through them with an expression of horror. Then he said, "I don't want these." He slid the pictures over to the Colonel, who looked at them and gently returned them to me.

We parted with handshakes. I told them to keep the Hellfire missile fragment; I was returning it to them. And as I left the room, I heard a voice behind me say, "I don't think we'll put this one in the trophy room."..."

And subsequently:

"And there my story might have ended... But two days later I received a letter from a European missile technician:
The vital piece of evidence, the missile fragment, says a lot more than you revealed... The NATO stock number is partially obliterated, but does give a vital clue. Each NATO country has an identifying nationality code - in this case, the "01" for the U.S.A. is clearly visible. This shows the weapon was originally supplied to U.S. forces. The Lot No. is the most significant. This would tell you exactly where and when it was made, and more importantly, where it was delivered. You will see that the first part of the Lot No. has been obliterated...by a chisel-like instrument... So who cut out the Lot No.? Israeli forces upon receipt of "illegally exported" U.S. weaponry? U.S. forces before delivery? It is quite clear that this missile was exported from U.S. government stocks and given to the Israelis covertly.

I messaged a friend in France and asked her to call the anonymous letter-write. Minutes later she was on the line. "He called me back from a pay phone. He wants to meet you tomorrow for lunch at the Lutetia Hotel in Paris."....

The technician had arrived in Paris with his wife. He went straight to the point. "Mr Fisk, that missile was never sold to the Israelis. The '01' shows it was sold to the U.S. armed forces. And the 'M' proves it was sold to the U.S. Marine Corps." Was he sure? He pulled from his pocket NATO's entire arms coding list. Israel's imported NATO weapons, for example, would carry the numerals '31'. Britain's NATO code is '99', Italy '15'. But the nationality code for the United States was - suitably enough - '01'. Which was the code on the missile fragment. And 'M' stood for the U.S. Marines. So how, in heaven's name, did a Marine Corps missile come to be fired by the Israelis into an ambulance in southern Lebanon?

I made a formal request to the Pentagon, giving them full details of the missile's codes, asking them for "the exact provenance of this missile". I received no reply. Indeed, after more than thirty calls from me to the U.S. Defense Department and the State Department not a single official American spokesman, either at Defense or State, was prepared to give me any information.

But the U.S. Marines took a different view. When I faxed them details of the missile codings and the ambulance attack, I was immediately called back by a spokeswoman for the office of the Marine Corps Commandant. "We don't like our missiles being used to attack kids", she told me. "Where are you staying?" I waited next day at my hotel near Dupont Circle and at 5:30 a car arrived for me. It took me to a Marine base outside Washington where seven men in civilian clothes were waiting to talk to me. We sat in the officers' mess and they examined my photographs of the missile parts and told me - at last - the story of Hellfire No.MG188J315534.

It had been one of up to 300 shipped to the Gulf by the U.S. Marines in 1990 to be used against Saddam Hussein's occupation army in Kuwait. Of these, 159 were fired at Iraqi forces. But when the conflict was over, the marine officers told me, around 150 unused Hellfires - along with other ordnance - were dropped off at the Haifa munitions pier in Israel by a U.S. warship as part of a secret quid pro quo - a gift to Israel - for keeping out of the 1991 Gulf War when it was under Iraqi Scud missile attack.

I called up General Gus Pagonis, who was head of U.S. military logistics during the 1991 war against Iraq; he insisted to me that "everything we took off the ships [in Saudi Arabia] I put back aboard them en route to America". But Pagonis added meaningfully that "I don't know if the ships stopped anywhere on the way". They did. After passing through the Suez Canal, the U.S. Navy put the Hellfires and other missiles ashore in Northern Israel.

If the missile had been sold to Israel, conditions on its use would have been attached. But this was a military transfer, straight from American stocks. The missile had been paid for by the marines but ultimately handed over to the Israelis, no questions asked, and - five years later - fired into the back of an ambulance."

-- Excerpted from Made in America: a lethal weapon's return policy, Harper's Magazine, August 1997; and The Great War For Civilization, Chapter 19 "Now Thrive The Armourers..."; both by Robert Fisk.

I checked today's Washington Post, but I can't seem to find any reference to today's anniversary, nor to the clandestine arms dealing behind it that enabled Israel to blow up a Lebanese ambulance with our missiles. If Iran or Syria were responsible, Mansouri would be a casus belli. But when it's our nation illicitly supplying the weapons used to murder fleeing civilians, or even proliferating Chemical Weapons to the most volatile region in the world, neither our selectively-indignant President nor the broadsheets of our chattering classes have anything to say about it.

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