Hard News by Russell Brown

Being lied to

Over the weekend, spokesmen for Tony Blair put word about that Saddam had sacked his commander of air defences after a series of surface-to-air missiles landed on Baghdad. This, they said gave reason for "scepticism" over claims that the bombing of two marketplaces in Baghdad this week were the result of coalition attacks on the city.

And then this Robert Fisk story turned up in the Independent on Sunday. Fisk, on the scene of the second blast - which has so far killed 62 civilians - and able to converse with survivors, sighted a missile fragment with western lettering on it, apparently retrieved from the scene by an elderly man who lived nearby ("Even the Iraqi authorities do not know that it exists.")

"The missile was guided by computers and that vital shard of fuselage was computer-coded," Fisk wrote. "It can be easily verified and checked by the Americans - if they choose to do so. It reads: 30003-704ASB 7492. The letter 'B' is scratched and could be an 'H'. This is believed to be the serial number. It is followed by a further code which arms manufacturers usually refer to as the weapon's 'Lot' number. It reads: MFR 96214 09."

Actually, the "96214" sequence is a CAGE code - part of a system of supplier codes used by the US military, in procurement documents like this. So far as I can tell, it relates to the huge US arms manufacturer Raytheon, which, among other things, makes the Patriot missile system and is set to be a major player in the "Star Wars" missile defense scheme proposed by the White House.

The same supplier code has turned up on fragments found after US air attacks in Serbia, Kosovo and Southern Iraq in 1999. All of those attacks with air-to-surface missiles killed civilians.

So what are we to make of this? I suppose we should grant the faint possibility that Fisk's elderly bystander is an Iraqi government stooge, although it seems unlikely. As does the idea that the Iraqis are using American anti-aircraft missiles.

So by far the most likely explanation is that these 62 civilians were in fact killed by missiles from a US aircraft, and that coalition command knows this very well, but rather than admit it, is raising a smokescreen with allegations about wayward Iraqi missiles based on unverifiable "intelligence".

Would they lie to us? Would Tony Blair lie to us to cynically gain political advantage? Well, he has already in the past week. During his visit to the US for meetings with Bush, Blair spoke at length and with passion about the "execution" by Iraqis of two British soldiers.

"If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam's regime, this atrocity provides it. It is yet one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war. More than that, to the families of the soldiers involved, it is an act of cruelty beyond comprehension. Indeed, it is beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls."

But the lead story in Friday's Daily Mirror quoted the sister of one of the soldiers, Luke Allsop, who was clearly appalled at what Blair had said. Her brother had not, she said, been executed:

"The Colonel from his barracks came around to our house to tell us he was not executed. Luke's Land Rover was ambushed and he died instantly. The Colonel told us he was doing what he could to set the record straight. We are very angry. It makes a big difference to us knowing that he died quickly. We can't understand why people are lying about what happened."

Blair's official spokesman later admitted there was "no conclusive proof" that the soldiers had been executed.

What was that about moral authority, Tony?

UPDATE: The Australian conservative blogger Tim Blair and his readers have trawled up quite a bit more information on the weapon in question - and despite the fact that they hate Fisk with a passion beyond all reason, have been decent enough to concede that he's right. On the other hand, their conclusions appear to show that the Iraqi leadership has radar facilities positioned in civilian areas. Thanks to NZPundit for the tip (yes, really!).