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PAUL ROGAT LOEB

Deception's damning documents

IT'S BAD enough that the Bush administration had so little international support for the Iraqi war that its ''coalition of the willing" meant the United States, Britain, and the equivalent of a child's imaginary friends. It's even worse that, as the British Downing Street memo confirms, they had so little evidence of real threats that they knew from the start that they were going to have to manufacture excuses to go to war. What's more damning still is that they effectively began this war even before the congressional vote.

With congressman John Conyers holding hearings, the media are finally starting to cover the Downing Street memo. This transcript of a July 23, 2002, British prime minister's meeting, whose legitimacy the British government confirms, details their response to the Bush administration's intention to go to war against Iraq, no matter how Saddam Hussein responded, and even while claiming they were still seeking peaceful solutions.

''It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided," states the document. ''But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran." As the document states, ''the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The document is damning, particularly coupled with the testimony of former Bush ghost-writer Mickey Herskowitz that Bush was talking about invading Iraq as early as 1999. But it's even more disturbing as we start learning that this administration began actively fighting the Iraq war well in advance of the March 2003 official attack--before both the October 2002 US congressional authorization and the November United Nations resolution requiring that Saddam Hussein open the country up to inspectors.

I follow Iraq pretty closely, but was taken aback when Charlie Clements, now head of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, described driving in Iraq months before the war ''and a building would just explode, hit by a missile from 30,000 feet." ''What is that building?" Clements would ask. ''Oh, that's a telephone exchange." Later, at a conference at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, Clements heard a US general boast ''that he began taking out assets that could help in resisting an invasion at least six months before war was declared."

Earlier this month, Jeremy Scahill wrote a powerful piece on the website of The Nation, describing a huge air assault in September 2002. ''Approximately 100 US and British planes flew from Kuwait into Iraqi airspace," Scahill writes. ''At least seven types of aircraft were part of this massive operation, including US F-15 Strike Eagles and Royal Air Force Tornado ground-attack planes. They dropped precision-guided munitions on Saddam Hussein's major western air-defense facility, clearing the path for Special Forces helicopters that lay in wait in Jordan. Earlier attacks had been carried out against Iraqi command and control centers, radar detection systems, Revolutionary Guard units, communication centers, and mobile air-defense systems. The Pentagon's goal was clear: Destroy Iraq's ability to resist."

Why aren't we talking about this? As Scahill points out, this was a month before the congressional vote, and two months before the UN resolution. Supposedly part of enforcing ''no fly zones," the bombings were actually systematic assaults on Iraq's capacity to defend itself. The United States had never declared war. Bush had no authorization, not even a fig leaf. He was simply attacking another nation because he'd decided to do so. This preemptive war preempted our own Congress, as well as international law.

Most Americans don't know these prewar attacks ever happened. There was little coverage at the time, and there's been little since. The bombings that destroyed Iraq's air defenses were under the radar for both the American media and American citizens.

If coverage of the Downing Street memo continues to increase, I suspect the administration will try to dismiss it as mere diplomatic talk, just inside baseball. But they weren't just manipulating intelligence so they could attack no matter how Saddam Hussein responded. They weren't only bribing would-be allies into participation. They were fighting a war they'd planned long before. They just didn't bother to tell the American public.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of ''The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear."

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