Has Blair Sexed Up Saddam’s Atrocities, Too?

As Tony Blair waltzed out of his final press conference and off to Barbados last week, he once again sidestepped crucial questions on Iraq. Indeed, faced with the collapse of his pre-war "intelligence" on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair is falling back on human rights abuses committed by Saddam Hussein as the new justification for his war.

In the past ten days, Mr. Blair has said at least three times – including once on the floor of the House of Commons – that the United Nations is claiming that some 300,000 bodies lie in mass graves in Iraq, and that this alone justifies the US-UK invasion.

In making this claim, Blair is doing with this evidence exactly what he did with the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

He is stretching it to the limit, and even telling a partial untruth; he is obscuring the bits which contradict his view of the world; and he is attributing an authority and a reliability to the information which it does not have.

First, the figure does not come from the United Nations. Blair has emphasised the UN as the source, and stressed that the figure does not come from the British or American governments. But the real source is a private non-governmental organisation in America called Human Rights Watch. UN officials may have lent credence to the figure by quoting it in their speeches, but it is not an official UN figure.

Nor is it an official Red Cross figure. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the body which is responsible in international law for establishing the names of people missing in conflict. It is not the role of a private, unaccountable organisation like Human Rights Watch. While Red Cross officials in Geneva say they might privately accept it as a working basis for evaluating the scale of their task, they absolutely refuse to give the figure their official support. "We would not say that there are 300,000 people missing in Iraq," Antonella Notari, a spokesman, told me.

Human Rights Watch currently has two staff in Iraq. This compares with about 800 Red Cross staff, and a substantial United Nations presence. The International Committee of the Red Cross has had people in Iraq ever since 1980, and the United Nations has had a huge operation there since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. By contrast, Human Rights Watch has had its few staff in the main part of Iraq only for the last few weeks.

Moreover, Blair is quite wrong to imply that the 300,000 figure (which in any case he has inflated a little from the actual Human Rights Watch figure of 290,000) is the number of people killed by Saddam. This is not even what Human Rights Watch claims. Their report speaks of an estimated 290,000 missing, "many of whom are believed to have been killed". In other words, their deaths have not been established, and some or all of them may still be alive.

The methods used by Human Rights Watch to calculate these numbers are questionable. They do not have anything like complete lists of the names of people missing. Nor do they even seem to know how many names are on the lists they do have. How can you claim to have reliable information about missing people if you do not even know their names?

In the past, these methods have led to appalling exaggerations of the numbers of people killed in conflict. In the Kosovo war of 1999, Human Rights Watch stated categorically that the number of people killed unlawfully by the Serbs was "certainly" more than 4,300. This was the number of bodies which had by then been exhumed. Moreover, Human Rights Watch claimed to have itself documented 3,453 killings, based on interviews. But the legal indictment against Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, refers to 564 killed, not thousands.

In fact, the Human Rights Watch figures are not even their own figures. Instead, they come from other people. One of their main sources is the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They can hardly be regarded as neutral observers. For the last twenty years, the Kurds have been fighting the Iraqis for their autonomy. In the very bloody, decade-long Iran-Iraq war, they sided with Iran, a massive and very powerful country. The Kurds present Iraqi military action against their forces as "genocide", which Human Rights Watch does too.

But this presentation of the Kurds as passive victims is absurd. In 1996, when the two Kurdish factions started to fight each other, one of them asked Saddam to send the Iraqi army to help, which he did. Moreover, my sources within one of the two groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, confirm that the PUK has its own death squads, which it uses to eliminate political enemies. How many of these victims are being counted by Human Rights Watch or Tony Blair?

Because the figures come from other people, even Human Rights Watch does not present them as anything other than estimates. Although Tony Blair speaks as if the figure has been firmly established, the actual Human Rights Watch report is massively hedged around with qualifiers.

Caution should also be exercised because of the unreliability of eye-witness accounts which have not been subject to judicial cross-examination. Human Rights Watch did not start to interview the witnesses of one of the worst alleged atrocities until between four and five years after the events. Some of the evidence is clearly unreliable. One report quotes a man saying, "They blindfolded us … and then they put us in Landcruisers with shaded windows." But how could he know the make of the car, or the colour of the windows, if he was blindfolded? The same man claims to have escaped alive from a mass grave, a story I have heard too many times in Kosovo to find easy to believe.

No one would deny that huge numbers of people have died in Iraq in the last two decades. The Iran-Iraq war claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Huge numbers were killed by the Americans in the first Gulf War, and their bodies were sometimes bulldozed into mass graves. Amnesty International reckons that Saddam executed a few hundred people a year. If true, it is an appalling level of violence – so why exaggerate it? It is, incidentally, far lower than the rate at which we have killed Iraqi civilians in the war on Saddam. The civilian death toll in the last few months is at least 6,000.

But people do have an extraordinary tendency to exaggerate the figures whenever mass killing is alleged. In May, a mass grave was discovered near the town of Hilla: the BBC correspondent, Stephen Sackur, said, "I have personally counted 200, 300 bodies." But which had he counted? 200 or 300? Within hours, the numbers were inflated from a few hundred to 3,000 and then to 10,000 or 15,000. The official from Human Rights Watch alleged to me that "tens of thousands of bodies" had already been exhumed in Iraq. But when I pressed him on this, he had to admit that the figure was, in fact, in the low thousands.

Tony Blair has come very close to meeting his own political death for sexing up information about weapons. It seems that he simply cannot get out of the habit where human rights abuses are concerned.