The desert will not get kinder

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Egyptians call it the “khamasin” and Iraqis the “tauz.” I have experienced them both.

They are fierce sandstorms which greatly limit visibility at or near ground level and turn the sky dusky, even at noon. Breathing becomes labored and the only way for people to escape the suffocating fine dust is to quickly get inside, behind tightly shut windows and doors. Khamasin and tauz storms can also be accompanied by brief, intense rains, making mobility very difficult, and the air temperature may drop by as much as 10 degrees in a matter of minutes.

As the American-led invasion of Iraq moves into April, these severe local sandstorms will be accompanied by higher temperatures, into the 30’s Celsius. Middle Eastern deserts are not hospitable environments at the best of times, for they are barren of everything, especially fresh water.

Treated sea-water tastes terrible; it takes a long time to get used to it. But the Americans will have more time than they expected if their campaign does not attract some prompt intervention… now.

George Bush and Tony Blair “sold” their war back home on the basis of freeing the Iraqi people. But now it seems the Iraqis have changed their minds and are more interested in being freed from foreign occupation than in getting rid of their dictator. The Iraqi military are not deserting their units fast enough. Surprised? Now they’re willing to die defending their country.

Remember the main reason for this war? Iraq was allegedly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. None have yet been found. Perhaps those claims of hidden chemical and biological weapons were as fraudulent as those related to Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons program.

The American-led forces have much greater things to fear in coming weeks — not human-made threats, but the ancient processes of nature itself. Desert storms? You haven’t seen anything yet!

Deserts are a formidable challenge, even for the toughest soldiers. In the desert, not only people, but even the most sophisticated killing machines can break down. From artillery to electronics, from tanks to B-52’s — the extreme dryness of desert environments tends to increase static electricity, resulting in frequent electronic equipment malfunction. Computerization and complex technology are major components of 21st-century warfare; they are indispensable in surveillance, in missile guidance systems, and in communication networks.

But the desert has been the same for eons, filling the air with fine sand and suspended particles that sift their way into virtually all forms of machinery. Engines wear out much faster and require overhauling more often; the added engine wear, combined with difficult traction over moving sand or mud also results in far higher fuel consumption.

Aircraft engines, including those of helicopters, are no exception. Drastic changes in desert weather — such as temperature, humidity, or barometric pressure — can suddenly reduce the lift and maneuverability of helicopters, resulting not only in less flight endurance and range, but making them dangerously vulnerable targets as well. These conditions equally affect attack and medical evacuation helicopters.

Psychologically, the desert creates an overwhelming sense of vast emptiness, not only physical danger and isolation. Distances seem different under day and nighttime conditions; even with the best satellite positioning systems, a lack of landmarks can create severe disorientation.

Those who have lived with the desert for thousands of years have learned to adapt and respect it. They can turn its dangers into an advantage. If the Americans and their allies once thought they’d drive to Baghdad over a long sandy beach, they should be thinking differently now. The Middle Eastern desert can be a deadly and unpredictable enemy.

But the desert alone cannot be held responsible for present and future Iraqi war victims, nor for the rising death toll of young American and British soldiers on its soil. And for what are they laying down their lives? It is time for the U.N. to intervene and stop this senseless war. If not now, when?

Look at the city of Basra, for example. Its population of only 1.2 million, the majority of whom are Sh’ia Muslims, has already suffered a great deal at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet its citizens have resisted the American-led occupation forces for two weeks now and are still holding out.

With only a little extrapolation, one can estimate that Baghdad, home to some 5 million Iraqis — to whom the state had given free primary-to-university schooling and a first-class health care system — could resist for more than two months. Resulting frustration could well lead the Americans to level Baghdad, irregardless of civilian casualties. And it is unlikely that this genocide would be shared triumphantly with the world through Al Jazeerah, or other on-the-ground reportage, especially if bombers target the media offices first.

Thus, the urgent time is now. Canada has a critical window of opportunity in which to propose that American and British forces in Iraq be replaced by a U.N.-led multinational force that includes members from neighbouring Arab and Muslim countries. The publicity spin from both original combatants may simultaneously claim Iraqi and American victories, but despite the potential embarrassment, countless lives could be saved.

In this context, what better diplomatic path could Canada take, than to help our American friends out of their big ethical and promotional mess?

Canada — intervention, please. We need it now. The desert will not get any kinder.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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