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American Indians fighting a very old war

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A U.S.-led invasion of Iraq appears inevitable. As in every American war since World War I, Indians will fight in the armed services in numbers far beyond their proportion of the population. But is there a special reason in this war for Native peoples to participate, beyond continuing a proud military tradition?

We believe there is one, and it hangs on the long series of UN resolutions ordering Saddam to destroy his weapons of mass destruction. The UN inspectors have consistently found that Saddam fights the hardest to preserve and conceal his arsenal of biological weapons, a parade of horrors that most intelligence sources believe could include smallpox. Biological terror is a scourge Indians know well. Smallpox killed more Native men, women and children and destroyed more tribes during the European invasion than any armed conflict. Although Europe also suffered from the scourge, which kills three out of 10 of its victims and has no known cure, the devastation among Indians was so dramatic that one Mohawk victim, the beatified 17th century convert Kateri Tekakwitha, is now the patron in the Roman Catholic Church for its sufferers. The vast majority of these outbreaks were probably not deliberately induced. During the Contact period, European arrivals had the ironic advantage of centuries of exposure to, and anti-body development against, the worst plagues in the world, diseases unknown in the far healthier "New World."

But there is one well-documented case of what has been called the first targeting of a biological weapon on a specific population in modern warfare. During the siege of Fort Pitt during Pontiac's War in 1763, the English general Lord Jeffrey Amherst encouraged his agents to send smallpox-tainted blankets to the surrounding warriors of the Ottawa Chief Pontiac. The subsequent outbreak lifted the siege. (Microfilms of the orders from the British archives can be seen at the Web site .) A war to prevent any future use of biological weapons will hold a special meaning for all Native warriors.

But isn't it all about oil? Some of our anti-war friends will say at this point. That widespread but outdated misconception overlooks some recent history, namely the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent anthrax mail scare. The attacks of 9/11 made perfectly clear that organized fanatics want to do maximum damage to the United States in unprovoked suicide attacks. The anthrax letters, whoever thought them up, showed a much more effective way of spreading fear and economic turmoil than any airplane hijacking. They heralded nothing short of a new kind of modern warfare, in which the postal service and any other form of civilian distribution system could become the front line and the defense is part manhunt, part public health campaign.

In this view, the fight against Saddam Hussein is far more than the traditional war of Desert Storm, whose aim was to evict him from Kuwait. It is an attempt to eradicate a vector of disease. His biological weapons are a far more serious concern than his chemical bombs or even his nuclear program. Iraq already knows how to make them in mass quantities and hide them, and Saddam is perfectly capable of handing over samples to terrorists of all stripes. (High levels of the Bush Administration are very familiar with the argument that Saddam is already the hidden hand behind Muslim fanatic attacks on America, going back to the first bombing of the World Trade Center 10 years ago. Dr. Laurie Mylroie makes a brilliant but circumstantial presentation of the case in her book, "The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks" (Harper Reganbooks, 2001). A look at the acknowledgements and cover blurbs will show its historic role.

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The previous UN inspection body UNSCOM was bearing in on Saddam's biological weapons when he forced them from Iraq in 1998. The inspectors believed he was hiding a battlefield agent that has still not been revealed. In spite of his ambiguous sound bites, Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, the current UN inspectors, states plainly that Saddam is revealing less now than he did three years ago. In a Security Council report on Jan. 27, Blix noted that Iraq had given an independent panel of experts in 1999 a table of its imports of bacterial growth media but had omitted the table in its recent declaration to UNMOVIC. "The absence of this table would appear to be deliberate," Blix said, "as the pages of the resubmitted document were renumbered." Blix said that the unreported growth media could produce about 5,000 liters of concentrated anthrax.

Anthrax is hardly the half of the story. Saddam has acknowledged work on a range of nasty diseases, including dengue fever, tularemia, gas gangrene and the plague. He has been accused of the battlefield use of mycotoxins, the poisons produced by microscopic fungi, including a mysterious attack near al Jubayl in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 19, 1991, against the Seabees of the 24th Mobile Naval Construction Battalion. Mycotoxins gained notoriety in the early 1980s as the active agent in the "yellow rain" that the State Department accused the Soviet Union of testing in remote areas of Laos and Afghanistan. And then there is smallpox.

Although Saddam hasn't acknowledged that he has it, one of the last natural outbreaks of the disease took place in Iraq. The World Health Organization claimed to have eradicated the disease worldwide in the 1980s, but known stocks of the virus were stored in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union and illegal stocks are suspected in the hands of rogue states like Iraq and North Korea. The U.S. and western allies are certainly taking the threat seriously, launching expensive and risky revaccination programs for key personnel. The nightmare that this scourge could escape from a weapons lab and re-infect humanity is not at all far-fetched. In fact, one report suggests that it has already happened.

In July 2002 the Monterey Institute for International Relations in Monterey, Calif. released a chilling but little-noticed translation of Soviet-era medical reports on a previously unknown smallpox outbreak in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971. Ten people caught the disease and three died before it was contained. The most likely source, Russian researchers concluded, was an open-air biological warfare testing site on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea. The Soviets are now known to have experimented with weaponized, genetically engineered smallpox in their massive Biopreparat biological warfare program, but this program, and the Aralsk outbreak, went undetected by western intelligence for 20 years.

All humanity has reason to dread these weapons, supposedly banned by totally ineffective international treaties, but the indigenous peoples of the world are the ones who bear their brunt. When governments want to use them, and their equally outlawed chemical arsenals, they prefer remote locations and isolated tribal populations as victims, to hide the results from global opinion. The first victims of Yellow Rain were the Hmong tribesmen of Laos. When U.S. officials accuse Saddam of gassing his own people, they have it only half right. Saddam has in fact turned these weapons on Kurds and marsh Arabs, his oppressed indigenous minorities. Indigenous peoples will have good reason to applaud a war that genuinely suppresses weapons of mass destruction.

We take the Bush Administration on its word that this is its aim. But the proof will be in the follow-up. American forces should give the world the fullest possible accounting of the chemical and biological weapons they encounter. When Iraqi archives are captured, and they will surely be sought for, the U.S. should throw them open for independent study. It should not shrink from following leads to the corporations that provided materials and the foreign governments that gave advice. The war against Saddam should be the beginning of a diplomatic campaign against weapons of mass destruction throughout the world, including the lands of the former Soviet Union. This will be a cause that Native peoples can support.