The Iraq Dossier
On May 1, a little over six months ago, President Bush made his now-infamous flight-suited appearance on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, delivering the message that the war was over and the mission accomplished.
Now, six months later, as London lies transformed into "fortress London" to shield Bush from the wrath of the citizens of his only major ally in Iraq, most Americans know that Bush's May Day proclamation was, at best, premature. Bush himself has scrambled to "clarify" that, no, he only meant "major combat operations," and, well, of course other missions remain. Most Americans also know that despite White House protestations to the contrary, Iraq's occupation hasn't exactly gone according to plan.
Heck, some Americans are beginning to be aware that there was little or no White House plan at all -- only a blind optimistic faith that the troops would be welcomed as liberators and today, six months later, all involved would be holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" as they build a newly democratic Middle East.
Well, not exactly. Instead, headlines each day detail yet more deaths of American soldiers, and more quotes from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and "senior White House officials" dismissing the increasingly bold and sophisticated attacks as the isolated, desperate last stand of a handful of Saddam "dead-enders" and foreign terrorists.
That, as I'll discuss, is almost entirely nonsense. But it also obscures a number of other calamities now befalling our newest colonial possession. It's impossible to list them all in this space -- but since a number of them have gotten little or no media attention in this country, it's worth reviewing some of the lowlights in one place:
Casualties. Attention has gone to the spiraling death toll among American soldiers -- and that the White House has taken the extraordinary step of barring media from witnessing the return of bodies to the U.S. and filming the flag-draped coffins. Bush himself has yet to attend a military funeral for a casualty of the occupation. But it's worse than that.
Advances in battlefield medicine and triage mean that far more soldiers can survive their wounds today than 40 or even 10 years ago. But the nature of many of the attacks (car bombs, errant KPGs, etc.), and the number of dead point to a level of injured soldiers that is likely to be far higher than the 1,000 - 2,000 the Pentagon claims. Persistent reports have far greater numbers of soldiers -- up to 10,000 -- being shuttled back to military hospitals in Germany. When returned to the U.S., injured soldiers have been scattered in ones, twos, and threes to both military and civilian hospitals across the U.S. in an effort to minimize the visibility of casualties.
That's the Americans. What about Iraqis? It's impossible to say, not least because the Pentagon and occupying CPA government refuse to tally, let alone release the figures, of Iraqi civilian or resistance fighter dead or injured. The invaluable site iraqbodycount.org has documented over 1,500 civilian deaths in Baghdad alone since mid-April. Occupying soldiers seem to have carte blanche to fire on civilians with little or no pretext; even when investigations are promised, they never seem to be actually conducted. As the U.S. resorts to dropping large bombs on densely populated urban areas, civilian casualties can only increase. And the U.S. practice of ignoring Iraqi deaths and not holding its own people accountable for killings is only one of the many things angering Iraqis.
The Iraqi economy is a shambles. The Americans are hiring Iraqis for only the most menial jobs. Contractors are hiring Kuwaitis, Saudis, and Southeast Asians. The currency of choice is now the dollar. Looting was pandemic in the first months and remains a serious problem. As on the West Bank and Gaza, one of the reasons resistance can flourish is that unemployed young men are both angry and have time on their hands.
Basic services. Americans have not only failed at providing security, but much of what we take for granted that a government does. Six months in, and utilities are still sporadic in much of the country. Hospitals have few or no supplies. In some areas, hunger and even famine are a serious threat. It's a difficult situation, especially after three major wars and a dozen years of the most punishing economic sanctions in history, but the agencies and countries with more experience in helping alleviate this sort of thing -- especially the U.N. and former European colonial powers -- have been shut out as the Americans go it alone. Contrast that with Iraqi expectations of what the world's richest country could do if it wanted.
There's no money to pay for the occupation. Because of Bush's unilateralism, only a trickle of foreign money has been pledged to help with Iraqi reconstruction -- and much of that in expensive loans. (That unilateralism, and the increasingly deadly resistance, has also left White House efforts to get other countries to send troops a dismal failure.) Nor will Iraqi oil pay for the occupation; over a dozen successful pipeline attacks have kept the oil almost continuously unavailable for export, and, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, engineers in northern oilfields are actually pumping oil back into the ground. There's nowhere else for it to go. And nobody else is available to pay for it all but you and I. That $87 billion is a tiny down payment on the final bill.
The gold rush. That bill is far higher than it should be as a relative handful of well-placed American corporations have been getting fabulously wealthy on contracts for reconstruction. Many of those contracts have been either no-bid or worded in such a way as to exclude non-American bidders or any but a handful of large companies. Protestations by Iraqi and Kuwaiti companies that they could do the same work for a tenth of what U.S. taxpayers are giving Halliburton, Bechtel, et al. have been fruitless.
Efforts at self-governance have been a farce. The Pentagon has been hand-picking who will run Iraq, starting with Ahmed Chalabi and his cronies, the same folks whose inventive "intelligence" helped convince the White House that this would be easy in the first place. Chalabi, in turn, has relied heavily, for both appointed positions and personal security, on other exiles with little connection to or legitimacy within Iraq. People and organizations that do have legitimacy, especially Shi'ires, have either refused to cooperate with the Americans, been shut out by them, or both.
So far, the Iraqi National Council is hopelessly behind the original schedule on even proposing a timeline for a proposed constitution. Many of the ministries, months after their formation, still are little more than the ministers themselves, existing mostly to ratify CPA decisions while the ministers scurry about to cash in personally, through their own or friends' or relatives' businesses, on the gold rush. It's a risky venture -- many of the ministers and other INC officials have been assassination targets. All have faced condemnation from their countrymen as carpetbaggers and Vichyites.
At the local level, the Americans have put little effort so far into encouraging the sort of civil society that democracy needs. Increasingly they have -- intentionally or not -- tabbed reviled former Ba'athists as the local officials they'll work with.
Weapons are everywhere. Scores of Saddam's former arms depots, scattered about the country, have consistently been reported as unguarded and available for looting. Increasingly, guerrilla cells are making their own weapons, too.
As the Americans train and arm an Iraqi police force full of former Saddam-era law enforcement, and as Chalabi and various ministers rely on their own squads of bodyguards and security, a situation is rapidly developing in which different factions could have their own, independent paramilitary operations. The next step is the sort of warlordism and low-grade civil war that has plagued America's foray into Afghanistan for the last two years.
Contrary to American assertions, Iraqi guerrillas and civilians alike have insisted in interviews that theirs is a homegrown resistance with few Saddam loyalists or foreign fighters. But the latter are, if not there, coming; young Muslim men from across Europe and the Middle East are heading to Iraq to help fight off the American occupiers. And the country is far more amenable to operations by Al-Qaeda and its ilk now than it ever was under Saddam.
American repression. Meanwhile, widespread reports have had the Americans themselves targeting political parties and leaders, especially religious ones, that they dislike; censoring news; and being openly critical of Arabic-language news outlets like Al-Jazeera. "Arrests" result, essentially, in Iraqis being held as military prisoners, since there is no civilian judicial authority. Such arrests, whether based on American intelligence or the testimony of other Iraqis, often seem to be dubious; reports have abounded of Iraqis of various factions settling scores with each other by feeding misinformation to the clueless Americans.
The Americans, in turn, are clueless because few of them speak the language, know the history, culture, or religion, or are interested in learning. Most American officials -- and, increasingly, soldiers as well -- have little or no contact with ordinary Iraqis, instead spending their days in heavily fortified bases or palaces.
Support for the resistance. It's now spread from Ba'athist and other minority Sunni parts of the country to the Shi'ite majority. Even the Kurds are angry, particularly after the U.S. repeatedly tried to get Turkey to send soldiers -- many now busy repressing independence-minded Kurds on the Turkish side of the border -- into northern Iraq. (It was eventually left to Turkey to withdraw its troop commitments.)
Not only have the attacks on U.S. soldiers become more widespread, sophisticated, and deadly -- scores daily, in every part of Iraq -- but many are taking place in crowds and in broad daylight. Those crowds are helping attackers escape and even, in some cases, celebrating American casualties.
Any of these items are not, by themselves, problems that condemn the American occupation to doom and infamy. But taken together -- along with many more aspects I've not included -- it adds up to a tapestry of images of a colonial occupying power, looting a country as quickly as possible, and attempting to foist off its paid servants as democratic leaders, but completely, utterly, and (oddly enough) proudly ignorant of local culture, history, sensibilities, or desires.
The problems, in other words, are far more deep-seated than a few American soldiers coming home in body bags. And they won't be solved simply by accelerating the (functionally non-existent) timetable for self-governance; any leaders installed by the U.S. are likely to be considered illegitimate by many Iraqis, and the economic problems and capacity for warlordism and even civil war would remain.
Any constitution or government would have far more legitimacy if, at minimum, European and other Middle Eastern countries were also involved in its formation. Such inclusiveness would also go a long way toward helping alleviate the lack of cash and lack of knowledge and experience in nation-building. Six months is still early in the transition from Saddam to whatever political phase awaits Iraq -- but important possibilities for improving Iraq's future are foreclosed with every day that the Bush Administration tries to rely on brute force and unilateralism to impose its will. Democracy, after all, should be all about the will of Iraqis -- not the White House. The sooner the White House starts emphasizing cooperation rather than re-conquest, the better.