Between Iraq and a hard place

Posted on

Quotes of the day:

“‘I told my guys this is like Haifa or Hebron,’ two Israeli cities infamous for suicide bombings by Palestinians and firefights between the two sides, [U.S] Army Lt. Col. Philip deCamp said Friday [in Baghdad]. ‘Don’t let them crowd you. Keep them back.'” (From Eric Slater, Death Shadows U.S. Troops in Iraq, LA Times)

“We didn’t know what we were walking into.” Diplomat Barbara Bodine, part of the Gen. Jay Garner “reconstruction” team, already axed by new team leader Paul Bremer. (From Alissa J. Rubin and Michael Slackman, Official Shakes Up Iraq Effort, LA Times,)

“‘We’re taking in about 150 casualties a day,’ said hospital director Dr Mofawa Gorea, ‘the same as during the war.’ “ Comment of a doctor in the former “Saddam City,” the vast Shia slum in Baghdad, now officially returned to its former name of Thawra City but unofficially known to all as Sadr City, after the Shia cleric who has just arrived from exile in Iran. (See Ed Vulliamy, Observer article below.)

Over a month after Saddam Hussein’s regime dissolved and his military was either destroyed or simply dissolved, the simplest aspects of life under the American occupation have not returned to anything like “normal,” and normal — that is, the normality that just preceded the war — was already teetering at the edge of catastrophic. Where to start? The phone system still doesn’t work; electricity isn’t yet up; people are out of work; potable water is often not available; stipends are not being paid; a population which relied heavily on state aid simply to get through the day has been largely abandoned; the only organized forces in parts of the country seem to be the Shia clergy; the Americans were so woefully unprepared for this occupation that, in many cases, they can hardly communicate with the Iraqis; hostility is widespread; small numbers of American troops are dying – and that’s just a beginning.

Trying to sum up what increasingly looks like a catastrophe is almost impossible. But let’s give it a shot. In a dispatch last week, I noted that the Iraqi Tuwaitha nuclear facility and one other had been thoroughly looted. The Washington Post now reports that Iraq’s seven (count ’em, seven) nuclear facilities have all been looted. “The Bush administration fears that technical documents, sensitive equipment and possibly radiation sources have been scattered. If so, there are potentially significant consequences for public health and the spread of materials to build a nuclear or radiological bomb. President Bush had said the war was fought to prevent the spread of ‘the world’s most dangerous weapons.'”

All this happened, while the Bush administration was preventing Mohammed ElBaradai and the IAEA from even returning to Iraq to inspect that country’s nuclear sites. At two nuclear sites near Baghdad, a U.S. survey team lead by Army Lt. Col. Charles Allison arrived on April 10,

“the same day that ElBaradei cited them as the two most important for U.S. forces to protect. But because of continuing debate within the Bush administration over whether to enter without IAEA inspectors present, Allison received a hasty order to withdraw. When Allison was told to evacuate all U.S. personnel, including troops providing security at the perimeter, he grew agitated, witnesses said.

“‘Whoever gave that order better check his retirement plan, because if we leave this place open somebody is going to lose their job,’ he told an officer at the ground forces operations center of Central Command, according to two witnesses. Allison confirmed the gist of the conversation.” While the order was finally countermanded too few troops were left to stop the looting. (Barton Gellman, Seven Nuclear Sites Looted)

In the meantime, the British Telegraph reports that radiation illness is already spreading in some of the areas around these sites.

“Many residents in villages close to the huge Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility, about seven miles south of Baghdad, were showing signs of radiation illness last week, including rashes, acute vomiting and severe nosebleeds.

“In Al Riyadh village, about a mile from the site, 13-year-old El Tifat Nasser fell ill after her brothers visited the facility on a dozen occasions and returned with barrels. ‘She is bleeding twice a day through her nose and she is very sick,’ said her mother, Sabieha Nasser, 48. ‘We are very worried.’

“Local hospitals have seen an influx of patients complaining of similar symptoms. Villagers said Iraqi officials arrived recently with Geiger counters. One said the men had measured areas where locals had emptied the contents of stolen barrels. ‘The Geiger counters were screaming,’ he said, adding that the officials had then instructed them to cover the areas in concrete.” (Inigo Gilmore, Villagers suffer radiation sickness after looting nuclear power plants)

And, oh yes, while our president assures us that the search for weapons of mass destruction has “barely begun,” the key team doing the search, Task Force 75, reports the Washington Post, is beginning to close up shop in discouragement. “‘We came to bear country, we came loaded for bear and we found out the bear wasn’t here,’ said a Defense Intelligence Agency officer here who asked not to be identified by name.” (Barton Gellman, Frustrated U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq)

Elsewhere in Iraq on a more mundane but, if possible, more disastrous note – while the huge ex-flux of refugees expected by humanitarian organizations never materialized at all — a new and unexpected danger has arisen (along with fears of the spread of diseases like cholera due to the lack of potable water in the country) — Iraq’s systems of agriculture and husbandry look to be on the edge of collapse, or so reports today’s Observer based on a confidential draft report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Government warehouses that would have served as the main suppliers of seeds, fertilisers and pesticide sprays have been looted, particularly in the centre and south of the country.

“Iraqi farmers should now be planting tomatoes and onions, potatoes, cucumbers, water melon, peppers, beans and squash. But without seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, that will be hard – a situation exacerbated by the collapse of the pumping stations that powered the irrigation schemes on which the vegetable crop depends.”

And that’s only where the problems begin. The important poultry industry (think protein) has collapsed and the very health of Iraq’s domestic animals of all sorts is endangered because it wasn’t only human hospitals which were looted. “Most of the veterinary hospitals and clinics were looted or destroyed, and vehicles, drugs, medicines and food ingredients disappeared.” (Helena Smith and Ed Vulliamy, Iraq in danger of starvation, says UN)

I have to pick and choose here among a wave of bad-news articles from Iraq that are suddenly all over mainstream newspapers, with some particularly good reporting of late coming out of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Both papers report today that new “civilian” head of the occupation Paul Bremer is now in the process of shaking up Gen. Jay Garner’s occupation team in Baghdad and axing several top officials hardly a month after war’s end, a startling admission of the degree to which the occupation is already considered a disaster within the White House.

Some of what’s happened can be traced to the fact that the hawks – especially within the Pentagon, the White House, and the Defense Policy Board – who drove us into this war did so based on heavily doctored intelligence information, conveniently worst estimates of Iraqi potency, and wish-fulfillment-level best guesses of what postwar Iraq might be like and how it might receive us. The Pentagon, which in the wake of the September 11th attacks, more or less took over foreign policy from the State Department also managed to take over crucial intelligence gathering duties from the CIA and DIA. Seymour Hersh wrote about this recently in the New Yorker and the Observer has a good piece on the Pentagon’s new Office of Special Plans (OSP aka, in intelligence circles in Washington, “the cabal”) which reports directly to Paul Wolfowitz and produced the WMD intelligence that has now fallen so flat – “a massive picture of intelligence misuse has emerged.” (US rivals turn on each other as weapons search draws a blank)

Nonetheless, whatever the disaster in Iraq, the spoils of war remain up for grabs – and here much thought, planning, or perhaps simply dreaming about how to turn a “free” Iraq into a privatized state reconstructed by American companies has been and continues to be expended. A piece in the British Independent gives a small sense of the all-American cast gathering at the trough:

“The impression that Iraq is becoming a carpetbaggers’ free-for-all was reinforced at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Atlanta this week when lawyers, consultants and business people streamed in, all hoping for a piece of the action. They heard a presentation by the US Agency for International Development (USAid), which is handing out contracts worth $1.5bn (£0.9bn) to rebuild the healthcare system. The USAid contracts total about $70m. If America fulfils its sweeping promise to rebuild Iraq’s entire infrastructure, the total may reach several hundred billion dollars. The contracts will be paid for from Iraqi oil revenues, controlled by America and Britain and audited by an international firm of accountants.” (David Usborne, Rupert Cornwell and Phil Reeves, Iraq Inc.)

In the meantime, two key members of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle and former CIA director James Woolsey reportedly continue to think up ways to profit from the post-September 11 all-war all-the-time atmosphere they did so much to conjure up. (See Ken Silverstein and Chuck Neubauer, Consulting and Policy Overlap, LA Times
And Antony Barnett and Solomon Hughes, Bush ally set to profit from the war on terror, the Observer)

I include below a vivid piece by the Observer‘s Ed Vulliamy on what the situation in anarchic Baghdad looks like from ground level where Jay Garner’s occupation plans are distant dreams and Shia realities are taking their place. In addition, I’ve added a piece by Haroon Siddiqui of the conservative Toronto Star that’s a good summary of our strangely plan-less occupation, and finally a piece from the Foreign Policy in Focus website by the indefatigable Jim Lobe who reminds us that, amid the present chaos in Iraq, there are those in Washington already urging us on to the next enemy, Iran. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, is already labeling that country “the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East.” Heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go. Tom

Shia mullahs take charge of hospitals to halt chaos
A new force is emerging on the streets as doctors in Baghdad treat a tide of casualties

By Ed Vulliamy
The Observer
May 11, 2003

Ten minutes pass and the gates of Chuwada hospital are again flung open by guards with machine guns slung over their shoulders. A rusting truck heaves through, and the latest bloodied arrival is hauled out.

This time it is Abdel Hussein, aged seven, injured by explosives he was playing with at the food market, which in Iraq’s first month of freedom has expanded to include an arms bazaar. All morning there has been the crack of small arms fire cutting the distant heat haze.

‘We’re taking in about 150 casualties a day,’ said hospital director Dr Mofawa Gorea, ‘the same as during the war.’

This is the midday hour of impenitent sun at one of only two hospitals in a vast throbbing sprawl of four million people on Baghdad’s edge that used to be called Saddam City, now reverted to its old name, Thawra City.

To read more Vulliamy click here

America stumbling along in Iraq
By Haroon Siddiqui
The Toronto Star
May 8, 2003

America was good at conquering Iraq, but is not good at governing it and may prove worse at shaping its future, so clueless it seems about Iraqi political aspirations. Four weeks after the capture of Baghdad, there are few signs of the restoration of law and order or essential services.

Hospitals are, in fact, in worse shape than during the war, says the Red Cross.

About the only security and social benefits available are being provided not by the 135,000 Anglo-American troops but by tribal leaders in the rural areas and clerics in the urban centres.

About the only humanitarian aid extended, beyond the first choreographed arrival of the British ship Sir Galahad, has come from Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday.

To read more Siddiqui click here

From Baghdad to Tehran?
By Jim Lobe
Foreign Policy in Focus
May 7, 2003

With Iraq under U.S. occupation and Syria’s leaders shaken by a series of high-level threats from top Bush administration officials, Iran has come under increased U.S. pressure. As officials in Washington talk about “Iranian agents” crossing the border into Iraq to foment trouble for the U.S. occupation, a leading neoconservative strategist Monday said the United States is already in a “death struggle” with Tehran, and he urged the administration of President George W. Bush to “take the fight to Iran,” through “covert operations,” among other measures.

Jim Lobe <[email protected]> is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at He also writes regularly for Inter Press Service.

To read more Lobe click here