Iraq in the Year Zero

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Quote of the day: “‘President Bush said he wanted to liberate Iraq, not occupy Iraq, and that was the basis for our supporting military action,’ said one Iraqi who took part in the leadership consultations [where Paul Bremer told them there would be no “interim government.”] ‘This puts all the political leadership in a very difficult situation and gives fuel to all those extremists who said the U.S. had a secret agenda to occupy Iraq and exploit its oil resources.'” (Susan Sachs, Iraqi Political Leaders Warn of Rising Hostility if Allies Don’t Support an Interim Government)

Fact of the day throwing the most light on the nature of American planning for postwar Iraq: “National Public Radio reports (5/16/03) that up to this week the U.S. civil administration in Iraq numbering seven hundred officials included only three Arabic speakers!” (A note at

Suggestion of the day in the wake of the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia:

Memo to the White House:

Solution to bombings in Saudi Arabia:

Invade Iraq. That’ll show ’em.

Ooops. . .

Solution to bombings in Saudi Arabia:

Invade Iraq. That’ll show ’em.

Ooops. . .

(Contributed by Ariel Dorfman)

Iraq is well over a month into the Year Zero and, as American attention wanders elsewhere, there is finally a staggering report in a major newspaper, the New York Times, on the catastrophe that is our “occupation.” All that heavy thinking about Japan and Germany after World War II, all the serially leaked plans for the “liberation” of the country before and during the war, all the memo writing and frantic scrambling for policy traction in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House, all those ideas about creating a model reconstructed land that would by its very example (and ours) change the Middle East. I won’t even bother to complete that sentence. But here’s another of my collage/reports on the state of occupied Iraq.

As a start, don’t miss the long, detailed, well reported, and utterly grim piece by Edmund L. Andrews and Susan Sachs, Iraq’s Slide into Lawlessness Squanders Good Will for U.S., on the full-scale looting of Iraq. It was once said that the Soviet armies on entering Germany in 1945 stripped the country bare, sending even its doorknobs back to their devastated land. By now, the looting of Iraq, still ongoing, seems to be threatening to reach a similar level.

Andrews and Sachs write in part:

“In the space of a few weeks, awe at American power in war has been transformed into anger at American impotence in peace. A crime wave, increasingly the work of organized gangs far better armed than the skeleton Iraqi police forces, has kept citizens in a peculiar state of limbo, free yet fearful.

“Delays in restoring electricity and telecommunications have kept businesses closed. Banks, looted of at least $500 million in deposits, have yet to reopen. Traders, attacked daily by armed bands on the highway linking Iraq to Jordan, are reluctant to send much needed imports.

“Iraq’s government, the country’s biggest employer, is essentially shut down, aggravating unemployment.”

Here’s the irony: The antiwar movement and critics of the war of every stripe (including those within or recently retired from the military) have been mocked and dismissed for their wartime speculations – and, not surprisingly with any speculation, mistakes were made and bad guesses taken (though most critics had predicted a short war against a desperately weakened enemy). Increasingly, however, it looks like – compared to the Bush administration at least – the critics were remarkably on the mark about the bigger picture. The administration, it seems, will have been proved wrong straight down the line — from the existence of a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the possible uses of Iraqi oil in the supposedly financially painless reconstruction of the country. Oh yes, all those oil dreams. Let’s start there. In the British Observer today Peter Beaumont reports (Plan for handover Iraq government scrapped):

“Meanwhile there is a crisis over funding for reconstruction following claims that oil revenue will fall far short of the $41 billion (£26bn) required over the next two years to get the shattered nation on its feet. Before the war senior US administration officials, including President George W. Bush, suggested that the sale of Iraqi oil would largely pay for the reconstruction.

“But new figures produced by Spain’s Ministry of Economic Affairs have led the Spanish government to conclude that oil revenues are likely to fall far short of the contribution originally envisaged. According to the Spanish figures, the $41bn total is likely almost to double over 10 years

“The scale of the expected shortfall in funding has been underlined by the US commitment to reconstruction, a slim $2.5bn approved by Congress. US Treasury Secretary John Snow insisted last week that countries like France and Germany, who opposed the war, would have to make substantial contributions.”

And then, of course, there’s the trustworthy Phillip J. Carroll, the retired oil exec appointed by the Pentagon to be senior advisor to the Iraqi Oil Ministry (which as yet has only a skeleton staff in place). Mark Fineman of the Los Angeles Times now indicates that he may have a minor conflict of interest. It seems that, after a 32-year career at Shell where he was chief executive, he retired and took over as chief exec of Fluor for another four years. Fineman reports (Advisor Cites Conflict Potential):

“Documents on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Carroll continues to receive more than $1 million a year from Fluor in retirement benefits and bonuses pegged to the company’s performance. He also owns about 1 million shares of the company’s stock, according to its latest proxy statement. Fluor has said it plans to bid on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry.”

On the other hand, maybe this is the occupation’s reality principle at work. Perhaps our administrators felt it was important that in the year zero we begin by teaching the Iraqis a lesson in “free market” crony capitalism, something to help heal the wounds after decades of Saddam Hussein’s crony Baathism.

Among the more depressing reports to come in today, Ed Vulliamy of the Observer reports that, with exactly the sort of sensitivity we might expect from the Pentagon, the military has chosen to build a major permanent airfield-military base complex at the site where civilization began, the ancient city of Ur. (For any of you who live in New York City, by the way, the Metropolitan Museum’s “First Cities” exhibit is a stunning introduction to the 6,000 years that led us from the first ziggurat to the Pentagon. Don’t miss it.) Now, it seems that Ur’s ziggurat, or pyramid, the best preserved in the region, is to have an American base “right alongside the site, so that the view from the peak of the ziggurat – more or less unchanged for 6,000 years – will be radically altered.” To add to the looting stories, Vulliamy reports in Troops ‘vandalize’ ancient city of Ur:

“One of the greatest wonders of civilisation, and probably the world’s most ancient structure – the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq – has been vandalised by American soldiers and airmen, according to aid workers in the area.

“They claim that US forces have spray-painted the remains with graffiti and stolen kiln-baked bricks made millennia ago. As a result, the US military has put the archaeological treasure, which dates back 6,000 years, off-limits to its own troops. Any violations will be punishable in military courts.”

Unfortunately, reports of this sort – of every sort, in fact – seem to be pouring out of Iraq. By picking and choosing, let me just recommend two other recent ones, again in mainstream publications. The Christian Science Monitor has done its own investigation of leftover depleted uranium (du) from the minimalist battle for Baghdad. DU is used to harden tank armor and tank shells as well as various kinds of missiles, and the bullets sprayed in vast numbers by the A-10 Warthog aircraft. The U.S. military insists that DU presents essentially no danger to anyone, but also warns American troops (though not Iraqis) to steer clear of the stuff or handle it only with care and protective gear. Monitor journalist Scott Peterson visited a number of sites including the Ministry of Planning in downtown Baghdad, only 300 yards from the American occupation headquarters and sprayed by Warthog bullets. He found some places where the Monitor‘s Geiger counter registered radioactivity at 1900 times background levels. His long, sobering account of Iraq as a radioactive waste site (Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq) begins:

“At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks.

“But Ms. Hamid’s stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by – and contaminated with – controversial American depleted-uranium (DU) bullets. Local children play “throughout the day” on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

“No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven’t been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.”

And finally, of course, the children of Iraq continue to suffer as they have suffered these last twelve years. Anna Badkhen has written a report on the dangerous postwar lives of those children for the San Francisco Chronicle (For Iraq’s children, a new war has begun). After discussing the street violence in urban Iraq that daily wounds and kills children, she comments,

“Street violence is not the only threat to the lives of Iraqi children. UNICEF said looters have stripped many of the country’s already dilapidated water treatment plants of purification equipment and chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage are pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers daily, polluting the major source of drinking water for Iraqis.

“As a result, thousands of children here are suffering from gastroenteritis and diarrhea. Those conditions lead to dehydration and acute malnutrition, which have doubled in the past year, UNICEF said.” The details, fair warning, are difficult to read.

As a small token of hope, here at least, I offer a piece from the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion page worth arguing about by former Republican consultant Kevin Phillips on the sorts of problems that an Iraq in chaos and a Middle East convulsed by terrorism might present to our president in the coming years. I noted today that, for almost the first time in recent memory, leading Democrats began immediately in the wake of the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to take out after the president. Tom

Postwar Chaos: Bush’s Undoing?
By Kevin Phillips
The Los Angeles Times
May 18, 2003

WASHINGTON – It’s too early to suggest that peace in Iraq has already set some of the snares for President Bush that caught his father in 1991-92, although not having killed or captured Saddam Hussein could get politically hairy as the 2004 presidential season opens.

It’s also too early to say that the end of hostilities in the Persian Gulf is leaving Bush exposed to new hazards, as the end of hostilities in Vietnam did to Richard Nixon in 1973 or the peace negotiations in Europe did to Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Still, it’s already possible to see Middle East circumstances falling into an old and unnerving pattern: victory on the battlefield metamorphosing into unexpected embarrassments in the diplomatic and geopolitical aftermath. There’s a good reason. Wars typically unleash new forces, alignments and confusions that begin to emerge only as the shooting part of the conflict tails off.

Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.”

To read more Phillips click here