The Iraqi gold mine

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Quotes to mark the six-month anniversary of the fall of Baghdad:

L. Paul Bremmer, American overseer of Iraq, “defiantly”: “I am optimistic. We have made an enormous amount of progress in six months, more than I think anyone could have safely predicted.

An Iraqi businessman, “acidly”: “They claimed that we were smart enough to build weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening the world, but now they treat us like Red Indians on a reservation at the end of the 19th century.

Patrick Cockburn, reporting for the Independent on feats of the reconstruction era: “The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: ‘With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.’ Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?
(Patrick Cockburn, From triumph has sprung murderous fiasco. Ignoring Iraqis comes with a terrible price)

“Progress” in Iraq:

Remember this summer when that “noose was tightening” and tightening and tightening on Saddam Hussein, the same one evidently previously tightening around Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar? Now, at the six-month mark of what can no longer be imagined as anything other than an occupation, Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian reports that Saddam reports are the Elvis sightings of an embattled country and that, while all Saddam’s images and symbols are being done away with, his fearsome Baathist intelligence operations are being resuscitated by an occupying regime increasingly desperate to get a grip. It’s bizarre even to consider the possibility that our President might lose his office with Saddam still more or less free to witness the event. (Everywhere and nowhere, Saddam retains his grip on Baghdad’s imagination).

Yet more chillingly, Goldenberg writes of another upcoming decision of the occupation authority – one that for sheer stupidity is sure to be at least on a par with the complete demobilization of the Iraqi military, which threw tens of thousands of angry, still armed ex-soldiers out onto the streets of a jobless society. Think of it as yet more evidence that the men who imagine themselves as running our American planet — from the White House to our various colonial outposts — are driven by utopian dreams which are simply not to be contradicted by reality. What does it matter that Bremmer’s new decision to dismantle “socialism” in Iraq would have created a desperate, angry opposition, even if none yet existed. Goldenberg writes:

“A more substantial assault on Saddam’s legacy is under way in the Republican Palace, where the occupation authority is making preparations to dismantle the food distribution system which gave free rations of flour, rice, cooking oil and other staples to every Iraqi.

“Described by the UN as the world’s most efficient food network, the system still keeps Iraqis from going hungry. But the US civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, views it as a dangerous socialist anachronism. The coalition provisional authority (CPA) is planning to abolish it in January, despite warnings from its own technical experts that this could lead to hunger and riots.

“Such haste in obliterating all traces of Saddam is disconcerting for many Iraqis, especially the educated elite who were part of his bureaucracy. Many say the US has yet to appreciate how that bureaucracy functioned, and they fear that their national history is being replaced with another, without their consent.”

So mark January on your calendars. You have to wonder whether anyone pulled off the street of any American town (Iraqis need not apply) with a modicum of common sense couldn’t have run a better occupation.

As for “progress” in Iraq (forgetting the rising casualty figures), according to the BBC’s Steve Schifferes, the World Bank’s Joint Iraq Needs Assessment program, to be presented to potential international donors in October, offers the following picture (Iraq’s Economy Declines By Half):

“The scale of the task facing the United States and the international community in Iraq has been highlighted by the first detailed figures since the conflict ended on the state of the Arab country’s economy.

“Iraq’s economy will shrink 22% this year, having fallen 21% in 2002 and 12% in 2001, the United Nations and the World Bank have estimated Average income in Iraq fell from $3,600 per person in 1980 to between $770 and $1,020 by 2001 and will be just $450-610 by the end of 2003, the UN and World Bank said.”

And (keeping Bremmer’s January decision in mind) with something like 50-60% un- or underemployment in the country, Schifferes adds, “[M]ore than half the population remains dependent on government food aid, which costs the country $2bn each year, to prevent malnutrition and starvation.”

The British Independent in a “survey of the good, the bad and the uncertain” (Iraq, six months on) adds:

“Three out of five Iraqis depend on food aid. Before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the imposition of UN sanctions, Iraq was one of the best fed countries in the Middle East. [while] Infant mortality has nearly doubled since the war. An independent survey last month showed 103 child deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 57 deaths per 1,000 in 2002.”

On the other side of the ledger, one can point to such improvements as: “Electricity restored to pre-war levels by the US power company Bechtel at £80m cost. Three-quarters of Iraqis to have access by 2005. Baghdad’s power is off for 30 minutes a day. Total for electricity development is £2.35bn.”

And then it’s possible to claim, as the President did this week, that:

“Americans are not the running kind. The United States did not run from Germany and Japan following World War II. We helped those nations to become strong and decent, democratic societies that no longer waged war on America. And that’s our mission in Iraq today. We’re rebuilding schools. A lot of kids are going back to schools. Reopening hospitals. Thousands of children are now being immunized. Water and electricity are being returned to the Iraqi people. Life is getting better.

“It’s a lot better than you probably think. Just ask people who have been there. They’re stunned when they come back — when they go to Iraq and the stories they tell are much different from the perceptions that you’re being told life is like.”

By the way, his speech in New Hampshire is well worth reading for the sheer weight, the pure heft of its bald statements of misinformation, twisted information, pure propaganda, and straightforward dreams (President Discusses Progress in Iraq).

But however you do your “progress” ledger books, the deeper problem is that once “liberation” becomes “occupation” – and it happened remarkably quickly in much of Iraq – you’re bound to be in trouble. This is not a comfortable world for occupying forces. Launching a major administration spin campaign in the United States to highlight successes and attack critics may give the administration a few extra weeks or months of bolstered support here, but it doesn’t begin to solve the problem at the source.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the American occupation has been the utter lack of faith the occupiers have had in Iraqis themselves. They had deep faith in “democracy” (as they defined it, of course), but none in the prospective democrats, even their own Iraqi allies, the few they brought into the country with them. They arrived largely without Iraqi translators, administrators, or military men. There was, it seemed, no one whom the Bush administration was willing to lean on or learn from even on the smallest of matters, no less invest with power to make any decision of significance. And despite pressures — Iraqi, international, and domestic to reverse course — that remains largely the way it is today.

Here’s a little news item in full from Agence France Presse (AFP). Nothing fancy. Nothing too special. But it gives a small sense of the problem at hand in a hostile region of Iraq (US forces pull out of Iraqi town after repeated attack: local official):

“US forces Thursday withdrew from the town of Huwaijah, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north-east of Baghdad, due to repeated guerrilla attacks against them, a local official told AFP. ‘The American forces based in the institute of technology in Huwaijah have left today to five kilometres (three miles) outside the town, near Bakara,’ a village between Huwaijah and al-Riyadh, said Atallah Iskandar Al-Juburi, a municipal council member.

“According to him, the redeployment was due to ‘the intensity of anti-American attacks by supporters of deposed president Saddam Hussein or extremist Islamist movements.’ More than a thousand inhabitants of the Huwaijah area are being detained by US forces, ‘increasing the exasperation of the local population,’ Iraqi attorney Hadi al-Qorra, responsible for Huwaijah’s prisoners in US custody, told AFP. Huwaijah is situated in the Sunni triangle, a swathe of territory stretching north of Baghdad to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit where most anti-coalition attacks outside the capital occur.”

Think of the friends and relatives of those thousand people “detained by US forces.” This is the sort of snake-eats-its-tail cycle of action and reaction through which opposition only increases, no matter whether schools are being refurbished or not.

And it’s a cycle that affects the Americans as much as the Iraqis, not just the troops in the field but the administrators in their heavily blockaded headquarters. And so Bremmer, undoubtedly feeling the pressures in Iraq and from a worried Washington, seems to be pushing ahead ever more desperately with his strip-mining dreams of “privatizing” the country, mortgaging its oil future in order to raise funds for today, selling off its resources to the lowest bidders at the worst moment possible (for the Iraqis), and dismantling anything that smacks of welfare statism.

As Herbert Docena explains such thinking in the Asia Times (No money, no play: US on the brink in Iraq):

“Given Iraq’s present condition, the items on the bidding block will come very cheap. But in a few more years, what was bought at dirt-cheap prices – using the Iraqis’ oil revenues – could then be sold for a nice profit.”

That, of course, is one theory of how it all will work — but not the only one and corporations in business for the long haul couldn’t be more aware of that. As Docena also points out:

“Analysts say it would take another 18 months more before the [oil] output could even begin to hit the prewar production level of 3 mbd, and even longer to surpass it. Add a couple more years to that if the rate at which the pipelines are being sabotaged keeps up.

“Worse news is that even the multinational oil giants are keeping their distance.’There has to be a proper security, legitimate authority and a legitimate process … by which we will be able to negotiate agreements that would be longstanding for decades,’ Sir Philip Watts, chair of Royal Dutch/Shell, was quoted as saying. ‘When the legitimate authority is there on behalf of Iraq, we will know and recognize it.’ Whether Watts considers as legitimate the US-installed GC [Governing Council], one of whose members has already been killed by the resistance, remains to be seen from the oil industry’s actions.”

Another pipeline went up in flames yesterday — this is now a commonplace of life in the north of the country. But there is another reason, I suspect, for big oil’s hesitation. If Saddam as Elvis reminds Iraqis that, despite perhaps 150,000 occupying troops in place, Iraq’s fate and future remain painfully open, so the very weakness, the obvious powerlessness of the ill-named “Governing Council” is a warning that American pronouncements, American-inspired laws and regulations of all sorts, even if uttered in the Council’s name, may not be the final word in a future Iraq.

Pepe Escobar of Asia Times on-line recently visited with Ammar Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the son of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, arguably the most powerful Shi’ite member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and, until recently, commander of the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of his Shi’ite group (Escobar, A Shiite warning to America). His basic message to Escobar was that his group was waiting, “but not forever.”

“‘We think that if the occupation forces want to leave Iraq as occupiers, so the UN may take charge, then we can support them. But they have to give us a calendar for the end of the occupation.’ This is ‘very close’ to the French proposal at the United Nations Security Council: ‘It is in Iraqi people’s rights to be totally free in our own land.’ [His group] considers that the Governing Council is ‘trying to take independent decisions. If we feel that this council cannot be totally independent, we will leave. We don’t feel like this yet’

“He is aware of US President George W Bush’s Executive Order 13315, signed on August 28, which in fact represents a US takeover of Iraq’s wealth: ‘He has signed many papers. But one day the occupiers will leave. The Iraqi people will not allow any of these contracts.'”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or was it the Sunni Triangle?

And there’s the rub. What if, even with the world’s most powerful country behind you, yours is a passing moment in Iraq. It’s a feeling guaranteed not only to keep long-term players like the giant oil companies on the sidelines, but to put those heading into Iraq in a mood to – I’m sorry to contradict the President here – loot and run. The Washington Post headlined a recent piece, Spending on Iraq Sets Off Gold Rush (Jonathan Weisman and Anitha Reddy), and it’s an image that carries a certain power. As with a hotdog-eating contest, it’s what you wolf down now, not what you save for later, that counts.

“Reconstruction” under these conditions, and with Congress ponying up so many billions of dollars, almost all of which will flow to American firms of every sort, is bound to become a mad (and madly overpriced) gold rush:

“Many of the services being sought are highly specialized. Conditions are dangerous. Experts say American taxpayers can expect to pay a hefty premium to contractors in a classic seller’s market.

“Among the dozens of projects in the proposal is a State Department plan to spend $800 million to build a large training facility for a new Iraqi police force. Management fees alone would run $26 million a month, while 1,500 police trainers would cost $240,000 each per year, or $20,000 each per month. DynCorp of Reston is likely to get the contract.

“‘All I can say is it’s mind-boggling,’ James Lyons, a former military subcontractor in Bosnia, said of the opportunities for private contractors.’People must be drooling.'”

Weisman and Reddy quote political scientist Deborah D. Avant, “expert in the new breed of private military companies,” calling it “”the commercialization of foreign policy.”

“Avant said that as many as 1 in 10 Americans deployed in Iraq and Kuwait — perhaps 20,000 — are contractors, a group larger than any of the military forces fielded there by Britain or other U.S. allies.”

Of course, you can’t tell the players rushing pell-mell into Iraq without a scorecard — and now we have a vivid, if provisional and partial one. Stephen Pizzo’s “Divvying up the Iraqi Pie,” to be found at the AlterNet website, offers a portrait of six companies, ranging from the well-known Bechtel to the little publicized Science Applications International, Inc (SAIC), already digging for dear life in Iraq. This stew of security, engineering, and other firms, filled with ex-military men and ex-Washington administrators and bureaucrats, adds up to a single interconnected world of profiteers — what used to be called the Military-Industrial complex, but now perhaps should be known by some moniker like the Petro-Military-Industrial-Security-Academic-Soldier-of-Fortune-Plundering Complex. Call it what you will, the rush is on; the gold is in part from American taxpayers; the looting is taking place in Iraq; and the results will be troublesome for us all.

Honestly, is there a person involved in our Iraqi mess who isn’t or wasn’t a part of this complex? I doubt it. The Independent, for instance, recently reported (Survey Group’s head linked to arms industry) that David Kay, American arms inspector and head of the Iraq Survey Group still searching for weapons of mass destruction,

“has staked his professional and business reputation on the case that Iraq was a serious threat. He was a frequent pundit on US television shows, making the case for regime change in blunt language. He called the attempt by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, to broker an effective inspections process in 1998 ‘worse than useless’; claimed in 2002 that Iraq was pursuing its weapons of mass destruction in order to bring about the elimination of the state of Israel; and said before entering Iraq that the Coalition would find not just a ‘smoking gun’, but a ‘smoking arsenal’.

“Until October last year, Mr Kay was the vice-president of a major San Diego-based defence contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), co-ordinating its homeland security and counter-terrorism initiatives. It was while he held this role that he claimed that Iraq could launch terrorist attacks on the US mainland.”


What did he do and when

Recently, the Nation‘s Jonathan Schell concluded his latest Letter from Ground Zero, Accountability (unfortunately available only to subscribers) with the following paragraph:

“Of all the responsibilities of government, the decision to go to war is the most grave. Can an Administration take the country to war on false pretexts and get away with it? A year ago, the issue was war and peace. Now the issue is the integrity of the American political system. Not democracy in Iraq or even the entire Middle East–that fading mirage–but democracy in the United States is now at stake.”

As Republicans launched a campaign to recall Governor Davis of California soon after losing an election to him, as they launched an impeachment campaign against President Clinton, so, were George Bush a Democrat, he would be facing serious calls for impeachment in Congress today. But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats not only don’t have the urge to go for the jugular, but, honestly speaking, aren’t even a party anymore. They gave up the ghost years back, ceding their bases to well, the Republicans, or whatever unknown terminators might come morphing down the pike. Still, every now and then I notice a call for impeachment, a tiny shout about “high crimes and misdemeanors,” somewhere out there in the distant reaches of the universe. The most recent and eloquent I’ve seen comes from John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, who had to travel north of the border to issue it. It appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail. (Too bad impeachment proceedings can’t be started in Canada as well.) He writes in part (Impeach Bush Now):

“Can there be any greater violation of the public trust than to bear false witness to the people’s representatives in pursuit of short-term political gain? Can there be injuries more immediate to society than to send American citizens to their death on a fraudulent pretext? With each shooting of a U.S. soldier in Iraq, the case for impeachment grows stronger.

“I’m sorry that Senator Graham is such a realist. ‘The fact is. . .Tom DeLay and the other [Republican] leadership of the House are not going to impeach George W. Bush,’ Mr. Graham told a TV interviewer in July. But not all the Republican members of the House are so cynical, nor so politically self-destructive. If Mr. Bush continues to fall in the polls, GIs keep dying, and l’affaire Wilson leads to the appointment of a special counsel, the rodents might start fleeing the sinking ship, seeking cover in the vagaries of Article II, Section IV.”

At the same time – at another fringe of our media world, the Findlaw website – a man who knows a thing or two about impeachment, John Dean, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, has been slowly, methodically gathering information on various potential legal cases against this administration. I include his latest on the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame outing below. (“It is too soon to know if this mess is malignant. Or terminal. Yet, this I do know: If mistreated, or untreated, this growing problem is going to become lethal for the Bush presidency. This is the Administration’s first serious political scandal, and it is replete with legal problems and criminal implications.”)

Finally, I thought I might end with a paragraph from yesterday’s lead editorial in my hometown paper — The U.N.’s Better Idea on Iraq. It’s a vivid reminder that the differences between this administration and its critics are sometimes less evident than meets the eye. The Times editorial writers adopted a critical tone towards the Bush approach to the UN on Iraqi policy, suggesting that “Mr Annan’s approach is the wiser one.” But in the final paragraph they lay out their own version of “Mr. Annan’s approach,” one whose results would perhaps differ little from the Bush administration’s – retaining total control of military and “the main political power” in Iraq. In other words, it’s a matter of putting a new face on a familiar occupation formula. For anyone old enough to remember, this brings up memories of the moment in 1968 when the Times and other elite papers turned on the Johnson administration and went into “opposition” to the Vietnam War with arguments no less calculating and cost effective. Here’s the paragraph:

“Mr. Annan’s ideas for doing so would broadly follow the model that brought Hamid Karzai to power in postwar Afghanistan. A transitional government could be built up from the current Governing Council. Doing so would encourage many more countries to offer troops and reconstruction aid, but would still leave Washington in full command of the military in Iraq and the main political power. Details would have to be negotiated with other Security Council members. That would require a more robust concept of multilateral cooperation than the administration has yet displayed.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m no purist. I’m not for leaving any rooms in the hotel vacant. It’s just that when guests arrive at the desk, you have to make sure you ask whether they’re actually checking in. Tom

Divvying up the Iraq Pie
By Stephen Pizzo
October 7, 2003

The Wall Street Journal describes it as “the largest government reconstruction effort since Americans helped to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II.” Just how much the rebuilding of Iraq will cost American taxpayers is a figure still too elusive to capture. But the President’s request for an additional $87 billion in September, atop the $3.7 billion a month we are already spending, indicates the final figure will be, as one pundit described it, quite “an adult number.” Recent estimates now put the final figure somewhere between $200 billion to as much as half a trillion dollars over the next ten years.

America’s Iraq-sticker-shock may turn to anger when taxpayers discover the small group of men and companies reaping the benefits of President Bush’s newly found appreciation for nation building. While Vice President Dick Cheney’s company, Halliburton, has attracted most of press attention for its Iraq-related contracts, Halliburton is hardly the whole story.

To read more Pizzo click here

A Further Look At The Criminal ChargesThat May Arise From the Plame Scandal, In Which a CIA Agent’s Cover Was Blown
By John W. Dean
October 10, 2003

Slowly, and steadily, more information about the unauthorized disclosure of Valerie Plame’s CIA identity, and the reasons for it, have become available. As it has, I’ve been examining, assimilating, and trying to understand it. I’ve also realized that the apparent criminal activity may be more widespread than it initially appeared. (In an earlier column, I offered a preliminary discussion of this issue.)

To read more Dean click here