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Green Zone

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Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

Whack-a-Mole in Falluja

14 November 2004

Whack-a-Mole in Falluja

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re going to raise the Iraqi flag over Falluja and give it back to the Fallujans,” Major-General Richard Natonski told the First Marine Division at the start of the battle for the western Iraqi city. After six days of one-sided fighting (38 American soldiers killed, and about 1,200 Iraqi resistance fighters), what’s left of the city has indeed been captured, but most Fallujans left weeks ago. So did most of the resistance fighters who were making it their base.

An estimated 30-50,000 of the city’s 300,000 people did stay, not realising how devastating US firepower would be in the final assault. Many of them are now dead or injured, though we will never know how many because the US forces refuse to count the civilians killed in their operations and forbid Iraqi official organisations to do so either. But nothing has been accomplished.

Even as Falluja was being reduced to ruins, rebels were seizing the centre of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and a third of the US blocking force around Falluja had to be sent north to deal with it. Car-bombs blew up in Baghdad, mortar rounds landed in the Green Zone, and there was heavy fighting in the town of Yusufiyah south of the capital. It’s like the fairground game of Whack-a-Mole: bash down one mole and up pops another elsewhere. And the US has just not got enough troops in Iraq to whack all the centres of the resistance at once.

This was the main issue from the start for the US Army, which was deeply opposed to the invasion plan that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld foisted on the professional soldiers. As Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (forced into retirement by Rumsfeld) told a Senate committee in February of last year, a force “on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to control Iraq after the war.

Rumsfeld retorted publicly that Shinseki’s figure was “far from the mark,” and his neo-conservative ally, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, said: “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself….” But that’s exactly what the professional soldiers did foresee.

Anybody could have invaded Iraq. With a little help on sealift and air support, Belgium could have done it. The Iraqi army was comprehensively smashed in the 1991 Gulf war, and due to UN sanctions it had neither repaired its losses nor acquired any new weapons for twelve years. Only the toadies in the upper ranks of Western intelligence services managed to persuade themselves that Iraq had functioning “weapons of mass destruction;” working-level analysts overwhelmingly doubted it. The problem wasn’t the war; it was the occupation.

“All of us in the Army felt…that the defeat of the Iraqi military would be a relatively straightforward operation of fairly limited duration, but that the securing of the peace and security of a country of 25 million people spread out over an enormous geographic area would be a tremendous challenge that would take a lot of people, a lot of labour, to be done right,” said Thomas White, Secretary of the Army in 2001-03, in the Public Broadcasting Syystem’s recent “Frontline” documentary “Rumsfeld’s War.”

If there had been 300,000 US troops in Iraq when the war ended, the orgy of looting, the collapse of public order and public services, and all the consequent crime and privation that alienated the Iraqi public might have been averted. The US armed forces could have come up with that many soldiers for a year — and if order had been maintained in Iraq and elections had been held there a year ago, it would all have been over by now. But on Rumsfeld’s insistence, there were only 138,000 US troops in Iraq.

Why did he insist on that? Because proving that he could successfully invade foreign countries on short notice with relatively small forces, and without demanding major sacrifices from the US public, was key to making President Bush’s new strategic doctrine of “preemptive war” credible. It was also essential to the neo-conservatives’ dream of a lasting “Pax Americana” (which could easily involve an Iraq-sized war every couple of years). So the generals were told to shut up and follow orders.

It’s too late to fix Iraq by pumping more US troop numbers in now. The resistance has grown so widespread that it would take half a million American soldiers to win at this game of Whack-a-Mole and install an Iraqi government that would last long enough for the US to walk away from the country without humiliation. Such numbers simply aren’t available without bringing back the draft, and even the present troop level in Iraq cannot be maintained for more than another year without drastic new measures.

In any case, these might-have-beens are irrelevant since the Bush administration never intended to withdraw fully from Iraq (those fourteen “enduring bases”), and twice rejected serious proposals for early elections, in late April, 2003 and again last February, because it could not control the outcome. The security situation is now far worse, and even deputy prime minister Barham Salih of the US-appointed interim government admits that the promised January elections may have to be postponed.

As Don Rumsfeld used to say sarcastically at his press conferences back when he was sure that he was right and the media and the professional soldiers were all wrong: “All together now: ‘quagmire’.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“An estimated…accomplished”; and “All of us…War”)