Flattened Iraq

By Tom Engelhardt
Elections or no, the actual condition of Iraq and its people may in most ways have worsened in the past two years.

Wed Feb. 16, 2005 3:00 AM EST

By Tom Engelhardt

In October 2003, the TV series Frontline did a show from Iraq, "Truth, War, and Consequences," that featured a remarkable scene shot the previous April, not long after American troops arrived in Baghdad. A group of GIs have captured some Iraqis whom they accuse of stealing wood. As an instant punishment in the "Wild West" of that moment, they simply run their tank over the Iraqis' car. First the tank climbs forward over the car's body, then does it again in reverse, two sustained blows that turn the vehicle into something like a metal pancake. (GI: "We try to stop them from looting, and they don't understand, so we take their car and we crush it, the United States Army tankers. That's what you get when you loot.") One of the Iraqis later says to an interviewer simply: "I am a taxi driver. The car was my livelihood."

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The scene stuck in my head and, when I was trying to imagine how Iraq might be described today, I thought of that car again -- this time in a ditch at the side of an Iraqi highway. An election has, of course, just occurred in Iraq which amounted to two massive presences and a massive absence, accounting for the three major Iraqi communities -- Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni. At the same time, much American celebration and self-congratulation (from our media as well as the Bush administration) took place over that success. And the election was indeed a striking statement of some sort.

It was as if representatives of two of those Iraqi communities suddenly appeared at the roadside in a generous mood, banged that crushed car back into some crude shape, lifted it onto the road, and pointed it in the direction they wanted to go. Soon after, a group of squabbling, none-too-savory drivers appear, eager to get into the windowless, still broken vehicle. The only problem is that, barring a miracle, it won't take them anywhere. And even if it did, representatives of the third community, feeling none too generous of spirit, have already set up a series of roadblocks and ambushes, just a few hundred yards down the highway.

Put another way -- and we desperately need a little perspective at the moment --here we are just a month short of two years after the Bush administration launched its triumphant invasion against a fifth-rate military with a nonexistent air force and no effective air defenses, in a tattered country already run into the ground by a combination of endless war, a tyrant's whims, and international sanctions. After all this time, the election aside, the actual condition of the country and its people may in most ways have worsened.

Iraq's economy is in ruins and parts of it are still being given away to foreign firms who don't quite know if they want it or not. It's a land without a reliable supply of electricity or, sitting on a sea of fossil fuel, gas for its cars, or kerosene for its stoves and lamps, or jobs for its people, or potable water to drink, or security of almost any sort in significant parts of the country. (A massive crime wave, only faintly linked to the insurgency, continues almost everywhere as far as we can tell.)

With the election, we've just turned another of many announced "corners" in post-invasion Iraq, only to find ourselves once again where Chaos and Mayhem Streets meet. After a post-election day or two in which our media widely broadcast the news that "violence" had precipitously declined, it predictably rose again. In the last week, an Iraqi judge, a Iraqi National Guard general, and two top Iraqi police officials have been assassinated, while 23 American soldiers died in the first half of February as well as uncounted ordinary Iraqis -- and that is surely just the tip of the iceberg.

After all, one can wonder how much we really know about the nature of the carnage in Iraq given that the insurgents, according to Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent, now control to one degree or another all the major routes into or out of Baghdad, where most Western reporters are posted; kidnappings are again on the rise; and, as Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote last Sunday, "Today, no Westerner with any vestige of sanity would contemplate making… trips [by vehicle out of Baghdad], even in the aftermath of an election that was a remarkable success." Rory McCarthy, Baghdad correspondent for the British Guardian, draws the necessary conclusion (no less applicable to our media), "Too often we have sat and listened to officials tell us what is happening in an Iraq that they themselves are barely able to visit."

There have been a number of post-election reports suggesting that more tips about the insurgency have been coming in to the Americans and the Iraqi forces allied with them, but the only thing we really know is that American-controlled detention centers, including the notorious Saddam-Hussein era prison at Abu Ghraib, are once again filling with "insurgents." Many of the more than 8,000 Iraqis now incarcerated are, past experience tells us, simply innocents swept up in crudely organized American raids. We can only guess what's happening to them, but it surely isn't pretty. (Of a 20 year-old physics student, released from American captivity only a month ago, 24 year-old freelance journalist David Enders wrote for Mother Jones on-line: "He says he was… interrogated and beaten daily. He points to his nose, which he says wasn't crooked before he was arrested. He said the prisoners were shocked repeatedly with tasers, forced to spend 24 hours at a time in cells too low to stand and too narrow sit, forced to sit for two days.")

Right now, as before the election, American forces find themselves on the horns of a dilemma that our top officer corps, post-Vietnam, never thought we would experience again. Our troops are mired in a seemingly endless guerrilla war in which, if you withdraw to your reasonably impregnable bases, you instantly surrender significant swathes of territory to your enemy; while, if you venture out armed and en masse to take the offensive, you not only suffer continual casualties but, operating relatively blindly in a strange land, create by your every act yet more enemies out of ordinary citizens.

Add to this an insurgency which seems to become ever more extreme and whose acts are increasingly directed at other Iraqis, threatening to plunge the country into an internecine bloodbath as well a struggle against a foreign occupier. In this way, the global extremity of the Bush administration has called up to meet it a localized movement (reinforced by international volunteers or jihadis) of extremity and ferocity -- and Iraq has been shoved bodily into a grim world of self-fulfilling prophesy, becoming a (if not the) "central theater in the war on terror."

In the meantime, our allies in "the coalition of the willing" are ever so slowly abandoning ship. The sizeable Ukrainian contingent, the modest Dutch force, and the tiny Portuguese one have most recently gone overboard. Poland, recent recipient of a Bush promise of $100 million in aid -- military aid, of course, since all international relations for this administration are essentially military ones -- may still hang in there along with the Italians. But American and British troops are already stretched to the limit, and even some of them are now, by necessity, cycling out of the country. In fact, as Robert H. Reid of the Associated Press reports, "violence is once again on the rise just as some of the most experienced U.S. military units prepare to leave. Their replacements, some of them part-time soldiers from the National Guard, will need time to learn the situation on the ground." As for those National Guard troops, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, just told the House Armed Services Committee:

"As it pertains to the National Guard, the Army National Guard in particular, we were woefully underequipped before the war started… It's getting -- gets a little bit worse every day."

In Europe, where Condi Rice has launched her version of a charm offensive, the "old" Europeans are cooing nicely, a comforting hand on the Bush administration's shoulder, and saying all the right things. But their eyes are on that pancaked car, and they are proceeding to do next to nothing when it comes to helping the U.S. program, such as it is, in Iraq.

As for other countries, who even remembers our attempts to bring in Pakistani or Indian or other "native" troops? That's ancient history, unimaginable today. Only one seldom-mentioned "ally" is really sticking with the Bush administration and the Brits to the end -- the private security companies that represent the sole booming industry in Iraq. Though when our press counts up "allied" troops there, mercenaries are never added in (or these days much written about), there are thousands and thousands of them in the country. From the first days of the occupation, Brits, Serbs, South Africans, Nepalese Gurkhas, former American Special Forces troops, and other mercenaries poured in to provide "security" for pay.

We know relatively little about this at present, though we do know that Donald Rumsfeld's privatizing Pentagon has been left in the ridiculous position of competing with itself because mercenary money is now so enticing. As Craig Gordon of Newsday reports, "The Pentagon is falling short on efforts to keep elite special forces units at full strength and now is fighting back dollar by dollar, offering up to $150,000 bonuses to commandos to keep high-paying private security firms from cherry-picking the teams… Some military commanders have expressed worries that such high bonuses can distort the nature of the all-volunteer force and lead to a 'mercenary' culture."

So the Iraqi election is over; the votes are in; and our main man in Baghdad, Ayad Allawi (aka "Saddam Lite") suffered a significant battering, as Juan Cole pointed out immediately at his invaluable Informed Comment blog. On the other hand, Shiite votes, projected soon after the election at close to 60%, came in at close to 50% -- what one might call a convenient drop, from the American point of view. After all, the election of a heavily Shiite government with possible pro-Iranian sympathies wasn't quite what the neocons had in mind when they launched this little adventure. (Even as is, the Washington Post's Robin Wright points out, "[T]he top two winning parties -- which together won more than 70 percent of the vote and are expected to name Iraq's new prime minister and president -- are Iran's closest allies in Iraq.") I haven't heard anyone asking yet, but it's worth wondering what did, in fact, happen in those unexpected extra days of vote-counting that went on behind very closed doors. On this subject, given the American presence in Baghdad where the votes were counted (and our own now tainted electoral process), I would be surprised by nothing.

In any case, soon a new government is to take… well, the normal word here would be "power," but that's not a word to be used idly in this situation. There are at present, as far as can be told, just about none of the normal institutions of civil government left to take over in Baghdad. All Iraqi ministries have American advisers in them. The Iraqi armed forces that the new government might command seem to consist of only about 5,000 functional troops, no heavy arms, and no air force. The strength of the Kurdish vote and the lack of a Sunni one look sure to create a weak coalition of some sort in Baghdad where all the legislators will be targeted by assassins. The Bush administration is deeply embedded in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone where a $1-2 billion new embassy is to be built; its 120,000 or more troops are bunkered into up to 14 massive, "permanent" military bases, also known as "enduring camps"; its CIA contingent is probably the largest in the world; its officials are openly talking about American troops remaining in Iraq at or near present levels at least through 2007; the administration is eager to negotiate a long-term Status of Forces Agreement with the new Iraqi government; and, as Stephen R. Shalom recently discussed at the ZNET website, El-Salvador-style hit squads seem already to be operative.

All in all, the Bush administration holds power of a sort -- through a kind of brute force that has yet to bring Iraq to heel -- and shows no sign of having the slightest desire to give up on its Iraqi holdings (no matter the inside-the-Beltway mutterings about "withdrawal"). This is the true face of American "democracy" and "freedom" in Iraq; but then again, for the Bush administration, "democracy," now raised to the very heights in its global morality play, has just taken over the role WMD once played, as Paul Wolfowitz so famously put it, as "the one issue that everyone could agree on," every other explanation for invasion, occupation, and insurgency having been swept off the table. (As a translator for journalist Christian Parenti commented: "Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don't know what to do with all this freedom.")

Against this the Sunnis have arms, funds, and determination; the Kurds, a powerful urge for independence; and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who brought so many Shiites out to the polls, has but a single (though immensely powerful) threat -- that, if unsatisfied, he could, in a version of the 1979 Iranian solution, call untold numbers of Shiites into the streets to defy the occupation.

In the meantime, the bargaining for "power" looks somewhat like a rat's nest. There's America's former man in Baghdad, Ayad Allawi, still in the mix; there's our previous man in Baghdad, Ahmed Chalabi (Scheherazade to the pre-invasion neocons and still supported by some of them), a man who has outdone any cat when it comes to lives; there's Adel Abd al-Mahdi, the Interim Government's finance minister and the Bush Administration's supposed "Trojan horse" in the main Shiite coalition -- superpowers, remember, don't need to restrict themselves to a single "man" when they can have "men" wherever they want -- who was only recently negotiating austerity budgets with the IMF and planning a new oil law "very promising to the American investors," as Naomi Klein reports; then there are the pro-Iranian Kurds and pro-Iranian Shiites; and even a few unnerved Sunnis, and god knows who else.

In reality, Iraq has been flattened by the Bush administration's tank and there's no obvious road to push it onto that's likely to lead anywhere palatable, no matter who may now be in the driver's seat. As Dilip Hiro indicates in an update of his pre-election report on Iraq's electoral cul-de-sac, even the most immediate problems of any new government will be fraught with peril. And whatever happens, for the foreseeable future, Iraq -- with its still largely unobtainable sea of oil -- will remain an occupied and thoroughly humiliated land. What image should then be chosen for America's Iraq -- Ponzi scheme, house of cards, or [fill in the blank] -- but not, I think, by any stretch of the imagination, a land of democracy and freedom.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the collapse of American triumphalism in the Cold War era as well as a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt