Corporate Piracy in Iraq Fosters Chaos of Warring Gangs

by Gerry Foley / October 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

An administration more and more reduced to incoherence and incompetence by opening floodgates to private profiteering is proving no more capable of social projects in Iraq than in the United States. And its failures on both fronts are contributing to its overall lost of credibility.

In the wake of the disaster in New Orleans caused by the neglect of public infrastructure and the turning over the relief operations and rebuilding to a flock of vultures and thugs, the continuing chaos in Iraq is undermining the whole capitalist-imperialist offensive represented at the moment by George W. Bush.

A USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll showed that 58 percent of the U.S. public disapprove of the Bush government’s performance, 59 percent say it was a mistake to invade Iraq, and 63 percent say there should be some sort of withdrawal of U.S. troops.

For example, in its Sept. 18 issue, The New York Times offered a portrait in miniature of the morass the U.S. rulers’ operations are creating in Iraq. It was the story of the failure to make any serious progress in rebuilding the Shiite holy city of Najaf, which was destroyed in a war between the U.S. military and the militia of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last spring.

In this town, the U.S. occupiers were able to win both a military and a political victory. Al Sadr made a strategic error in trying to convert the holy city into a stronghold of opposition to the occupation. The town is dominated by the conservative Shiite clerics and it depends on the trade with the flow of pilgrims, which was disrupted by the fighting. The local merchants in particular became very hostile to the radicals. The U.S. had the opportunity to build a
showcase of the new Iraq they promise. If they failed here, they were hardly likely to be successful anywhere else.

But here is what happened, as The New York Times reported: “The United States has poured more than $200 million into reconstruction projects in this city, part of the $10 billion it has spent to rebuild Iraq. Najaf is widely cited by the military as one of the success stories in that effort, but American officers involved in the rebuilding say that reconstruction projects here, as elsewhere in the country, are hobbled by poor planning, corrupt contractors and a
lack of continuity among the rotating coalition officers charged with overseeing the spending.”

The U.S. military and the United Agency for International Development hand over the money to private contractors, but there is no planning or oversight.

“They award some projects to foreign contractors, many of them American companies that hold master contracts for reconstruction work. Other projects are awarded directly to Iraqi companies, but even the American companies subcontract much of the work to Iraqis. A
handful of Army reservists and civilian employees hand out cash to Iraqi contractors and try to keep track of the projects they underwrite….

“On larger projects, contractors are paid by the month, regardless of how much work is actually done.

“Penalty clauses for missing deadlines are rare, and some contractors drag out their projects for months, officers say, then demand more money and threaten to walk away if it is not forthcoming.”

The net result is waste and ruin: “Maj. William Smith, charged with overseeing most of the reconstruction work in the area, walks around the bright blue pipes and yellow tanks of an unfinished water treatment plant outside of town. A control panel with its array of monitoring lights sits baking in the sun beside broken bags of filtering sand. The plant was supposed
to be finished in June, but the feed pipe from the river has not even been connected; it was buried unmarked and now has to be relocated.

“‘Sometimes, the only way to go is to pay off the contractor and put it out for new bids,’ the major said with a weary chuckle. He said the water treatment plant was one of four that he was considering repossessing, even though he has paid out more than $200,000 on each one.”

A tragic example is the ruin of what was a vital hospital. “In April, Najaf’s main maternity hospital received rare good news: an $8 million refurbishment program financed by the United States would begin immediately. But five months and millions of dollars later, the hospital administrators say they have little but frustration to show for it.”

The results were even worse at the Al Sadr Teaching Hospital: The New York Times quoted one of the doctors there: “‘This was Najaf’s most advanced hospital,’ he said with distress. ‘A lot of money has been spent on the rehabilitation of this hospital, but not very much has changed.’

“Part of the problem is that much of the money is spent before any work is done. The International Monetary Fund reported recently that a third to half of the money paid to foreign contractors is spent on security and insurance. Importing equipment also eats up cash. Major Smith said the hospital’s new boiler, for example, was being shipped from the United

Associated Press reported Sept. 19 that the entire health sector in Iraq is in crisis after many years of U.S. military and economic harassment and the ruin caused by the war and the social and materially destructive occupation. It noted that the World Health Organization says, “Iraq’s health standards and infrastructure are among the Middle East’s worst.” But
before the U.S. started its long war on Iraq, the country had the best public health in the region.

Another “success story” of the occupation, supposedly, was that the U.S. rulers had managed to defuse rebelliousness in the giant Sadr City slum in Baghdad, where Moqtada al-Sadr has his principal base of support, by pouring in money for building projects. But in recent days, armed clashes between al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the U.S. forces have resumed. According to the British Independent of Sept. 25, leaders of the Mahdi Army reported that U.S. troops had killed 10 people, most of them bystanders.

Moqtada al-Sadr plays as complicated a game as the occupation authorities are hypocritical. So, it is hard to speculate about the specific causes of the clashes. But it is certain that rage in the poor areas will persist as long as there is no evidence of clear and sustained economic improvement. And it is obvious that the U.S. has been unable to provide that, and in fact has steadily made things worse with its determination to unleash “market forces.”

One of the results of the operation of “market forces” is the opening up of the country to uncontrolled mercenary gangs hired by U.S. “security companies.” In the Sept. 22 British Guardian, an Iraqi journalist reported that he ran into the mercenaries as soon as he left the Bagdad airport: “A few minutes beyond the main airport checkpoint, we had to slow down. The U.S. military were stopping all the cars to let their security convoy drive through. In addition, the private contractors transporting journalists and foreigners to the Green zone had set up their own private roadblock.

“They were driving in this crazy way, swaying from one side of the road to the other in order to protect their charges. As they zigzagged in and out, guys in civilian clothes wearing flak jackets and sunglasses pointed their automatic guns at the civilians stuck in the traffic jam.”

British forces meet resistance

Another “success story” that has just blown up is the claim that the British forces occupying Shiite southern Iraq managed to achieve relative peace through diplomacy with the local people and authorities.

When two British covert operatives were arrested by Iraqi police in Basra, the British Army liberated them by staging a military attack on the prison. The local authorities and police forces that were set up under the aegis of the British occupation now say that they are stopping all collaboration with British representatives until they get an apology.

A local judge has issued warrants for the re-arrest of the two British covert operators, which the British military say they will not honor. The incident has led to Iraqi protest demonstrations in the street.

Clashes between the British military and the Mahdi army also irrupted when the British forces tried to arrest one of the local Mahdi leaders who retained an intransigent position toward the occupation, refusing to follow the path of negotiations taken by Moqtada al-Sadr.

The British media now report that the situation in the Basra area is extremely tense. And the press accounts of this tension and clashes are clearly increasing the rejection of Blair’s Iraq adventure among the British public and among the British soldiers themselves.

The case of the two British undercover operatives is being exacerbated by suspicions among Iraqis that they were carrying out provocations designed to fuel an incipient civil war in the country. It is obvious that the bombings directed against Shiite crowds by the al Qaeda group and the multiplying of obscure execution-style murders, mainly of Shiites, give the U.S.-led occupation its biggest political advantage. Many Iraqis have long suspected that the occupiers are abetting them or even contributing to them.

Conversely, the British military’s declared suspicion that the local political authorities in southern Iraq have been heavily infiltrated by anti-Western Shiite militias puts a question mark over the tactical alliances the occupation forces have made with the Shiite groupings.

The most influential Shiite clerics, like Ali al Sistani deny that they want to establish an Islamic state in Iraq or seek an alliance with the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran. But there are many press reports that effective Islamist rule has been imposed on Basra.

In his earlier confrontations with the occupation forces, Moqtada al-Sadr won vast popularity, even though he eventually suffered military and political setbacks. If a new face-off develops, it may significantly weaken Shiite support for the proposed constitution and hence for the government dominated by the conservative Shiite clerics and Kurdish nationalists.

Al-Sadr is opposing a vote for the constitution, while al-Sistani is calling for a vote for it. Thus a new confrontation is shaping up between those Shiite clerics that favor cooperation with the U.S.-sponsored government and those that oppose it. In the fighting in Najaf there was a tricky fencing match between al-Sadr and al-Sistani. It is hard to predict the outcome of a new match. Undoubtedly, the U.S. rulers are worried about it. That may be why they are stepping up their pressure on al-Sadr’s movement now. If so, it could likely be a very
counterproductive maneuver.

Another success story that faded on further examination was the U.S. military’s claims about its offensive in northern Iraq, in particular at the town of Tal Afar. In fact, reporters for the big press interviewed local commanders who complained that such assaults were like punching a beach ball. The rebels generally escape and then return after the U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies go elsewhere.

The U.S. military admitted that most of the rebel forces escaped the siege of Tal Afar, but they maintained that the operation was a great victory because the Iraqi army fought. But most of the reports failed to note that the Iraqi army units that fought in Tal Afar were really Kurdish nationalist militiamen in new uniforms. Once this fact is taken into consideration, this military operation fits into the general pattern of the civil war developing in Iraq.

The population of Tal Afar is mainly Turkomen, historically in conflict with the Kurds, and also
supported by Turkey. Moreover, since the Sunni insurgents—in particular, al Qaeda—have launched a war against the Kurdish nationalist groups, it is reasonable to expect that Kurdish fighters will fight hard against them. Their fight says nothing about the readiness of the new Iraqi army in general to fight, or in particular about its ability to combat the insurgents effectively in the Sunni Arab areas.

Thus, overall the chaos and slaughter in Iraq continue to grow worse, and possibilities for catastrophic new explosions keep increasing. In the light of all this evidence, it is hardly surprising that skepticism about any eventual success of the occupation is growing among the British and American public, paralleled by sentiment for withdrawing the troops.

Supporters of the Bush administration continue to defend the occupation of Iraq by saying that “we cannot afford to lose.” In fact, that is an indication of their understanding that if they lose in Iraq, their whole project of imposing unlimited corporate piracy worldwide will risk collapse.

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