People In Baghdad Are Still Suffering

*People in Baghdad are still suffering with a crime wave that includes kidnappings, burglaries, car jackings and assassinations. Kidnappers demanded $100,000 for the return of his son to a physician recently, according to In`am Kajahji of al-Sharq al-Awsat. He bargained them down to his new Mercedes Benz. Others have had to sell their really new cars and drive around Baghdad in old pieces of junk to avoid being car jacked. Baghdadis complain that these crimes often occur not far from US patrols. I’m transmitting Kajahji’s piece here because I have heard the same things from civilians in Baghdad in recent weeks and I fear the severity of the security problems is played down by US officials and the US press. The lack of Arabic speakers among both groups is appalling given that the US is trying to run that country, and it accounts for Iraqis’ own experiences not being publicized.

*The story of the thug-like Sadrist attacks on Shiites associated with Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf has been picked up by al-Zaman, which says that in response some of the tribes of the Middle Euphrates are threatening to come into the city to protect the moderate religious scholars from the radicals. Muqtada’s office in Najaf denied any responsibility for encouraging such physical attacks. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sa`id al-Tabataba’i al-Hakim said that the religious establishment seeks to employ peaceful dialogue as a means to end the Coalition “occupation” which, he says, “we never asked for.” There were demonstrations in Najaf on Thursday and Friday against the attacks on persons close to Sistani, one of whom was put in the hospital.

*The US has brought in Yaqub Shonia, a director general of the ministry of industry and mining resources, who had overseen a limited privatization in the late 1980s for Saddam, to oversee the sale of 52 companies and 186 factories that had been state-owned. According to Bertrand Rosenthal of AFP, Shonia thinks it will be a daunting task. (The Iraqi stock market was burned in the looting after the war and will need to be reestablished; and there are no commerical regulations.) Other Middle Eastern countries like Egypt that have announced they would privatize have not had a big success in doing so. State owned industries mostly had artificial advantages granted by government tariffs or contracts or other favoritism. Abolish those, and the industries aren’t usually actually very attractive to investors. Plus, in the Middle East it is very hard to fire anyone, so the new owners often have to take on bloated payrolls.

In some global South settings, moreover, some industries are better off in government hands and if they are set up right, with the right rules, they can do fairly well economically. American economic thinkers generally forget the huge role the state sector played in post-War France’s efflorescence, 1945-1970 or so, or in Egypt 1955-1970. Yes. The government has sometimes actually made people better off, amazing as it is for those words to be spoken in the US. As for private industry, it has not significantly improved the average real per capita income of the average American worker since 1972. But it has been very good at increasing the wealth of the wealthy. So, Iraqis should retain a bit of suspicion about the Washington consensus.

What I don’t personally understand is how the privatization can begin under the Anglo-American occupation. I read it as a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention for an occupation authority to alter the character of the occupied society. It is true that there was a Privatization Law under the Baath (which was used to throw private ownership to Saddam’s cronies). It would probably be cleaner to put off a major privatization push until a proper Iraqi government is elected, which can make the decisions in light of what is best for the Iraqi citizens that are its constituents. Two of Bremer’s people told al-Zaman yesterday that oil nationalization would not be pursued at this time, and that the Iraqi government will retain control of petroleum resources. You betcha. The US has Iraqi production up to 1.7 mn. barrels a day, and is counting on over $3 bn. in revenues from it this year, half of what will be needed to run the Iraqi government and start reconstruction (are US taxpayers paying for the other $3 bn?) All of a sudden, laissez faire folks like Bremer see the wisdom of government ownership of the petroleum industry . . . when they are running a third world government that needs the money!

*Everyone with any interest in US policy toward Iraq should read Martin Sieff’s series for UPI. The first is Soaring costs of ‘rescuing’ Iraq at This report is gold, if for no other reason than the para. that says: “The administration, indeed, has been unable to even recruit any significant number of volunteers from conservative think tanks or the federal government to volunteer to work in Iraq for the next year or two, so the occupation administration there remains seriously undermanned.” It is even worse. I saw an announcement posted to one list seeking an American to go to Baghdad to help the Bremer administration that mentioned it could only offer an unpaid internship! It was about the most pitiful thing I have ever seen.

What I don’t understand is why Patrick Clawson, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, David Satloff, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol and all those other Neocons who kept pushing this war aren’t in Baghdad helping with the reconstruction. They have wealthy Likudnik backers who would pay their salaries to be over there. Some know Arabic. It is not as if they can’t travel abroad. A lot of these guys have dual Israeli citizenship and/or have lived in Israel for extended periods of time, so why not Iraq? They keep mouthing off about how much more wonderful their supposed services (i.e. purveying Likud propaganda) are to the US than the academic Middle East experts. But in fact, Bremer, Abizaid and others actually accomplishing something in Iraq are products of American Middle East Studies (Bremer is a State Department Persianist, Abizaid has a Middle East Center MA from Harvard). In fact, the relative failures of the US administration of Iraq under Garner and Bremer, with continued lack of good security, and slowness in establishing new administrative procedures, should be blamed on the failure of the Conservative intellectuals to put their money where their (very big) mouths are and get over there to help ORHA instead of schmoozing with Bill O’Reilly on t.v. (Maybe Iraqi journalism needs some help, too, and big Bill could do an internship in Baghdad. This would have the double benefit that he wouldn’t be polluting the US airwaves with his toxic bullyism while he was doing clerical work for Bremer). Anticipating that they will ask why I don’t go myself, I would reply that I didn’t push for this war in the first place; they did.

*The inability of the government to induce civilians to go into a war zone has also had a very big and very bad impact on the welfare of US troops in Iraq. See The Pentagon had contracted out to civilian firms all sorts of key logistical tasks (like building quonset huts with airconditioning). But when they were called on to do their tasks in Iraq, these civilian firms just didn’t show up. Thus, the troops are sweltering in heat that sometimes approaches 140 degrees F. (their shaving cream cans are exploding). They also don’t have proper sanitation. Part of the problem is that the civilian companies don’t want to pay the insurance costs. The mania the US Right (and actually just the US in general) has with Libertarian philosophy and just privatizing everything is among the best explanations for the things that are wrong with this country. After Enron, Worldcom, Adelphi, etc., etc., they are still telling us that the government can’t get anything right and that private industry is always efficient. The California energy crisis that the Republicans are blaming on poor Gray Davis had its origins in a laissez-faire scheme to privatize energy in that state, which allowed big energy companies to bilk consumers of billions. This scheme was pushed by . . . the Republicans. Anyway, I hope there is a rethinking in the army about farming all this stuff out to civilians. It is a font of corruption, cronyism and even nepotism, anyway. You should see who the contractors and contractees really are most of the time. At the least, old buddies.

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