Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Now we are six

And as clever as clever, or so we tell ourselves.

Last Thursday, of course, marked the sixth anniversary of the insane, murderous, maddening, invasion of Iraq. It was also a crappy week for me personally (and not only for reasons already mentioned), but I still feel a sense of failure for not having mentioned it at the right time. In one rather skewed way, I suppose that could be regarded as fitting, since pretty much everything about the war has been and still is a failure and wrong. Wrong logically, ethically, morally, politically, practically, and pretty much every other relevant -ly.

But wait, how can that be? How can that be true in the face of what we see and hear every single day in the media, every single time the word "Iraq" is breathed by any of our oh-so devoted officials and oh-so wise pundits, which is that We've won! Victory! Or, if you prefer the more modest version, Success! Who am I to blow against the wind? Where do I get off talking about "wrong?"

Well, the fact is that Iraq today remains what it has been pretty much since our invasion: a nation devastated by death and in a state of economic collapse. Start with the fact that the "official" unemployment rate of 18% soars to 28% if you include part-time workers who want full-time work, according to the Iraq Labour Force Analysis report released by the UN in January.
Among its findings: 28% of males ages 15 to 29 are unemployed, 17% of women have jobs, and most of the 450,000 Iraqis entering the job market this year won't find work "without a concerted effort to boost the private sector."
And that situation could easily get worse due to the way oil prices fell over the last year, as oil provides 90% of Iraq's income. As one direct result of lower oil prices, Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Bolani has frozen the hiring of 66,000 new members of the security forces - and it also casts grave doubt on the ability of the government to carry though on a promise to find civilian employment for some 100,000 Sunni insurgents who laid down their arms.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross marked the anniversary of the invasion by releasing a statement saying that "millions of civilians are still facing hardship every day."
Even with improvements in the security situation[, the agency said in a separate report,] basic services such as water, electricity and medical care still cannot meet the needs of the population. Job opportunities are scarce and salaries are not enough to live on. For an average Iraqi earning around 70 US dollars per month, prices of goods are too high. In addition, such a person often has no access to health care. Many children, rather than go to school, try to support their families by walking between rows of cars to sell items such as cigarettes, fruit or sweets to drivers stuck in the capital's traffic jams.
On March 8, Oxfam released the results of a survey of Iraqi women which reflected and to some extent quantified that hard reality, revealing that a majority of those surveyed reported that
access to most services, including drinking water and electricity, was worse or the same in mid-2008 as it was in 2006 when levels of insecurity in Iraq were higher. A quarter of the women surveyed - 24 per cent - had no access to clean water. Nearly half of those who did have access to water - 48 per cent - said it wasn’t suitable for drinking.
And nearly 70% said access to water either had not improved or had even gotten worse over the past two years. In fact, even the Iraqi Environment Ministry admits that as of now, 36% of Baghdad's water supply is not safe to drink - and in a bad month that can rise to 90%.

Nearly half of those surveyed by Oxfam said their income had dropped since 2006 and another 30% said it was no better. (Amnesty International said a year ago that "more than four in 10 [Iraqis] live on less than a dollar a day.") Nearly half also said that access to quality healthcare had become more difficult. A third of those surveyed said they had electricity for three hours or less a day and two-thirds had it for no more than six hours a day; over 80% said that was either worse or no better than two years earlier.

Looking at the results, Oxfam International Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs declared that "a whole generation of Iraqis are at risk."

And there is not a great deal of conviction among Iraqis that this is going to change any time soon.
Many Iraqis are sceptical that local governments will deliver on their promises, despite improvements in security that have raised expectations of a better life[, reported the Institute for War & Peace Reporting on March 11].

Iraqis interviewed by IWPR in several provinces listed runaway unemployment, entrenched corruption and faltering reconstruction as the biggest challenges ahead. Having lived in survival mode for years, many said they were eager to see development - but had little hope that provincial leaders elected a month ago would deliver it.
Which is likely a wise expectation, since in its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International, a group focused on government and economic corruption, lists Iraq as being essentially tied with Burma as the second most corrupt nation on Earth, exceeded only by Somalia.

Yet despite all that, the trumpets are now blaring across the media the single, drum-it-into-your-head meme that We've won! Victory! What is the basis of this success? What is it that outweighs the misery, justifies that carnage, overrules the hunger? Why, it's that violence is down! That is the single metric employed. Not even that violence has stopped or peace has come or even the cold peace of "security." Just less violence.

But, truth be told, yes, violence is down, significantly. As Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone, wrote in February,
[m]ost Iraqis I talked with on the eve of the first provincial elections being held after 2005 told me "security is better." ...

Indeed, security is "better," compared to my last trip here, when the number of attacks per month against the occupation forces and Iraqi collaborators used to be around 6,000. Today, we barely have one American soldier being killed every other day and only a score injured weekly. Casualties among Iraqi security forces are just ten times that number.
Such good news! We've won! Victory! But then, of course, he had to go and spoil it all:
But yes, one could say security is better if one is clear that it is better in comparison not to downtown Houston but to Fallujah 2004.

Compared to days of multiple car bomb explosions, Baghdad today is better.
Which is a pretty damn low bar. As I've often said in various contexts, skin cancer is better than lung cancer - but that doesn't mean that skin cancer is a good thing. And it certainly isn't a measure of good health any more than "less violence" is a measure of "success," particularly when you include the price tag of that "success." Dahr Jamail again:
[T]he capital city of the country is essentially in lock-down and prevailing conditions are indicative of a police state. ... [T]he government is exercising rigid and repressive controls over [the] social ... economic ... and political life of the citizenry.

By definition, a police state exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and in today's Iraq, we have plenty examples of both.
Baghdad is a city of ever-present and everywhere-present troops with guns, but all of who still can't dispel the "omnipresent" fear that "anywhere, anytime, a bomb could be detonated." And it is a city, perhaps most particularly, of walls. All around, there are the walls. Some of them 20 feet high.
Baghdad's walls are everywhere, turning a riverside capital of leafy neighborhoods and palm-lined boulevards where Shiites and Sunnis once mingled into a city of shadows separating the two Muslim sects.

The walls block access to schools, mosques, churches, hotels, homes, markets and even entire neighborhoods - almost anything that could be attacked. For many Iraqis, they have become the iconic symbol of the war. ...

Indeed, new walls are still going up.... They could well be around for years to come, enforcing Iraq's fragile peace and enshrining the capital's sectarian divisions.
Psychic walls enforced by physical walls.

Outside Baghdad, the physical walls are not present but the psychic walls are. Iraq remains less a single nation than a collection of three regions: Baghdad and the south dominated by Shiites, the center and west by Sunnis, the north by Kurds. The much-promised, much-predicted "political reconciliation" remains promised and predicted rather than practiced. The signs of underlying tension remain. In a long article in the New York Review of Books last fall, Peter Galbraith of the Center for Arms Control ran through the overlapping conflicts, but this is a summary:

1. The central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pretends to be some sort of Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish coalition but in fact is dominated by a Shiite coalition of religious parties, including Maliki's own Dawa party, committed to making Iraq into a Shiite Islamic state.

2. Sunnis, who clearly fear that possibility and still feel they're not getting their due in governance, are backing the Sunni militia known as the Awakening, which arose - with ample US support in guns and cash - when the Sunnis started to regard the foreign insurgents, the ones who adopted the name "al-Qaeda in Iraq," as a bigger threat than the US. That militia, lead by Baathists, now numbers some 100,000 and is potentially a strong force in its own right - which worries the Shiites, who see it as a threat to their own control.

3. Shiites also have their own internal divisions to worry about: Although Moqtada al-Sadr's rivals "outfoxed" him by using him to gain control of parliament, then dumping him, before Maliki sent Iraqi troops to oust Sadr's Mahdi Army from much of Basra and to make inroads in Sadr City, "al-Sadr has not been defeated and has significant residual support." (That support was demonstrated last Friday when "thousands" of his followers turned out in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of the invasion by demanding an end to the US occupation. A bigger test will come in a couple of weeks; there has been a call for a bigger demonstration on April 9, the anniversary of the fall of Saddam's regime.)

4. Meanwhile the Kurds, who had something of an alliance of convenience with the Shiites, are facing a central government that appears determined to marginalize them, "contain [them] politically and geographically." In early September, Maliki sent troops into a Kurdish town, deliberately picking a fight with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. That confrontation was defused, but when Iraq's defense minister proposed acquiring F-16s for the Iraqi air force, the Kurdish deputy speaker of the parliament protested, expressing fear that the planes' most likely target would be Kurdistan.

It was very likely that suspicion about - fear of - the intentions of the Shiite-lead central government that lead Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, to say last month that
[t]he United States must resolve policy snags between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq before any troop pullout,
even suggesting that violence could erupt in the region otherwise. The US military is concerned enough about the rising tension that it has been acting as a mediator and there are plans to "flood the zone" with US troops if things start to flare up between the peshmerga and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army.

Another recent sign of the continuing divisions came with the visit to Iraq by Iranian politician and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
[W]hile Rafsanjani and other Iranian leaders enjoy close ties with senior Shia and Kurdish officials[, IWPR reported last week], many Sunni Arabs accuse Tehran of meddling in Iraqi affairs and instigating the sectarian violence which crippled the country after the US-led invasion in 2003. ...

Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, snubbed Rafsanjani, refusing to attend his welcoming ceremony.

Hashemi’s Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement saying Rafsanjani was “unwelcome” while the German news agency DPA reported that protesters in the largely Sunni province of Anbar called Rafsanjani a “killer of Iraqis”. ...

Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of parliament from the secular Iraqiya coalition, opposed Rafsanjani’s visit and said the red-carpet welcome was “too much” for the controversial figure. ...

Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Front, said the Iraqi government should break off relations with Iran until it becomes more democratic.
Okay, so let's sum up: We have poverty, unemployment, lack of clean water, shortages of electricity, inadequate health care, continuing ethnic and religious divisions both spiritual and physical with a constant undercurrent of threat of renewed civil war - not to mention that, as ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger noted, "indiscriminate attacks continue to leave dozens of people killed or injured on a daily basis," something the daily news can confirm.

Quoting Dahr Jamail one last time:
As a succinct summary after a week's stay, I have this to offer: The situation in Iraq has not changed except to worsen. What the passage of four years of occupation during my absence has brought to the people of Iraq is greater displacement, more economic degradation, extreme desperation, untreatable sickness and a near-total loss of hope.
That, friends, is what is being sold to us as "success" simply and solely because Baghdad 2009, while still one of the most dangerous places in the world, is not Fallujah 2004. A damn low bar, indeed.

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