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    Middle East
     Oct 25, 2008
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Wrecked Iraq
By Michael Schwartz

Even before the spectacular presidential election campaign became a national obsession, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression crowded out other news, coverage of the Iraq War had dwindled to next to nothing. National newspapers had long since discontinued their daily feasts of multiple - usually front page - reports on the country, replacing them with meager meals of mostly summary stories buried inside the paper. On broadcast and cable TV channels, where violence in Iraq had once been the nightly lead, whole news cycles went by without a mention of the war.

The tone of the coverage also changed. The powerful reports of desperate battles and miserable Iraqis disappeared. There are still occasional stories about high-profile bombings or military campaigns in obscure places, but the bulk of the news is about


quiescence in old hot spots, political maneuvering by Iraqi factions, and the newly emerging routines of ordinary life.

A typical "return to normal life" piece appeared October 11 in the New York Times under the headline, "Schools Open, and the First Test is Iraqi Safety." Featured was a Baghdad schoolteacher welcoming her students by assuring them that "security has returned to Baghdad, city of peace".

Even as his report began, though, Times reporter Sam Dagher hedged the "return to normal" theme. Here was his first paragraph in full:
On the first day of school, 10-year-old Basma Osama looked uneasy standing in formation under an already stifling morning sun. She and dozens of schoolmates listened to a teacher's pep talk - probably a necessary one, given the barren and garbage-strewn playground.
This glimpse of the degraded conditions at one Baghdad public school, amplified in the body of Dagher's article by other examples, is symptomatic of the larger reality in Iraq. In a sense, the (often exaggerated) decline in violence in that country has allowed foreign reporters to move around enough to report on the real conditions facing Iraqis, and so should have provided US readers with a far fuller picture of the devastation George Bush's war wrought.

In reality, though, since there are far fewer foreign reporters moving around a quieter Iraq, far less news is coming out of that wrecked land. The major newspapers and networks have drastically reduced their staffs there and - with a relative trickle of exceptions like Dagher's fine report - what's left is often little more than a collection of pronouncements from the US military, or Iraqi and American political leaders in Baghdad and Washington, framing the American public's image of the situation there.

In addition, the devastation that is now Iraq is not of a kind that can always be easily explained in a short report, nor for that matter is it any longer easily repaired. In many cities, an American reliance on artillery and air power during the worst days of fighting helped devastate the Iraqi infrastructure. Political and economic changes imposed by the American occupation did damage of another kind, often depriving Iraqis not just of their livelihoods but of the very tools they would now need to launch a major reconstruction effort in their own country.

As a consequence, what was once the most advanced Middle Eastern society - economically, socially, and technologically - has become an economic basket case, rivaling the most desperate countries in the world. Only the (as yet unfulfilled) promise of oil riches, which probably cannot be effectively accessed or used until US forces withdraw from the country, provides a glimmer of hope that Iraq will someday lift itself out of the abyss into which the US invasion pushed it.

Consider only a small sampling of the devastation.

The Economy: Fundamental to the American occupation was the desire to annihilate Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists state apparatus and the economic system it commanded. A key aspect of this was the closing down of the vast majority of state-owned economic enterprises (with the exception of those involved in oil extraction and electrical generation).

In all, 192 establishments, adding up to 35% of the Iraqi economy, were shuttered in the summer and fall of 2003. These included basic manufacturing processes like leather tanning and tractor assembly that supplied other sectors, transportation firms that dominated national commerce, and maintenance enterprises that housed virtually all the technicians and engineers qualified to service the electrical, water, oil, and other infrastructure systems in the country.

Justified as the way to bring a modern free-enterprise system to backward Iraq, this draconian program was put in place by the president's proconsul in Baghdad, L Paul Bremer III. The result? An immediate depression that only deepened in the years to follow.

One measure of this policy's impact can be found in the demise of the leather goods industry, a key pre-invasion sector of Iraq's non-petroleum economy. When a government-owned tanning operation, which all by itself employed 30,000 workers and supplied leather to an entire industry, was shuttered in late 2003, it deprived shoe-makers and other leather goods establishments of their key resource. Within a year, employment in the industry had dropped from 200,000 workers to a mere 20,000.

By the time Bremer left Iraq in the spring of 2004, the inhabitants of many cities faced 60% unemployment. Meanwhile, the country's agriculture, a key component of its economy, was also victimized by the dismantling of government establishments and services. The lush farming areas between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers suffered badly. The once-thriving date palm industry was a typical casualty. It suffered deadly infestations of pests when the occupation eliminated a government-run insecticide spraying program. Even oil refinery-based industrial towns like Baiji became cities of slums when plants devoted to non-petroleum activities were shuttered.

This economic devastation fueled the insurgency by generating desperation, anger, and willing recruits. The explosion of resistance, in turn, tended to obscure - at least for Western news services - the desperate circumstances under which ordinary Iraqis labored.

As violence has subsided in Baghdad and elsewhere, demands for relief have come to the fore. These are not easily answered by a still largely non-functional central government in Baghdad whose administrative and economic apparatus was long ago dismantled, and many of whose key technical personnel had fled into exile. Meanwhile, in early 2006, the American occupation declared that further reconstruction work would be the responsibility of Iraqis. It is not clear into what channels the growing discontent over an economy that remains largely in the tank and a government that still cannot deliver ordinary services will flow.

Electricity: A critical factor in Iraq's collapse has been its decaying electrical grid. In areas where the insurgency raged, facilities involved in producing and transmitting electricity were targeted, both by the insurgents and US forces, each trying to deprive the other of needed resources. In addition, Bremer eliminated the government-owned maintenance and engineering enterprises that had been holding the electrical system together ever since the UN sanctions regime after the 1991Gulf War deprived Iraq of material needed to repair and upgrade its facilities. Maintenance and replacement contracts were given instead to multinational companies with little knowledge of the existing system and - due to cost-plus contracting - every incentive to replace facilities with their own proprietary technology. In the meantime, many Iraqi technicians left the country.

The successor Iraqi governments, deprived of the capacity to manage the system's reconstruction, continued the US occupation policy of contracting with foreign companies. Even in areas of the country relatively unaffected by the fighting, those companies did the lucrative thing, replacing entire sections of the electric grid, often with inappropriate but exquisitely expensive equipment and technology.

A combination of factors - including pressure from the insurgency, the soaring costs of security, and an almost unparalleled record of endemic waste and corruption - led to costs well beyond those originally offered for the already overpriced projects. Many were then abandoned before completion as funding ran out. Completed projects were often shabbily done and just as often proved incompatible with existing facilities, introducing new inefficiencies.
In one altogether-too-typical case, Bechtel installed 26 natural gas turbines in areas where no natural gas was available. The turbines were then converted to oil, which reduced their capacity by 50% and led to a rapid sludge build-up in the equipment requiring expensive maintenance no Iraqi technicians had been trained to perform. In location after location, the turbines became inoperative.

Even before the invasion, the decrepit electrical system could not meet national demand. No province had uninterrupted service and certain areas had far less than 12 hours of service per day. The vast investments by the occupation and its successor regimes have increased electrical capacity since the invasion of 2003, but these gains have not come close to keeping up with skyrocketing demand created by the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops, private security personnel, and occupation officials, as well as by the introduction of all manner of electronic devices and products in the post-invasion period.

Recent UN reports indicate that, in the last year, electrical capacity has slipped to less than half of demand. With priority going to military and government operations, many Baghdad 

Continued 1 2  

Details of Iraq pact reveal US debacle
(Oct 24,'08)

When success is failure in Iraq
(Sep 10,'08)

The Bush doctrine in ruins (Oct 24,'08)

US government throws oil on fire

2. The Bush doctrine in ruins

3. An absent rebellion

4. Details of Iraq pact reveal US debacle

5. Gliding towards nuclear war

6. Big Oil, the big survivor

7. Death stalks the highway to hell

8. Forget Bush's wars and work with Asia

9. Rusal's China hopes drift into the future

10. Tata does ethical u-turn

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Oct 23, 2008)


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