Eating Iraq: Corruption Rules and Cholera Rises While Insurgents Surf the Surge

In a remarkably short amount of time, the "conventional wisdom" of America's media-political class has embraced the idea that George W. Bush's escalation of the Iraq war in 2007 has been a "success." This highly dubious notion -- based on nothing but the fact that the horrific murder rate spawned by Bush's act of aggression has momentarily abated to previous levels of savagery that were once considered catastrophic -- now serves as the basic assumption of the "debate" about the Iraq war, especially among the punditry and out on the campaign trail.

But on the ground in Iraq, where some good reporting still filters through the white noise machine of the corporate media, the picture is much different. Iraq is being eaten alive by the corruption of collaborators with the American occupation, by the relentless spead of disease and extreme privation -- and of course, by continuing violence, including the increased use of civilian-slaughtering airstrikes by the "surging" American forces, and by "ethnic cleansing" and other brutal operations by terrorists and sectarian militias now in the pay of the Bush Administration.

That continuing violence can clearly be seen in the latest report from IraqBodyCount.org, which estimates that at least 1,100 Iraqi civilians were killed by war-related violence in November, including at least 75 civilians killed directly by U.S. forces. This is what the great and the good in America now call "success." (And remember, IBC's estimates routinely err on the side of caution; they are to be regarded more as baseline figures, not totals.)

What's more, as the Guardian reports, the relative lowering of the death rate seems largely the result of a decision by the main opponents of the American occupation -- the Sunni militias and the Shiite army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- to wait out the escalation, which even the most enthusiastic surge advocates admit cannot be sustained militarily for much longer. Another factor is of course the Bush Administration's move to buy off some of Sunni groups that have killed multitudes of American troops, giving the supposedly former insurgents money, guns, uniforms – and territory to rule with an iron rod.

The corruption seething throughout the Iraqi government – a mirror image of the rot in the house of Iraq's masters in Washington – was well captured in a New York Times story over the weekend. As the paper reports:

Jobless men pay $500 bribes to join the police. Families build houses illegally on government land, carwashes steal water from public pipes, and nearly everything the government buys or sells can now be found on the black market.

Painkillers for cancer (from the Ministry of Health) cost $80 for a few capsules; electricity meters (from the Ministry of Electricity) go for $200 each, and even third-grade textbooks (stolen from the Ministry of Education) must be bought at bookstores for three times what schools once charged.

"Everyone is stealing from the state," said Adel Adel al-Subihawi, a prominent Shiite tribal leader in Sadr City, throwing up his hands in disgust. "It's a very large meal, and everyone wants to eat..."

And the extent of the theft is staggering. Some American officials estimate that as much as a third of what they spend on Iraqi contracts and grants ends up unaccounted for or stolen, with a portion going to Shiite or Sunni militias. In addition, Iraq's top anticorruption official estimated this fall — before resigning and fleeing the country after 31 of his agency's employees were killed over a three-year period — that $18 billion in Iraqi government money had been lost to various stealing schemes since 2004.

The collective filching undermines Iraq's ability to provide essential services, a key to sustaining recent security gains, according to American military commanders. It also sows a corrosive distrust of democracy and hinders reconciliation as entrenched groups in the Shiite-led government resist reforms that would cut into reliable cash flows.

Of course, this is not really news to anyone who's been paying attention in the past few years. Nor is the corruption solely the result of native larceny;  at least $8 billion or more of Iraq's money "disappeared" when it was under the direct control of Bush's viceroy, Jerry Bremer. This flood of sleaze is flowing into many coffers between the Tigris and the Potomac.

Many people have noted the Bush Administration's early plans to turn Iraq into a "shock doctrine" theme park, where every extremist tenet of "free market fundamentalism" could be inflicted on the conquered people. Much of this plan has fallen by the wayside (although a good deal of it has been quietly imposed on Iraq by the forcible incorporation of many of the arbitrary decrees of the imperial conqueror into the new, American-devised Iraqi constitution). But if Iraq has not quite turned into the Milton Friedman funhouse that the invaders intended, it has become the outsized embodiment – the id – of the true essence of the Bush Regime: a violent, lawless kleptocracy.


And let us be clear on a further point – clearer than the Times was: the massive corruption in Iraq is being carried out almost entirely by agents and allies of the American-backed government. This literally murderous graft is being supported and protected by the full might of the American military – as are the tortures routinely practiced on tens of thousands of Iraqis held captive by the government. (And of course, U.S. forces themselves are holding around 25,000 Iraqis in various prison camps around the country.)

And as always in such situations, the atrocities of the powerful are being written on the bodies of the most vulnerable. As the Observer reports, cholera is now on the rise in Baghdad, the result of war-ravaged sewage systems, which the occupiers and their satraps have not managed to rebuild in more than four years – partly due to the violence engendered by the invasion and occupation, and to the rampant corruption of the aforesaid occupiers and satraps:

Baghdad is facing a 'catastrophe' with cases of cholera rising sharply in the past three weeks to more than 100, strengthening fears that poor sanitation and the imminent rainy season could create an epidemic....

As Iraq's rainy season nears, its ageing water pipes and sewerage systems, many damaged or destroyed by more than four years of war, pose a new threat to a population weary of crisis. Claire Hajaj, a spokeswoman for Unicef, said: 'Iraq's water and sanitation networks are in a critical condition. Pollution of waterways by raw sewage is perhaps the greatest environmental and public health hazard facing Iraqis - particularly children. Waterborne diarrhoea diseases kill and sicken more Iraqi children than anything except pneumonia. We estimate that only one in three Iraqi children can rely on a safe water source - with Baghdad and southern cities most affected.'

...The UN has reported 22 deaths from cholera this year, and 4,569 laboratory-confirmed cases…It has now spread to half of the country's 18 provinces, but anxiety is focused on Baghdad....

Cholera is preventable by treating drinking water with chlorine and improving hygiene, but it is estimated that around 70 per cent of Iraqis do not have access to clean water. Many have been too poor or too afraid to go out to buy bottled water, relying instead on tap water, often from polluted sources. Companies responsible for collecting waste and sewage have been reluctant to enter Baghdad's most violent areas.

Let's go back to this passage from the Unicef spokeswoman: "Waterborne diarrhoea diseases kill and sicken more Iraqi children than anything except pneumonia. We estimate that only one in three Iraqi children can rely on a safe water source." Here are war-related civilian deaths that go unremarked in most counts, which focus on the victims of direct violence. But as we saw with the genocidal sanctions imposed on the poorest of Iraq for years by those enlightened Democratic statespersons Clinton and Gore, and their progressive UK counterparts, Blair and Brown, the indirect costs of "projecting dominance" can be just as deadly as 500-pound bombs dropped on crowded neighborhoods.

And make no mistake: this horror show will go on and on, no matter who is elected to the presidency next year. All of the "major," "serious" candidates of both parties have pledged to maintain an American military presence of some sort in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki – whose puppet strings have lately been painted in neon, and are glowing brightly for all to see – recently signed a notorious non-treaty treaty to guarantee a permanent – sorry, "enduring" – American military force in Iraq. The redoubtable Tom Englehardt has provided the gritty details of the major, permanent – sorry, "enduring" – bases that the Bush Administration is building across the country to sustain this eternal occupation.

It is inconceivable that the likes of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will simply dismantle those bases – including the vast armed fortress that will serve as the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – if one of them becomes president. Both would be at great pains to show how "tough" they are – like young Bill Clinton lobbing missiles into Baghdad and slaughtering civilians after a few Iraqi smugglers tortured by the Kuwaitis claimed they were part of a far-fetched plot to kill George Bush I. Neither H. Clinton nor Obama would ever risk taking responsibility for the very real – and deserved – humiliation that dismantling the bases would represent. In any case, where else are they going to put the military forces they both propose to retain to "provide training to Iraqi forces" and help the Iraqis in "counterterrorism operations," etc.? Yes, today they might imply or even promise to remove the bases – just as Bush promised to tear down Saddam's Abu Ghraib prison. But like Bush, they will doubtless find that the facilities suit their purposes very well.

So those children will go on dying of cholera and diarrhea, and from lack of the vital medicines sold off, Harry Lime-style, on the black market, and from the general collapse of the infrastructure necessary to sustain the barest minimum of civilized life. Isn't this an extraordinary situation? A war that the American people don't want, that the Iraqi people don't want, that the vast majority of people in the world condemn and decry – and yet it goes on, and will keep going on, year after year. And why is that? Because it serves the interests of those who have the desire – and the power -- to keep it going: the "bipartisan American foreign policy establishment," bound together in its commitment to enforcing American political and economic dominance of the world. (And not just pre-eminence, mind you, a freely-bestowed respect for national accomplishments, but outright dominance, a hegemony that can brook no rival and seeks to punish any disobedience to Washington's will. For more on this, see Arthur Silber's "Dominion Over the World" series.)

What then, in the end, do our leaders – present and future, Republican and Democrat – stand for? What is the most apt emblem for the ultimate value they embody and most assidiously serve?

A child dying in her own shit and blood, in a land ripped to pieces by a criminal war.

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