What the Good News From Iraq Really Means
by Michael Schwartz
As the Smoke Clears in Iraq: 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 inside-the-fold summary stories. 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 11th 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. forces withdraw from the country, provides a glimmer of hope that Iraq will someday lift itself out of the abyss into which the U.S. 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 Baathist 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 infrastructural 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 U.S. 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 U.N. sanctions regime after the 1991 Gulf 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 neighborhoods experience less than two hours of publicly provided electricity a day, forcing citizens and business enterprises to utilize expensive and polluting gasoline generators.
In spring of this year, 81% of Iraqis reported that they had experienced inadequate electricity in the previous month. During the heat of summer and the cold of winter, these shortages create real health emergencies.
In 2004, the U.N. estimated that $20 billion in reconstruction funds would be needed for a fully operative electrical grid. The estimates now range from $40 billion to $80 billion.
Water: The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through the country from the northwest to the southeast, have since time immemorial irrigated the rich farming land that lay between them, nurtured the fish that are a staple of the Iraqi diet, and provided water for animal and human consumption. American-style warfare, with its reliance on tank, artillery, and air power, often resulted in the cratering of streets in upstream Sunni cities like Tal Afar, Falluja, and Samarra where the insurgency was strongest. One result was the wrecking of already weakened underground sewage systems. In the Sadr City section of Baghdad, for instance, where much fighting has taken place and American air power was called in regularly, there is now a lake of sewage clearly visible on satellite photographs.
The ultimate destination of significant parts of the filth from devastated sewage systems was the two rivers. Five years worth of such waste flowing through the streets and into those rivers has left them thoroughly contaminated. Their water can no longer be safely drunk by humans or animals, the remaining fish cannot be safely eaten, and the contaminated water reportedly withers the crops it irrigates.
Iraq's never-adequate water purification system has proven woefully insufficient to handle this massive flow of contamination, while inadequate electric supplies insure that the country's few functional purification plants are less than effective.
In many cities, the sewage system must be entirely reconstructed, but repairs cannot even begin without a viable electrical system, a reinvigorated engineering and construction sector, and a government capable of marshalling these resources. None of these prerequisites currently exist.
Schools: Education has been a victim of all the various pathologies current in Iraqi society. During the initial invasion, the U.S. military often commandeered schools as forward bases, attracted by their well-defined perimeters, open spaces for vehicles, and many rooms for offices and barracks. Two incidents in which American gunfire from an occupied elementary school killed Iraqi civilians in the conservative Sunni city of Falluja may have been the literal sparks that started the insurgency. Many schools would subsequently be rendered uninhabitable by destructive battles fought in or near them.
Under the U.S. occupation's de-Baathification policy, thousands of teachers who belonged to the Baath Party were fired, leaving hundreds of thousands of students teacherless. In addition, the shuttering of government enterprises deprived the schools of supplies -- including books and teaching materials -- as well as urgently needed maintenance.
The American solution, as with the electric grid, was to hire multinational firms to repair the schools and rehabilitate school systems. The result was an orgy of corruption accompanied by very little practical aid. Local school officials complained that facilities with no windows, heating, or toilet facilities were repainted and declared fit for use.
The dwindling central government presence made schools inviting arenas for sectarian conflict, with administrators, teachers, and especially college professors removed, kidnapped, or assassinated for ideological reasons. This, in turn, stimulated a mass exodus of teachers, intellectuals, and scientists from the country, removing precious human capital essential for future reconstruction.
Finally, in Baghdad, the U.S. military began installing ten-foot tall cement walls around scores of communities and neighborhoods to wall off participants in the sectarian violence. As a result, schoolchildren were often separated from their schools, reducing attendance at the few intact facilities to those students who happened to live within the imprisoning walls.
This fall, as some of these walls were dismantled, residents discovered that many of the schools were virtually unusable. The Times's Dagher offered a vivid description, for instance, of a school in the Dolaie neighborhood which "is falling apart, and overwhelmed by the children of almost 4,000 Shiite refugee families who have settled in the Chukouk camp nearby. The roof is caving in, classroom floors and hallways are stripped bare, and in the playground a pile of burnt trash was smoldering."
The Dysfunctional Society: Much has been made in the U.S. presidential campaign of the $70 billion oil surplus the Iraqi government built up in these last years as oil prices soared. In actuality, most of it is currently being held in American financial institutions, with various American politicians threatening to confiscate it if it is not constructively spent. Yet even this bounty reflects the devastation of the war.
De-Baathification and subsequent chaos rendered the Iraqi government incapable of effectively administering projects that lay outside the fortified, American-controlled Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad. A vast flight of the educated class to Syria, Jordan, and other countries also deprived it of the managers and technicians needed to undertake serious reconstruction on a large scale.
As a consequence, less than 25% of the funds budgeted for facility construction and reconstruction last year were even spent. Some government ministries spent less than 1% of their allocations. In the meantime, the large oil surpluses have become magnets for massive governmental corruption, further infuriating frustrated citizens who, after five years, still often lack the most basic services. Transparency International's 2008 "corruption perceptions index" listed Iraq as tied for 178th place among the 180 countries evaluated.
The Iraq that has emerged from the American invasion and occupation is now a thoroughly wrecked land, housing a largely dysfunctional society. More than a million Iraqis may have died; millions have fled their homes; many millions of others have been scarred by war, insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, extreme sectarian violence, and soaring levels of common criminality. Education and medical systems have essentially collapsed and, even today, with every kind of violence in decline, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous societies on earth.
As its crisis deepened, the various areas of social and technical devastation became ever more entwined, reinforcing one another. The country's degraded sewage and water systems, for example, have spawned two consecutive years of widespread cholera. It seems likely that this year, the disease will only subside when the cold weather makes further contagion impossible, but this "solution" also guarantees its reoccurrence each year until water purification systems are rebuilt.
In the meantime, cholera victims cannot rely on Iraq's once vaunted medical system, since two-thirds of the country's doctors have fled, its hospitals are often in a state of advanced decay and disrepair, drugs remain scarce, and equipment, if available at all, is outdated. The rebuilding of the water and medical systems, however, cannot get fully underway unless the electrical system is restored to reasonable shape. Repair of the electrical grid awaits a reliable oil and gas pipeline system to provide fuel for generators, and this cannot be constructed without the expertise of technicians who have left the country, or newly trained specialists that the educational system is now incapable of producing. And so it goes.
On a daily basis, this cauldron of misery renews powerful feelings of discontent, which explains why American military leaders regularly insist that the country's current relative quiescence is, at best, "fragile." They believe only the most minimal reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq (still hovering at close to 150,000 troops) are advisable.
Even if Washington prefers to ignore Iraqi realities, military officials working close to the ground know that the country's state of disrepair, and an inability to deal with it in any reasonably prompt way, leaves a population in steaming discontent. At any moment, this could explode in further sectarian violence or yet another violent effort to expel the U.S. forces from the country.
Copyright 2008 Michael Schwartz
Michael Schwartz's new book, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket, 2008), has just been released. It explains just how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside that country. A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Schwartz has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. His work on Iraq has appeared in numerous outlets, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and Contexts.