Wrecked Iraq

What the Good News From Iraq Really Means

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

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

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

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

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.

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