Monday, December 15, 2008

Mine's a Size 12 -- with Stiffening Orthotics

It was like when Dick Cheney shot that guy in the face. I thought it was fake news. Then, to be honest, I thought it was funny. Then I had to remember how I'd feel if the shoes were thrown at Obama. And something like that is likely to happen. Eggs might be thrown at his limousine during the inaugural parade. It happened to Bush in 2000, after all.

Here's the first BBC video of the shoes being thrown at Bush.
What this video has that no others I've seen have is Bush's reaction -- his quipping that it was a size 10, that the thrower was trying to get attention, that it's like being heckled at a campaign rally; and his recapitulation of Rumsfeld's excuse that this is the sort of thing that happens in a free society.

Some folks are indignant about the shoe throwing, but I say, look on the bright side. Five and a half years after Rumsfeld's comment, Iraq is still free!

At this historic juncture of the shoe hitting the wall (and remember, Clara throws her shoe at Mouse King . . . so, 'tis the season), I'd like to cite some recent articles that may help illustrate the situation in Iraq. On the other hand, maybe it's ridiculous to even pretend to size things up. I do this, I think, mostly to organize my own thinking. The benefit to readers would largely be following the links to more substantial writings.

I was really worried back in August about al-Maliki taking an antagonistic stance toward the tribal militias that the U.S. army had been paying to become our allies in a move hailed by the pro-war camp as a sign of progress. These three posts talk about that and cite news articles.

Since then, the Iraqi government has said that it will continue to support the 99,000 militia members and integrate them in to mainstream society, incorporating 20,000 into the Iraqi military and giving other types of jobs to the others. There are doubts that the militia members will accept either giving up their identity as members of independent militias or ceasing to be fighters at all. Tribal leaders in the Anbar province did not want to have their support transferred from the U.S. to the Iraqi government this soon because of friction between them (with their Sunni identity) and the mostly Shiite government. Further dissatisfaction may arise because the government will cut militia members' salaries. But the U.S. military seemed confident that this transfer of authority over the militias would go well, and has reported that the handover is indeed progressing.

But get this. Al-Maliki is forming his own tribal militias called "Support Councils" in territory where Arabs and Kurds are vying for control. He cites U.S. support for such militias as precedent. Juan Cole provided a translation of a Kurdish newspaper report which expresses great concern about this new independent militia.

I ask, doesn't the reliance on local militias rather than the national one, by the U.S. army and now Maliki, indicate that these local allegiances are more significant to Iraqis than their national identity?

Meanwhile, it seems the Kurds are operating fairly autonomously. The New York Times a year ago reported on their moving ahead with their own deals with foreign oil companies while the Iraqi government was busy not passing its oil bill. To my knowledge, as of now, the central government still does not have an oil bill. The oil bill would officially determine how oil profits would be distributed to Iraq's different regions. In my understanding, in a unified Iraq, Kurds should play nice and allow profits from any oil pumped out of their ground to be apportioned like all other Iraqi oil profits. Making separate deals undermines the central government authority -- except that, without a national oil law, there is not a central authority with respect to oil sales. Meanwhile, among the oil companies skirting Iraqi authority and dealing directly with the Kurds is Hunt Oil out of Texas, whose CEO is a friend of George W. Bush and served on Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. And the former first administrator of post-Saddam Iraq, the predecessor to Paul Bremer III, Jay Garner, is helping Canadian oil companies make their own deals with the Kurds. Mother Jones reports on Hunt Oil and Jay Garner.

In my recollection from reading George Packer's The Assassin's Gate over a year ago, Garner was a feisty guy whose bluntness about the lack of planning for post-war Iraq caused the Bush administration some discomfort. Personally, I wonder if his aiding Canadian oil companies now is a way of giving the finger to the Bush administration.

Kurdistan also recently received three planeloads of arms as part of another deal it made independently of the central government.

The first major foreign oil deal that the Iraqi government has made is with China. Another is with Shell oil. This past summer, there was talk of other major oil companies making no-bid contracts to explore Iraq's oil fields, but these contracts were apparently scuttled because of criticism from U.S. senators. Instead, the companies were offered a chance to bid on contracts, and Shell is the only one, as far as I know, to make a deal.

I've mentioned the Sunnis in the middle of Iraq with their tribal militias, the Kurds in the north moving forward with their oil deals; what about the southern Basra region, also very oil rich?

As far as I can tell, there are two movements associated with southern Iraq, and both want to garner some autonomy for that region. One movement, associated with the Fadila party, wants to transform Basra into a federal region with legal status similar to that of Kurdistan. Progress on this movement can be found at that link's parent blog Histories of Political Imagining which in general addresses world political events, and currently is looking at southern Iraq.

Another movement is being lead by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq. He wants to create a large "federal" southern area encompassing the nine provinces from Basra to Baghdad, though he also claims that he supports the sovereignty of Iraq and that such an area would not be completely independent. This is explained in this article from 2006 by Juan Cole. Though it's an old article in terms of Iraq's quickly moving history, the goals of the SICI remain the same today. And note how the plans of the Kurds and the SICI to create their own autonomy in the north and south have echoed by American politicians, namely Joe Biden, who spoke of partitioning Iraq into 3 large areas. The Bush administration initially dismissed this proposal, and now whether Iraq is partitioned or not is out of our hands. But the country does seem to be partitioning itself. In my perception, among America's prominent politicians, it happens to be Obama and Biden who do seem to understand Iraq the best.

And while Baghdad was about 50/50 Sunni/Shiite before the invasion, it is now about 75% Shiite. Juan Cole talks about the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad in his Social History of the Surge, and Derek Gregory goes into greater detail, saying that much of this cleansing continued during the American troop surge and lead, eventually, to decreased violence in Baghdad once the cleansing had run its course.

Corruption, and loss of American money, plays a large role in Iraq. It is hard to figure out if each new report of a sum of money lost in Iraq should be added to the running total, or is itself a new cumulative total. The first such report I know of was of the over $12 billion lost by the CPA under Paul Bremer. Note that the guy in charge of handing out money in Iraq's "Free Fraud Zone" was Reuben Jeffrey III, the same guy now handing out funds to banks in the current financial bailout.

This past September, there was this article telling of $13 billion lost or stolen in Iraq. The whistle-blower on that is an Iraqi investigator who has fled the country because of a death threat. Thirty-two of his colleagues, also investigators, have been killed. And this article says that al-Maliki has started firing auditors placed in his government at the request of the United States to help stop corruption. And then there's this recent nightmarish report of over $100 billion lost and unaccounted for in Iraq, $50 billion of which was taxpayer money.

Pro-war advocates say that Saddam's siphoning of money of the Oil for Food program had to be stopped. But what Saddam siphoned was only about $10 billion. Neocons can always paint a noble picture of reasons for getting into this war. But like all idealogues, they overlook evidence that their efforts have made things worse, or at least not better -- and at great expense to their country.

And what about oil revenues? Oil smuggling is a problem -- in some cases, smuggling occurs along routes established by Saddam. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty says that $40 million per month is lost because of smuggling from the southern reaches of Iraq. And while there has been talk of that expected $79 billion dollar budget by year's end, the new low in oil prices is causing the Iraqi government to reduce reconstruction efforts and may cause it to reduce food rationing and to lay off civil servants.

So what does all this mean with respect to victory or defeat? I love what Chuck Hagel said to Joe Lieberman on Meet the Press: The future of Iraq lies in the hands of the Iraqi people. The main problem there is tribal/sectarian friction.

John McCain said he would bring our troops home with victory. Sarah Palin said that the troop surge brought us victory in Iraq. I say that there is nothing for us to have victory over or suffer defeat from. With respect to a major military presence, the question is simply whether we stay or leave.

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