Iraq's Odious Debts

Iraq’s enemy within

Haifa Zangana
The Guardian (UK)
April 10, 2004

In Iraq we say: “Choose the companion first, then the road.” We believe it very important to know who one is travelling with. On June 30 the US-led occupation forces will hand power to an Iraqi government. Iraqis would like to begin our journey towards a much-needed stability and democracy. But at the moment our “companions” are the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and their appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). We have not chosen them.

The governing council is as responsible as the US-led occupation forces for Iraq’s rapid slide into chaos and bloodshed. They stood aside last Sunday when the Sadr City demonstration against the closure of a newspaper was machine-gunned from helicopters – 32 people were killed and hundreds injured. They stood aside when rockets were fired into the Shulla neighbourhood further north in Baghdad, with more casualties. They have been watching in silence while Iraqis have been killed in Basra, Nassiriya, Kirkuk, Amara, Baquba, Kut, Kerbala and Najaf.

It was left to journalists and organisations like Amnesty International and Occupation Watch to document and condemn hundreds of occupation excesses and outright atrocities, starting from the shooting of 17 civilians at a demonstration in Falluja in April last year.

While the IGC denounced the savage mutilation last week of four American mercenaries in Falluja, they failed to issue an equal condemnation of the US marines’ besieging of the town, sending tank columns into neighbourhoods, guns blazing, and attacking a mosque with F-16 planes, killing 40 people. The odd IGC member who could not hide from journalists does no more than murmur about the need for “restraint on both sides” or mouth well-worn phrases about foreign hands trying to delay the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people. What sovereignty?

The 25-member IGC was appointed on the basis of their ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. The council had some power, but Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, retained a veto on its decisions. The IGC appointed the Iraqi interim government based on a similar ethnic and sectarian quota. But American officials run all the ministries.

The IGC, the CPA and the occupying forces are in agreement: the Iraqis are not yet ready for elections. The climate is ripe for civil war, they say. So we are faced with the likelihood that the existing IGC members and their chosen ministers will be at the core of the next government, which will be run “informally” by American officials.

The CPA and IGC’s early promises were colourful: they would build a new democratic Iraq, they said, guaranteeing human rights and freedom. But a year on, the picture they painted is fading. Car bombs, shootings and kidnapping have become part of daily life. Only 50% of the population have fresh water, compared with 60% before “liberation”. Electricity is intermittent. Drugs are sold openly in the streets. Ten thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed since the start of the conflict. But it is not for the security crisis alone that the majority of Iraqis hold IGC members in utter disdain.

Corruption is widespread. To get a job, one needs a tazkia (letter of recommendation) from one of the IGC parties. Allocation of subcontracts only follows a payment of 5%-10% of the value of the contract to the American contractors. Nepotism starts at the very top (eight ministers are close relatives of the IGC members).

Although most of the IGC members were once victims of Saddam’s regime, they now turn a blind eye to the violations of human rights by occupation troops. One of the first things the CPA did was to issue a memorandum to remove the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts over any coalition personnel in both civil and criminal matters. According to a recent Amnesty International report: “Coalition forces appear in many cases to be using the climate of violence to justify violating the very human rights standards they are supposed to be upholding. They have shot Iraqis dead during demos, tortured and ill-treated prisoners, arrested people arbitrarily and held them indefinitely, demolished houses in acts of revenge and collective punishment.”

The CPA also ignores the violent activities of the four militias in Iraq, which have taken the law into their own hands: the peshmergas of the two Kurdish parties; the Badr brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq; Ahmed Chalabi’s troops; and the ex-Ba’athist Mukhabarats under Iyad Alawi’s national accord. These militias are run by members of the IGC and no one can touch them. No high-ranking official of Saddam’s regime has yet been prosecuted either, despite the wish of most Iraqis that they be bought to justice.

For all the talk of democracy, opposition in any form to the IGC and the occupation is not acceptable. I saw women queuing for hours at the gates of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad begging for news of their loved ones, many of whom are political prisoners. It brought back bad memories. In the 1970s, under the Ba’ath regime, my mother had to wait in the same place desperate to hear if I was held inside.

In Baghdad, on January 12, I met Abdullatif Ali al-Mayah, professor of politics and director of Baghdad’s Centre for Human Rights. He was concerned about women’s and young people’s rights. A believer in human dignity and justice, he spoke with anger about the plight of Iraqi people under occupation. We arranged to work together. On January 18, on al-Jazeera television, he denounced IGC corruption and demanded elections as soon as possible. Twelve hours later, he was killed. Al-Mayah, a former prisoner of Saddam’s regime, was no Saddamist or Bin Ladenist. The CPA and IGC met his murder with silence – as they did the murder of at least 17 other Iraqi academics. With this silence, the oppressed becomes oppressor.

The IGC has allied itself with the occupation administration. Its role is to shield occupation forces, not its own people. The gulf between it and the majority of Iraqis has widened. Away from the vulnerable majority, they stand well-protected by bodyguards driving special cars and carrying free mobile phones courtesy of the US.

The interim constitution was written behind closed doors. Iraqis were not consulted, but Paul Bremer and Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador, were. As the countdown to the supposed end of the occupation begins, Bremer has already announced measures and laws that will in effect thwart a new government from overturning his decisions of the past year.

The CPA is in favour of rapid privatisation. At the end of April, 15 ministers will be in London to attend an event described in its colourful brochure as: “An excellent opportunity to do business in Iraq without having to consider the current security risks of visiting the country.” Shell, Chevron Texaco, Exxon and Mobil are sponsoring the event, among others.

The UN still has a role to play in Iraq. It has to be clearly defined: to work with Iraqis to rebuild their country, restore democracy and regain their dignity, not to legitimise US-led occupation. Also, in the rush to mortgage Iraq, Iraqi people should not be bound by contracts and long-term agreements signed on their behalf, nor should they be liable for odious debt incurred by Saddam’s regime. Why should they repay loans from a long list of foreign governments, all of whom surely lent the money in the full knowledge that it would be used to arm and support their persecutor?

Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi-born novelist and artist. She is a former political prisoner of the Ba’ath regime.

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