Iraq: Image and Reality

"Iraq is like a French cheese that can’t be pasteurized for the palates of a reading public that has grown up on Kraft slices of Good Guy/Bad Guy. Of course, Iraq has good guys and bad guys; they just switch roles a lot depending on our perspective."
An amusing analogy from a very engaging article by Patrick Graham in a recent cover story in Maclean's. The title of the article is "How George Bush became the new Saddam," but Bush is actually given little attention. Presumably it has something to do with the fact that Washington has now allied itself with a lot of Saddam's supporters -- the very insurgents responsible for killing most of the American troops who have died in the conflict -- but part of me suspects the title was chosen to justify running a cover image of the American president sporting a Saddamesque moustache and military garb.

Graham lived in Iraq for a couple of years, and has a highly developed sense of what is actually happening on the ground -- and in the minds of ordinary Iraqi people. One of the salient themes of this piece is the disjunction between the popular western conceptions of the Iraqi situation on the one hand, and the actual social/religious/ethnic/political reality on the other. It's a lengthy article, but definitely worth reading.

Check it out here.



War Profiteering

Just read "The Great Iraq Swindle," a terrific (and quite angry) article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. It's about war profiteering in Iraq, and the astonishing (but not really surprising) refusal of the Bush administration to do anything about it.

The fact that a number of (mostly American) companies are getting very, very rich off the war in Iraq is hardly news, but the scale of the problem of profiteering, and the sheer brazenness of the abuses, are not widely appreciated.

I thought I'd describe one representative story from the many related in the article, but there are just too many to choose from: a construction firm called Parsons wins a contract to build the Baghdad Police College, resulting in "one of the great engineering clusterfucks of all time, a practically useless pile of rubble so badly constructed that its walls and ceilings are literally caked in shit and piss, a result of subpar plumbing in the upper floors." The cost to American taxpayers: $72 million.

An inexperienced security company called Custer Battles is given millions of dollars to do things like provide security for civilian flights into the Baghdad airport (even though there were no civilian flights into Baghdad during the term of the contract). They were given "scads of money" to buy x-ray equipment and set up a canine bomb-sniffing unit. Well, they didn't buy the equipment. As for the canine unit, the inspector general of the Army, Richard Ballard, described it thus:

"I eventually saw one dog. The dog did not appear to be a certified, trained dog." When the dog was brought to the checkpoint, he added, it would lie down and "refuse to sniff the vehicles" -- as outstanding a metaphor for U.S. contractor performance in Iraq as has yet been produced.
Custer Battles, it seems, were not simply being lazy. Sometimes some effort was put into ripping off the American taxpayer, like when they "found a bunch of abandoned Iraqi Airways forklifts on airport property, repainted them to disguise the company markings and billed them to U.S. tax­payers as new equipment."

The story of how they were caught, and why they nevertheless got away with it, is by turns hilarious and infuriating, but for that you'll have to read the article for yourself. I definitely recommend it.


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