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ROBERT FISK & OTHERS [MUST READ!!]|
by Saima Alvi
12 April 2003 16:35 UTC
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The seat is covered in blue velvet and is soft, comfortable in an upright, sensible sort of way, with big gold armrests upon which his hands – for Saddam Hussein was obsessed with his hands – could rest, and with no door behind it through which assassins could enter.
There is no footstool, but the sofas and seats around the vast internal conference chamber of President Saddam's Jumhuriyah Palace placed every official on a slightly lower level than the Caliph himself.
Did I sit on President Saddam's throne? Of course I did. There is something dark in all our souls that demands an understanding of evil rather than good, because, I suppose, we are more fascinated by the machinery of cruelty and power than we are by angels.
So I sat on the blue throne and put my hands over the golden armrests and surveyed the darkened chamber in which men of great power sat in terror of the man who used to sit where I was now. Behind the throne is a vast canvas of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem – minus the Jewish settlements, of course – so the third holiest city of Islam hung above the head of the mightiest of Iraqi warriors.
Opposite the President's chair was a different work of Baathist art. The torchlight that illuminated the canvas produced a gasp of astonishment and horrible clarity. It depicted huge missiles, flames burning at their tails, soaring towards a cloud-fringed, sinister heaven, each rocket wreathed in an Iraqi flag and the words "God is Great".
The godly and the ungodly faced each other in this central edifice of Baathist power. The American 3rd Infantry Division, which is camped in the marble halls and the servants' bedrooms, have kept the looters at bay, though I found some of them thieving televisions and computers in the smaller villas of the palace grounds, because, they say, General Tommy Franks will probably set up his proconsulship here. If the Americans can create a compliant government, Ahmed Chalabi and his chums may be running the country from this pseudo-Sumerian complex within a few months.
They will find Saddam Hussein's swimming pool intact, with his vast palm groves and rose gardens. Indeed – how often are brutal men surrounded by beauty – the scent of roses drifts even now through the marble halls and chambers and underground corridors of the Jumhuriyah Palace. There are peonies and nasturtiums and the roses are red and pink and white and crimson and covered in white butterflies, and water, though the 3rd Infantry Division has not yet found the pumps, gurgles from taps into the flower beds.
In the pool-side washing room, piles of books have been tied up for removal – Iraqi poetry and, would you believe, volumes of Islamic jurisprudence – while exercise machines remain to keep the second Salahuddin in moderate physical shape.
His 68th birthday will fall – if he is alive – in just over a week. Over the door are the initials "S H". Walking the miles of corridors, after the two-mile road leading to the palace, through more fields of roses and palms, piles of spent ammunition and the smell of something awful and dead beyond the flower beds, one is struck by the obsessive mixture of glory and banality.
The 15ft chandeliers inspire awe. But the solid gold bathroom fittings, a solid gold loo-roll holder, for God's sake, and a solid gold loo handle, create a kind of cultural aggression. If one was supposed to be intimidated by President Saddam's power, what was one to make of the narrow, unpolished marble staircases or the great marble walls of the ante-chamber with their gold-leaf ceilings, walls into which were cut quotations from the interminably dull speeches and thoughts of "His Excellency President Saddam Hussein". Fascist is the word that springs to mind, but fascism with a bit of Don Corleone thrown in.
In that great conference room would sit the attendant lords, the senior masters of the Baath party, the security apparatchiks upon which the regime depended, desperately attempting to keep awake as their leader embarked on his four-hour explanations of the state of the world and of Iraq's place in it. As he talked of Zionism, they could admire the Al-Aqsa mosque. When he became angry, they could glance at the fiery missiles streaking towards that glowering sky with the clouds hanging oppressively low in the heavens.
His words are even cut into the stonework of the outer palace walls where four 20ft tall busts of the great warrior Hamurabi, in medieval helmet and neck-covering, stare at each other across the courtyard. Hamurabi, however, has a moustache and, amazing to perceive, bears an uncommon likeness to one Saddam Hussein. What on earth, one wondered, would General Franks make of this? Can the government of the "New Iraq" really hold its cabinet meetings here while these four monsters stare at their American-supplied Mercedes?
The gold leaf, the marble, the chandeliers, the sheer height and depth of the chambers take the breath away. In one hall, a Pantheon-like dome soars golden above the walls and when I shouted "Saddam", I listened to the repeated echo of "Saddam" for almost a minute. And I have an absolute conviction that President Saddam did just that. If he could instruct his masons to carve his name upon the walls, surely he wanted to hear it repeated in the heights of his palace.
Outside stand the American Abrams tanks of the 3rd Infantry, their names expressing the banality and power of another nation. On their barrels the crews have nicknamed their armoured behemoths. Atomic Dog. Annihilator. Arsonist. Anthrax. Anguish. Agamemnon. Saddam would have approved.
If Ahmed Chalabi had his way, he would at this very moment be attending a meeting of Iraqi groups in Nasiriyah, the first step on a royal progress to claim his rightful throne. Alas, things have rarely been straightforward for the best-known contender to be the first president of the gleaming new Iraq that is supposed to rise from the rubble left by America's bombs and the depredations of Saddam Hussein.
In the murk of the battlefield, nothing is murkier than the prospects of Chalabi. The meeting has been put off a few days, at least, and just who will take part, and where it will be held, is unclear. For a decade now, ever since he founded the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the most visible and vocal exile Iraqi opposition group, Chalabi has been a divisive figure. Never though has he been as polarising as now, on the eve of what will be either his greatest triumph or greatest failure.
The divisions say as much about the fissures within the Bush administration as about Chalabi himself. History makes its own rules and so it is that an otherwise unremarkable businessman, who has spent four-fifths of his life outside the country of his birth, is a pivotal figure in a struggle whose outcome will shape events in Iraq and far beyond. Chalabi is the spice of a classic Washington dish, of ambition, personal rivalries and bureaucratic quarrels.
But the crossfire between the Pentagon of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Colin Powell's State Department masks competing visions of the future of the entire Middle East and Arab world. For the Pentagon and its neo-conservative outriders, Chalabi is the future. For the State Department, he is a charlatan, the repository of extravagant hopes that will end in tears.
Listen to admirers at the Pentagon, in the Vice-President's office and at their various cheerleading think-tanks around town, and he is democracy's truest believer, a noble exile who will be given a hero's welcome by his countrymen.
Take Reuel Gerecht, once a Middle East analyst at the CIA, which shares the State Department's scepticism on Chalabi. These days Gerecht holds forth as a fellow of that neo-con citadel, the American Enterprise Institute, mocking the "Sunni inclinations" of the State Department and his own former employers at Langley, far happier dealing with the sect that numerically dominates the Arab world, but is a minority in Iraq itself.
Their efforts to derail Chalabi will fail, predicts Gerecht, who claims that for all his Westernised ways, the INC leader is a devout Shia who will communicate with the critically important clergy far better than his detractors believe.
And then there is the Israel factor. Saddam portrayed himself as the most steadfast supporter of the Palestinians, and referred to Israel only as the "Zionist entity". Chalabi by contrast has made visits to Israel and has addressed the influential Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. No wonder many see him as an instrument of the grand design of Wolfowitz and others, to make Iraq a beacon of democracy for the Arab world, at ease not only with its neighbours but with Israel as well.
At the State Department and the CIA, the take on Chalabi is utterly different that the neo-conservatives' hero has pulled off one of the great con-tricks in modern history. Somehow a snake-oil salesman has persuaded naive idealists such as Wolfowitz that he is the Garibaldi of modern Mesopotamia. The truth is diametrically opposite, contends the CIA. It cites an internal Agency report on the post-Saddam governance of Iraq, which concluded that "overwhelming numbers" of Iraqis were sceptical of Chalabi, a man they perceived as a carpetbagger and catspaw of Washington, who lived out Saddam's tyranny in the comfort of exile.
The anti-Chalabi faction points to the anonymous Arab foreign minister who told the Los Angeles Times that "almost no one would be worse either for Iraq or the Arab world", and notes that of the six countries bordering Iraq, four have warned Washington that Chalabi should not be given too much power.
Behind his back, his foes have been crueller still. "Spartacus" he was dubbed, for his endless insistence that if the US sent him back to Iraq at the head of a few thousand fighters, Iraqis would rise up and throw off their oppressor. The supposed king in waiting was in reality an emperor with no clothes, a vain and egotistical man whose support was in Washington, not Iraq.
So who is right who is the real Ahmed Chalabi? The confusion stretches back to the beginning. He was born, depending on which source you consult, in either 1944 or 1945, to a prominent Baghdadi family whose members had held senior government posts almost from the moment the British created the modern Iraq after the First World War. In 1956 or 1958 again depending on your source he left Iraq for the US, where he attended such blue-chip institutions as MIT and the University of Chicago. Chalabi obtained a doctorate in mathematics, devoting his thesis to the Theory of Knots. "Whatever else, the guy is smart," says one close observer, less admiring of his ability to create a new Iraq.
Later he taught at the American University in Beirut, until the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975 and he moved to Amman where as usual his connections were impeccable. With the help of King Hussein's brother, Crown Prince Hassan, he set up Petra Bank, which became the second largest private bank in Jordan. In 1989, the bank collapsed amid allegations of financial impropriety by Chalabi, who was forced to flee to Syria hidden, it is said, in the boot of a car. By 1992 he was convicted in absentia of embezzlement and fraud, and his sentence of 22 years' hard labour stands to this day.
Jordan claims the debacle cost the state $300m. Unsurprisingly, Chalabi sees matters differently, insisting he was framed under pressure from his mortal enemy Saddam whom Jordan, highly dependent on Iraqi oil and Iraqi trade, could not afford to offend. Indeed, Amman was one of Baghdad's few supporters in the 1991 Gulf War.
By then, Chalabi had settled in London and had become a British citizen. There he founded the INC, as a non-sectarian organisation open to Kurds, Shias and any other Iraqis who believed in a democratic future for their country. But if London was his base, Washington was where the real power lay and the true anti-Saddam believers were to be found, and the place where his formidable lobbying skills could be wielded with the greatest effect.
Alas, disaster soon struck. In 1995 Chalabi persuaded the Clinton administration that Saddam could be toppled by an uprising in Kurdish northern Iraq, where the INC had already set up shop. But the revolt was a fiasco. The Iraqi army stayed loyal to Saddam, and his 1,000-strong force, bankrolled by the CIA, was swept from the field. So much for the "Spartacus" solution to Iraq's ills.
Since then the Agency and the State Department have shunned him even though Chalabi did win passage in Congress of the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act, which made "regime change" official US government policy, and allocated funding for the INC out of the State Department budget. A new administration would bring no let-up in his troubles.
In 2001, a government audit discovered irregularities in the INC's use of the money, some of which had gone for paintings to decorate its Washington office, and on gym subscriptions for its staffers.
But with President Bush's "axis of evil" speech of January 2002, Iraq and Ahmed Chalabi were back at the very top of the White House agenda. By late last year, Saddam's days were plainly numbered, and across the administration planning began for the succession. Barely had the first US missile struck southern Baghdad in the early hours of 20 March than he was back in northern Iraq.
Last Sunday, on the express instructions of the Pentagon, Chalabi was ferried to Nasiriyah for his date with destiny. The debate persists, sharper-edged than ever: just who is the real Chalabi?
"He has the potential to be one of the great Arab leaders of the century," Max Singer of the Hudson Institute proclaimed in the neo-conservative National Review last year. For others though, it's the same old Chalabi, "smart but not wise". Another keen student calls him "a chancer, who'd be wonderful fun over dinner, but someone I wouldn't trust further than I could spit backwards". A veteran Middle East specialist remembers the Chalabi of the London years as "rather chubby, immensely affable but at no point did you understand what he really thought". In ruthless but oddly gullible Washington, however, an ability to be all things to all men is often the key to success.
So where will it end? His stock with the Pentagon could not be higher after his prediction scorned by many, but not by Rumsfeld that Saddam could be overthrown by a relatively small force has been vindicated by events. But Colin Powell, with the possibly decisive backing of Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, seems to have put any intended coronation on ice.
Even Rumsfeld acknowledges that Iraq's future is for Iraqis alone to decide, not to be imposed by a candidate pre-anointed by Washington. The confabulations between Iraq's external opposition groups and "free Iraqis" from within will not take place before next week, its prospects not improved by the killing of two prominent Shia clerics in Najaf on Thursday.
At least, for Chalabi, the decades of scheming, cajoling, manoeuvring and dreaming are over. Love him or hate him, his moment has arrived. The new Iraq is up for grabs, and the controversy that surrounds him captures perfectly the dilemmas and disagreements of those embarking on the mountainous task of building a new Iraq. Chalabi too seems to understand that. "This is not really about me," he told The New York Times a few weeks ago, when war was certain. "This is about whether people think that Arabs are wogs who really don't deserve, and can't handle, democracy.
And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. "There has got to be an effective administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work. And that's a coalition responsibility."
The process of getting all this infrastructure to work is usually called "reconstruction." But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business.
Some highlights: The $4.8 million management contract for the port in Umm Qasr has already gone to a US company, Stevedoring Services of America, and the airports are on the auction block. The US Agency for International Development has invited US multinationals to bid on everything from rebuilding roads and bridges to printing textbooks. Most of these contracts are for about a year, but some have options that extend up to four. How long before they meld into long-term contracts for privatized water services, transit systems, roads, schools and phones? When does reconstruction turn into privatization in disguise?
California Republican Congressman Darrel Issa has introduced a bill that would require the Defense Department to build a CDMA cell-phone system in postwar Iraq in order to benefit "US patent holders." As Farhad Manjoo noted in Salon, CDMA is the system used in the United States, not Europe, and was developed by Qualcomm, one of Issa's most generous donors.
And then there's oil. The Bush Administration knows it can't talk openly about selling off Iraq's oil resources to ExxonMobil and Shell. It leaves that to Fadhil Chalabi, a former Iraq petroleum ministry official. "We need to have a huge amount of money coming into the country," Chalabi says. "The only way is to partially privatize the industry."
He is part of a group of Iraqi exiles who have been advising the State Department on how to implement that privatization in such a way that it isn't seen to be coming from the United States. Helpfully, the group held a conference on April 4-5 in London, where it called on Iraq to open itself up to oil multinationals after the war. The Administration has shown its gratitude by promising there will be plenty of posts for Iraqi exiles in the interim government.
Some argue that it's too simplistic to say this war is about oil. They're right. It's about oil, water, roads, trains, phones, ports and drugs. And if this process isn't halted, "free Iraq" will be the most sold country on earth.
It's no surprise that so many multinationals are lunging for Iraq's untapped market. It's not just that the reconstruction will be worth as much as $100 billion; it's also that "free trade" by less violent means hasn't been going that well lately. More and more developing countries are rejecting privatization, while the Free Trade Area of the Americas, Bush's top trade priority, is wildly unpopular across Latin America. World Trade Organization talks on intellectual property, agriculture and services have all bogged down amid accusations that America and Europe have yet to make good on past promises.
So what is a recessionary, growth-addicted superpower to do? How about upgrading Free Trade Lite, which wrestles market access through backroom bullying, to Free Trade Supercharged, which seizes new markets on the battlefields of pre-emptive wars? After all, negotiations with sovereign nations can be hard. Far easier to just tear up the country, occupy it, then rebuild it the way you want. Bush hasn't abandoned free trade, as some have claimed, he just has a new doctrine: "Bomb before you buy."
It goes further than one unlucky country. Investors are openly predicting that once privatization of Iraq takes root, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will be forced to compete by privatizing their oil. "In Iran, it would just catch like wildfire," S. Rob Sobhani, an energy consultant, told the Wall Street Journal. Soon, America may have bombed its way into a whole new free-trade zone.
So far, the press debate over the reconstruction of Iraq has focused on fair play: It is "exceptionally maladroit," in the words of the European Union's Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, for the United States to keep all the juicy contracts for itself. It has to learn to share: ExxonMobil should invite France's TotalFinaElf to the most lucrative oilfields; Bechtel should give Britain's Thames Water a shot at the sewer contracts.
But while Patten may find US unilateralism galling and Tony Blair may be calling for UN oversight, on this matter it's beside the point. Who cares which multinationals get the best deals in Iraq's post-Saddam, pre-democracy liquidation sale? What does it matter if the privatizing is done unilaterally by Washington or multilaterally by the United States, Europe, Russia and China?
Entirely absent from this debate are the Iraqi people, who might--who knows?--want to hold on to a few of their assets. Iraq will be owed massive reparations after the bombing stops, but without any real democratic process, what is being planned is not reparations, reconstruction or rehabilitation. It is robbery: mass theft disguised as charity; privatization without representation.
A people, starved and sickened by sanctions, then pulverized by war, is going to emerge from this trauma to find that their country has been sold out from under them. They will also discover that their newfound "freedom"--for which so many of their loved ones perished--comes pre-shackled with irreversible economic decisions that were made in boardrooms while the bombs were still falling.
They will then be told to vote for their new leaders, and welcomed to the wonderful world of democracy.
12 April 2003
Baghdad is burning. You could count 16 columns of smoke rising over the city yesterday afternoon. At the beginning, there was the Ministry of Trade. I watched the looters throw petrol through the smashed windows of the ground floor and the fire burst from them within two seconds.
Then there was a clutch of offices at the bottom of the Jumhuriyah Bridge, which emitted clouds of black, sulphurous smoke. By mid- afternoon, I was standing outside the Central Bank of Iraq as each window flamed like a candle, a mile-long curtain of ash and burning papers drifting over the Tigris.
As the pickings got smaller, the looters grew tired and – the history of Baghdad insists that anarchy takes this form – the symbols of government power were cremated. The Americans talked of a "new posture" but did nothing. They pushed armoured patrols through the east of the city, Abrams tanks and Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles, but their soldiers did no more than wave at the arsonists. I found a woman weeping beside her husband in the old Arab market. "We are destroying what we now have for ourselves," she said to him. "We are destroying our own future."
The flames spread. By mid-afternoon, the al-Sadeer hotel was burning – the army of child thieves sent into the building had already stolen the bed-linen and the mattresses and the beds and tables and even the reception desk and its massof iron keys. Then from the towering Ministry of Industry, came trails of black smoke. Every central street was strewn with papers, discarded furniture, stolen, wrecked cars and the contents of the small shops whose owners had not invested in armoured doors.
When I tried to reach the old Saddam hospital opposite the Ministry of Defence, American rifle-fire was hissing through the trees opposite the administrative block; they were, two nurses trying to flee the building said, shooting at any moving car because they believed Iraqi soldiers were hiding there. I saw none.
At last, the banks were looted. The Iraqi dinar has collapsed and no one had bothered to bash their way into the banks before.
But in the morning, I saw a mob storming the Rafidain Bank near the Baghdad governorate, dragging a massive iron safe to the door and crow-barring it open. Given the worth of the dinar, they would have done better to leave the cash inside and steal the safe.
And so it was by early evening that Baghdad was a place of gunfire as well as smoke. Stall-owners turned up with guns to protect their property because the Americans obviously declined to do so. Two looters were wounded.
Then mobs broke into the Kindi hospital. By the time I reached the compound – where only five days ago lives were being saved – armed men were at the gates. Most were in blue medical gowns, although they did not look to me to be doctors. They appeared to be Shia Muslims and this raised an immediate question. Was the Shia population of Baghdad trying – if only by protecting the insistutions of the place – to take over from the Sunnis?
At the Kindi hospital, they ordered journalists away from the premises but, briefly obtaining access to the emergency ward, I found a Shia Muslim cleric inside, a man who had studied in southern Lebanon, lecturing the gunmen on the need to restore order in the city. Of course, that was the Americans' job. But they weren't doing it.
After the West German and Slovak embassies and the Unicef offices, it was the turn of the French cultural centre to be looted.
I briefly mentioned the extent of the anarchy to a US Marine officer who promised to tell his colonel about it. When I saw him later, he said he'd seen the colonel – but hadn't had time to mention the looting and burning.
Just a week ago, it was the Iraqi army's oil fires that covered the city in darkness. Now it is the newly "liberated" Iraqi people who are cloaking their city in ash.
12 April 2003
A British peace activist was pronounced brain-dead yesterday after being shot in the head by an Israeli army sniper.
Tom Hurndall, 21, from London, was shot while trying to rescue Palestinian children from a street where they were pinned down by Israeli gunfire.
He is the third peace activist to be killed or seriously injured in the occupied territories in the past month.
His fellow activists were beginning to wonder aloud last night if they are a target of the Israeli army. Mr Hurndall was declared brain-dead on arrival at a Palestinian hospital in Rafah but there were some reports last night that his condition might be improving.
Mr Hurndall came to the occupied territories after leaving Baghdad, where he had travelled as a human shield before the start of the war in Iraq. His group of activists was in a refugee camp in Rafah near the Egyptian border, where Israeli soldiers often demolish Palestinian homes because they say militants use them as cover from which to fire.
The civilian occupants of the houses are left homeless.
Mr Hurndall's group intended to stay the night in a tent in a street where an Israeli tank frequently fires into civilian houses, according to Raphael Cohen, another British activist who was there when Mr Hurndall was shot. The Independent has witnessed Israeli tanks firing on civilian houses in Rafah when there were no militants in the area.
When the activists reached the street, Mr Cohen said, they found it already under fire and too dangerous to enter.
The gunfire was coming from one of the Israeli army watchtowers on the Egyptian border, which surround much of Rafah. A group of about 20 Palestinian children – the oldest was about 10, according to Mr Cohen, the rest younger – were trapped by gunfire in the street. Mr Hurndall decided to go into the street with two other activists to bring the children out of the line of fire, believing they were less likely to be fired on because they were foreigners.
"Tom went and brought one boy back with him," said Mr Cohen by telephone from Rafah. "But he saw two girls were still stuck there. He went back out for them and immediately he was hit in the head." Like other peace campaigners, Mr Hurndall was wearing brightly coloured overalls so that he could be easily identified as an activist.
"The Israeli army was very aware of our presence in the area,'' said Mr Cohen.
He said the activists, who have been sleeping in Palestinian houses that have been coming under fire, had hung banners around the area saying they were there. Mr Cohen said Israeli soldiers had "shot the banners to shreds". The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), of which Mr Hurndall was a member, has been heavily criticised in Israel as one-sided.
It is pro-Palestinian but the members are unarmed non-combatants.
The shooting of Mr Hurndall comes after Rachel Corrie, an American, became the first ISM activist to be killed when she was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Rafah last month. The Israeli army claimed that it was an accident and said that the driver of the bulldozer did not see her.
Brian Avery, another American activist, was seriously wounded last week when he was hit in the face by machine-gun fire from an Israeli armoured personnel carrier in the West Bank city of Jenin.
The Israeli army claimed its soldiers were firing at militants – the activists who were with Mr Avery said there were no militants in the area – and that the soldiers did not see Mr Avery. .
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