The Iraqi quagmire

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

The new U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer (left), with his predecessor Jay Garner at Baghdad's airport on May 12. - KEVIN COOMBS/REUTERS

The new U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer (left), with his predecessor Jay Garner at Baghdad's airport on May 12. - KEVIN COOMBS/REUTERS

Iraq teeters on the brink of chaos and a potential humanitarian catastrophe. The U.S. and the U.K., torn by indecision, discover that occupation brings responsibilities that are neither easily fulfilled nor easily evaded.

THE United States made one false start and precipitated a high-level resignation from ardent ally Tony Blair's Cabinet. Clare Short, the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for International Development, quit in a huff when it emerged that her Prime Minister had reneged on early promises that a central role would be reserved for the United Nations in Iraq's reconstruction. The first draft of the resolution that the U.S. and the U.K. jointly presented to the U.N. Security Council reserved all rights to determine the future of Iraq for the two invading countries. It called for the lifting of the sanctions imposed on the country since 1990 and sought to indemnify all future Iraqi oil sales against pre-war commercial claims.

France, Russia and China remain opposed to a lifting of sanctions until a final certification is received that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction. Among the rotating members of the Security Council, Germany too was believed to share this position. A round of diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited Moscow and Berlin, had a limited degree of success. Russian President Vladimir Putin was cordial, but insistent that the U.N. needed fully to be in the post-war picture. He did suggest though, in line with a French proposal, that sanctions could be "suspended" rather than lifted. Germany endorsed the U.S. effort to lift sanctions, but is likely to reserve its final decision until consultations with France and Russia are concluded.

By mid-May, a second draft resolution was circulated, again incorporating language about the "lifting" of sanctions. In a concession to the Security Council holdouts, the U.S. put in new clauses about the role that a U.N. coordinator in Iraq could potentially play. Conspicuously absent was any reference to a U.N. role in determining the political future of Iraq. Under the terms of the new draft, the U.S. and the U.K. would be authorised to run Iraq for a year, with automatic extensions if needed. And the reconstruction fund to be created out of Iraqi oil sales would be controlled exclusively by the occupying powers.

Around the time it was putting its revised draft into play, the U.S. also discretely decided that it would indefinitely postpone the plan to form a national assembly and an interim Iraqi government. The decision was announced at a meeting in Baghdad summoned by L. Paul Bremer, the newly appointed civilian administrator in Iraq. It effectively reversed the announcement made on May 5 by the retired U.S. Army general Jay Garner, who Bremer subsequently replaced, to have a functioning Iraqi administration in place by the end of May.

Garner's rush to hand matters over to the Iraqis was not born out of any democratic impulse. In just three weeks at the helm, he had seen the situation in the country virtually disintegrate. The crisis seemingly induced a rapid flight from reality. Faced with a massive shortage of petrol in a country with among the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Garner blamed the sanctions in force against Iraq. He was probably unaware that there are no sanctions applicable on the production of oil for domestic sales, or perhaps chose to overlook that fact in his effort to score a propaganda point off the U.N. But as he set about the job of restoring oil production in the war-devastated country, Garner could have been forgiven a sense of desperation. The legacy of two wars of destruction and a decade of sanctions and "contract holds" would be formidable even for the Iraqi people, leave alone the viceroy of an occupying imperial power with little cultural sensitivity to or familiarity with the country.

On May 11, the media reported Garner's recall by the U.S. government. Also given her marching orders was Barbara Bodine, the career diplomat who had been tasked with governing Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq. Like Garner, Bodine proved remarkably quick with her alibi, again reflecting a failure or an unwillingness to comprehend the damage that had been inflicted on Iraq by a decade of U.S. malevolence. "A lot of what was dysfunctional about Baghdad predates the war," The Washington Post quoted her as saying.

Perhaps to avoid public embarrassment, Garner was on hand to receive Bremer on arrival in Baghdad. He described Iraq's reconstruction as a long-term commitment and refuted media reports that he would soon be leaving. His stay in Baghdad is now expected to be only as long as necessary for the U.S. administration to avoid a massive loss of face.

THE International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in its mid-May bulletin, spoke of the unsettled security situation as a continuing worry. The health infrastructure of Iraq was partly functional, with around half the hospital beds being occupied. Just over two-thirds of healthcare professionals had returned to work, though cleaning staff remained absent. Electricity output, it warned, had not improved: "Only 2,200 megawatts are generated nationwide out of the 10,000 MW needed." This was posing a serious public health risk with water availability and sewage processing being severely impaired. The risk will rise with the advent of summer, warned the ICRC.

On May 7, an official media briefing of the World Health Organisation (WHO) spoke of "a significant increase in the number of cases of diarrhoeal diseases, gastroenteritis and dehydration" in Iraq's second major city of Basra. These included seven cases of "clinically confirmed cholera... mainly among very young children". From a survey of a paediatric hospital in the Basra area, the WHO found that of the 200 outpatients arriving every day, 90 per cent were being treated for diarrhoea. Apart from cholera, other waterborne diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis too had shown an alarming upsurge. The following day came a grim prognosis from the WHO: "Due to the current security situation and difficulties experienced in restoring safe water supplies to the population, a larger cholera epidemic is predicted."

Official estimates by their very nature tend towards understatement. But local health officials have been more willing to talk about the dimensions of the problem. "There is a strong suspicion of cholera," the news agency AFP quoted an Iraqi doctor saying in a story datelined Basra on May 8, "From this hospital, we have reported 16 cases of cholera, confirmed by Iraqi laboratories. The situation is regarded as epidemic." The regional health director based in Basra also had a rather dismal assessment. Typically, he said, for every one case that comes to light, there would be "100 cases hidden" of diseases like cholera. The level of preparedness to deal with the problem was abysmal. Facilities to perform medical tests were lacking, either missing for years or stolen in the chaos that followed "liberation". And whatever treatment was possible would remain superficial since there was no early cure discernible for the underlying cause - the breakdown of the city's water supply and sewage system in the war of destruction waged by the U.S.

The May 14 bulletin of WHO indicated little improvement. It said: "WHO is extremely concerned about the current high levels of diarrhoeal disease which are being reported from across Iraq... We have detailed reports of sharp increases in diarrhoeal cases from Baghdad and Mosul, as well as anecdotal reports from elsewhere. WHO believes that the lack of access to clean, safe water and the problems with security combine to produce a particularly dangerous situation in which there could be a large number of cases of diarrhoeal diseases - including, but not limited to, cholera."

Just days earlier, WHO had, in a rather more upbeat frame of mind, proposed a "simple but ambitious plan" calling for a modest monthly budget of $20 million, to "jump start" Iraq's health delivery system. The idea behind the plan was to "build on existing Iraqi health facilities and their highly committed staff". The budget was expected to provide for basic cleaning and maintenance of facilities, food for hospital inmates and a modest allowance for healthcare professionals. "Iraq had an advanced health system in 1990," the WHO observed, and though "it deteriorated over the next 10 years, it was still serving the Iraqi people at the beginning of this year."

As the WHO extolled the "bravery" and commitment of Iraq's health professionals, U.S.-led occupation forces were putting their own agenda into play. A middle-level official of the old regime was appointed head of the Health Ministry, aggravating bruised sensitivities and inducing healthcare professionals to abandon their posts and gather in large numbers in street protests.

In a situation of acute human vulnerability, the occupying forces in Iraq are torn by indecision. The U.S. walked into the war on the smug and self-serving assumption that an invasion would be seen as liberation. It is now discovering that occupation brings responsibilities that are neither easily fulfilled nor easily evaded. By early-May, teams from the highly-respected international activist group of healthcare professionals, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), were sharply criticising the U.S. for its dereliction. "Urgent medical needs are not being addressed and disorganisation is posing a threat to the health of people in the country," said the Nobel Prize winning group. "MSF again demands that the U.S.-led coalition, as the occupying power, immediately fulfil its obligation to provide for the medical needs of the Iraqi people which it has thus far not done."

This represented a sharp rebuke from an organisation that had concluded, just a few days earlier, that the situation in Iraq, though dire, did not constitute a "major humanitarian catastrophe". There were "real needs" in Iraq, like "patients with chronic diseases who cannot get their medicines", "a lack of oxygen supplies and anaesthetic drugs", and the absence of facilities to provide "secondary surgery" to people who had suffered "war injuries". But if the "administrative chaos" were to be addressed and medical professionals assured of a basic subsistence wage, Iraq would be "able to cope", concluded the MSF, since "Iraqi doctors are skilled and the medical system is relatively advanced".

The U.S. clearly cannot deploy lack of forewarning as an alibi for its failure in Iraq. In December 2002, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan authorised a study by his office of the possible humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq. Although secret, members of the Security Council must certainly have had access to the report well before it was leaked to the media in January. Some of the assumptions on which the U.N. made its projections have been fully borne out. For example, it forecast that as a consequence of war, "the electricity network will be seriously degraded" and that the "damage to the electricity network will also result in collateral reductions in capacity in all sectors, particularly water and sanitation as well as health".

WERE all the humanitarian difficulties part of the unintended consequences of the war or were they programmed outcomes? It appears that the best hypothesis, fitting all available facts, would be that the U.S. deliberately targeted the civilian infrastructure of Iraq to make the war aims more easily attainable. But unlike in 1991, when it could afford to just wreck a whole country and walk away from the mess, this time around it is committed to fostering a whole new political order in Iraq. It is suddenly faced with the realisation - which should have been evident from the beginning to all but the meanest intelligence - that the military strategies which made victory that much easier, are making the task of winning the peace that much more difficult.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Houses of Congress were discussing not the budget they needed to commit for reconstruction in Iraq, but the magnitude of the tax cut to be handed out to the rich. President George W. Bush has major stakes in pushing through a tax cut of $726 billion over ten years, despite the burgeoning budget deficit, the difficulties of sustaining a huge external payments gap in the context of a weakening dollar, the imminent retirement of the post-Second World War "baby boom" generation and the costs of war and reconstruction in Iraq. The House of Representatives went along with much of the President's wish list, but chose to curtail the magnitude of the tax cuts to $550 billion. The Senate, after a furious debate, was split down the middle over the tax cut, and Vice-President Dick Cheney - Bush's ideological mentor - had to cast his decisive vote to settle the issue. The tax cut for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1, could well be the third largest in history, coming on top of the largest ever, which was made law two years ago.

Clearly, neither the U.S. government, nor the legislature, nor the tax-payer is the least interested in bearing a part of the burden of rebuilding the war-ravaged country. Beyond the flights of fancy over a "self-financing Marshall Plan for Iraq", sober calculations showed that oil revenues - even after emergency rehabilitation measures - will fall far short of the $40 billion that reconstruction will cost over the next two years. In 2002, Iraq earned $13 billion from oil sales through U.N. channels. But U.N. experts have been warning for years that the industry has been badly run down because arbitrary holds on contracts by the U.S. have deprived it of essential replacements and maintenance. The damage inflicted by the war and the collapse of state and civil society in Iraq now compounds the situation. As economist William Nordhaus warned last November, after analysing all options for funding Iraq's reconstruction, if the U.S. taxpayers were to "decline to pay the bills for ensuring the long-term health of Iraq", the outcome of the war would be "mountains of rubble and mobs of angry people".

In just over a month since the occupation of Baghdad, U.S. forces were under instructions to venture out of their safely fortified positions as infrequently as possible. And it was not merely in Iraq that resentments were boiling over, as the deadly bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco proved. Bush's strategy of declaring an early victory and getting back very quickly to his basic business of cutting taxes, is rapidly unravelling.

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