Iraq: Payroll Politics


August 14,2008:  U.S. military commanders and diplomats quickly learn that Iraqis possess a unique culture, as is customary wherever you go in the world. For example, the Iraqis are more comfortable with the "winner take all" form of politics and government. They are still getting used to this democracy business. It's not that the Iraqis are unfamiliar with democracy. Until fifty years ago, Iraq had a parliament for two decades. It was a constitutional monarchy, but the parliament had power. The inability of that parliament to use its power effectively was one of the things that led to the military coup, which eventually got Saddam Hussein into power, and brought Iraq a quarter century of war and despotism.

Few Iraqis remember the old parliament, which is too bad, as the current legislators are making the same mistakes. The corruption is so pervasive that spending legislation is deadlocked. That's because of the disputes over who will steal what. There are also anti-corruption factions, but they are not the most powerful players. The stalemate over spending (and who controls what chunk of the $50 billion or so of unspent oil money) is also holding up resolution over more mundane matters, like voting rules for upcoming elections and autonomy for the Kurds. Then there is the SOFA (status-of-forces agreement), for what foreign troops can, and cannot, do. The Iraqi politicians would like the American troops out, but not until it's very certain that Iraqi security forces can handle any unruly portions of the population.  

Many Iraqis are eager to ditch the old traditions, and adopt more effective ones. The push for clean government is what got al Qaeda going in the first place. Many Iraqis were willing to go along with a religious dictatorship if that meant an end to all the stealing and double-dealing. But the Islamic radicals also justified the slaughter of Moslem civilians and the imposition of severe lifestyle rules, and this has destroyed most al Qaedas support. Now Iraqis yearn for the kind of government they have heard about (especially from friends or kin who have migrated) in Europe and North America. But getting from here to there is proving exceedingly difficult. There is all that oil money, and all those guys who want to go old school on it.

Down south, in the land of Shia holy places and a population that is nearly all Shia, popular religious leader Moktada al Sadr is getting out of the militia business. Not that he had much choice, since the Iraqi army marched in earlier this year and demonstrated that their American training and tactics were far superior to the bravado and enthusiasm of Sadr's gunmen. Most of these guys have either hidden their weapons, been forcibly disarmed, fled the country or been killed. So Sadr has ordered the rest to put away their Mahdi Army uniforms and get rid of their AK-47s and RPGs. Only a few of them will be selected for an elite fighting force (that knows how to avoid getting disarmed by the army or police). Everyone else will devote themselves to social welfare programs. There is one problem with this plan, there is now no way to meet the payroll. When the Sadr militiamen strolled freely through Shia towns and neighborhoods, they collected a special tax from merchants and anyone who seemed to have a lot of money. This cash went to provide weekly pay for the militiamen. These guys have now lost their guns, their power and their money. Sadr wants them to run soup kitchens and clinics. This is not going to work well.

While the Iraqi Army is now competent enough to defeat militias and al Qaeda in combat, Iraqi commanders don't have one weapon their U.S. counterparts do; cash. Early on, American unit commanders, and their superiors, realized that if there was cash available for battalion or brigade commanders to give out for local reconstruction projects, it was much easier to gain the trust and cooperation of locals. Iraqi commanders who have received this kind of cash, have too often stolen most of it. Same thing often happens with military supplies. Even some of the food and clothing for their troops will often find itself diverted to the black market, so the commander can get himself a little cash bonus (for being the boss). There are other opportunities for Iraqi battalion or brigade commanders. There's always loot, although their U.S. trainers have warned about how this angers civilians and makes life more dangerous for the looters. But it's a tradition that has proved difficult, although not impossible, to change. It's really come down to a battle between Old Iraq and New Iraq. It's a battle that is little reported on, but it's the one that will decide the future of the country.

The Iranian terrorist network inside Iraq has been cracked open, since the capture of so many members and documents has led to the rolling up of most of the cells that were making attacks on Iraqi and American troops. The Iranians have not given up this secret war in Iraq, but it has become much more difficult for them to carry on. This year has been a disaster for the Iranians, with hundreds of their agents killed or captured.

Up north, al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists are making their last stand in Diyala province. The terrorists are cornered on the well guarded border between Arab and Kurdish Iraq. Kurdish troops have been active in this campaign, because the Kurds want to extend their borders south to incorporate the city of Kirkuk (and nearby oil fields). This is a contentious issue in the parliament, but the Kurds are content to crush the Sunni Arab radicals first, and sort out the real estate claims later. The remaining Sunni Arab terrorists are a nasty bunch, although many of the smarter ones have fled the country, and some are showing up in Afghanistan.


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