Iraq: March 28, 2005

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Terrorism isnt the biggest problem in Iraq, nor is political instability, or even the high crime rate. All of those are easy to solve compared to the biggest, and most persistent problem; corruption. Lack of fair and efficient government has been a problem in this region for thousands of years. When the officials were honest and efficient, mighty empires flourished. But most of the time, the bureaucrats are on the take, and everyone suffered. Its been going on for so long that its been accepted as the way things are. But one of the unexpected side effects of global communications (especially email and satellite news) is that most Iraqis now know that it doesnt have to be that way. To reinforce these heretical views, visitors, or migrants, to these distant lands of honest government, come back and tell wondrous tales of cops who are not crooks, and politicians going to jail for taking bribes. 

But the current reality in Iraq is that of thieves getting back into power. The worst of the lot are the Sunni Arabs, because they have had the most access to government jobs, and public money, for so long. This has been going on since the 16th century, when the Sunni Turks conquered the area, and tossed out the Shia Iranians. The Turks let the Sunni Arabs run the place. As long as the locals remained reasonably quiet, and a sufficient amount of taxes went back to Constantinople each year, the Sunni Arab officials could do as they pleased. And they mainly pleased to steal from anyone not strong enough to resist. This included other Sunni Arabs, but mostly it meant sticking it to the Shia Arabs, Kurds, Jews and Christian Arabs. There used to be a lot of Jews and Christian Arabs in the area, but most of the Christians, and nearly all the Jews, have since emigrated to more hospitable lands (Europe, North America and Israel), along with a lot of Shia Arabs and Kurds. 

When Saddam and his Baath Party were overthrown in 2003, it quickly became apparent that there were not enough trained (and experienced) Shia Arab and Kurdish bureaucrats to run the whole country. So Sunni Arab officials were brought back in. And then the thieving began. Billions of dollars went missing. There were Shia Arab and Kurdish thieves as well, but they were not as experienced, or as ruthless, as the Sunni Arab officials. Case in point is the use of Sunni Arab gangs as hit men, to eliminate honest officials who are trying to crack down on corruption. 

Another problem is family relationships. Family ties are important in Iraq, and the families tend to be large and expansive. A Sunni Arab police commander might easily have a cousin working for a terrorist group, and another whos a banker in Europe or Egypt. The police commander can use these connections to get a corruption investigator murdered, and to get stolen money out of the country and laundered in a foreign bank. There are at least a few thousand Sunni Arabs involved in corruption in a big way (many more in smaller ways), and several billion dollars, at least, that have been stolen so far. Do the math. How do you think people are paying for all those new luxury cars and mansions? The crooks are smart. They spread the money around in the family. That buys protection, and places to hide when the going gets very rough.

Much more money has probably just been lost track off during the chaos of the last two years. But thats an easy problem to fix. More difficult is curing people of the notion that they can use bribes and murder to deal with anyone trying to stop the stealing. Worse yet, anyone not in the family, and that includes just about everyone else in a country of 26 million, is considered a potential victim. And everyone else knows it. Its hard to run an efficient business when, at any moment, some new bureaucrat can come in and demand a large payoff for the privilege of staying in business. Happens all the time, and Iraqis are tired of it. 

But the ancient Babylonian writing on the wall (Mene mene tekel upharshin, or you have weighed in the balance and found wanting) is being seen again. As long as the coalition is around, the clean government crowd has a fighting chance of putting the crooks out of business, or at least on the defensive. For example, the coalition gangbusters effort has developed a lot of evidence of corrupt officials working with the anti-government terrorists. Now that Iraqis have elected a parliament, and are about to make some of those people government ministers, expect to see headlines about which one got caught with his hand in the till. Coalition criminal investigators are a corrupt Iraqis worst nightmare. You cant bribe them (this is attempted regularly), and they are hard to kill. Some American civilian workers are thought to have been murdered for complaining about corrupt officials, and the heat is on to find the killers, and who paid for the hit. Corrupt elected officials will make a big issue of curbing the ability of coalition forces to investigate crimes and corruption. All in the name of national sovereignty, of course, and making it easier to steal and get away with it.

Iraqi media is another target of corrupt officials, and terrorists as well. Journalists reporting on corruption and terrorism often get killed by those they are reporting on. But the world wide web, and satellite television shows make it impossible to stop the accusations from getting reported. Email not only brings in news of how people can live without corruption and terrorism, it also allows the victims to get word out, quietly and without attracting the attention of hit squads serving terrorism and bad government. 

While many Iraqis are willing to pay any price for peace and quiet, and many others are willing to accept intimidation, an increasing number are willing to put their lives on the line for clean government. People know that this will eventually bring rule of law and safety. But first, its a fight to the death between groups of Iraqis who have very different views of Iraqs future. A happy ending is not assured. If enough Iraqis do not step up for honest government, the country will end up with another Saddam.


 

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