Friday, July 22, 2005


Although many have tried to draw parallels between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam I have always resisted doing that. Each situation is unique and trying to describe it just referencing previous events isn’t usually helpful. Nevertheless, there are times when there are some rather eary parrallels. A couple recent articles certainly bring some parellels to the fore. Take this for example.

When Paul Bremer, the American pro consul in Baghdad until June last year, arrived in Iraq soon after the official end of hostilities, there was $6bn left over from the UN Oil for Food Programme, as well as sequestered and frozen assets, and at least $10bn from resumed Iraqi oil exports. Under Security Council Resolution 1483, passed on May 22 2003, all these funds were transferred into a new account held at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, called the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), and intended to be spent by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) "in a transparent manner ... for the benefit of the Iraqi people".

The US Congress also voted to spend $18.4bn of US taxpayers' money on the redevelopment of Iraq. By June 28 last year, however, when Bremer left Baghdad two days early to avoid possible attack on the way to the airport, his CPA had spent up to $20bn of Iraqi money, compared with $300m of US funds. The "reconstruction" of Iraq is the largest American-led occupation programme since the Marshall Plan - but the US government funded the Marshall Plan. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer have made sure that the reconstruction of Iraq is paid for by the "liberated" country, by the Iraqis themselves.

The CPA maintained one fund of nearly $600m cash for which there is no paperwork: $200m of it was kept in a room in one of Saddam's former palaces. The US soldier in charge used to keep the key to the room in his backpack, which he left on his desk when he popped out for lunch. Again, this is Iraqi money, not US funds.

The auditors found that the CPA didn't keep accounts of the hundreds of millions of dollars of cash in its vault, had awarded contracts worth billions of dollars to American firms without tender, and had no idea what was happening to the money from the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), which was being spent by the interim Iraqi government ministries.

This lack of transparency has led to allegations of corruption. An Iraqi hospital administrator told me that when he came to sign a contract, the American army officer representing the CPA had crossed out the original price and doubled it. The Iraqi protested that the original price was enough. The American officer explained that the increase (more than $1m) was his retirement package.

When the Iraqi Governing Council asked Bremer why a contract to repair the Samarah cement factory was costing $60m rather than the agreed $20m, the American representative reportedly told them that they should be grateful the coalition had saved them from Saddam. Iraqis who were close to the Americans, had access to the Green Zone or held prominent posts in the new government ministries were also in a position personally to benefit enormously. Iraqi businessmen complain endlessly that they had to offer substantial bribes to Iraqi middlemen just to be able to bid for CPA contracts. Iraqi ministers' relatives got top jobs and fat contracts.

The agents were mostly Americans in Iraq on short-term contracts. One agent's account balance was "overstated by $2,825,755, and the error went undetected". Another agent was given $25m cash for which Bremer's office "acknowledged not having any supporting documentation". Of more than $23m given to another agent, there are only records for $6,306,836 paid to contractors.

Many of the American agents submitted their paperwork only hours before they headed to the airport. Two left Iraq without accounting for $750,000 each, which has never been found. CPA head office cleared several agents' balances of between $250,000 and $12m without any receipts. One agent who did submit receipts, on being told that he still owed $1,878,870, turned up three days later with exactly that amount. The auditors thought that "this suggests that the agent had a reserve of cash", pointing out that if his original figures had been correct, he would have accounted to the CPA for approximately $3.8m more than he had been given in the first place, which "suggests that the receipt documents provided to the DFI account manager were unreliable".

So where did the money go? You can't see it in Hillah. The schools, hospitals, water supply and electricity, all of which were supposed to benefit from these funds, are in ruins. The inescapable conclusion is that many of the American paying agents grabbed large bundles of cash for themselves and made sweet deals with their Iraqi contacts.

In the Vietnam War the U.S. was supporting a regime that was notoriously corrupt. Aide intended to win “hearts and minds” never did because it was often stolen before it could reach its intended beneficiaries. As a result, the disgust with this corruption helped fuel an insurgency that even 500,000 U.S. soldiers could never suppress.

One would think that the U.S. would have learned from this and would be sure not to tolerate this corruption and indifference to suffering again. I, for one, honestly believed they would. Apparently not though. The corruption in Iraq seems to be completely out of control and even the U.S. advisers, soldiers, and contractors seem to be partaking in it. And unfortunately for the U.S. there is no way to hide this from the Iraqi people. Not only do they often see the theft, they also see that despite the claims of billions being spent on their behalf there doesn’t seem to be any actual improvement in their daily lives. This does not bode well for the U.S. being any more successful in its occupation of Iraq than it was in its occupation of Vietnam.

Here is another similarity that while not yet as clear is even more disturbing:

ABOUT 25,000 people have been killed and 42,000 injured in Iraq by coalition forces, insurgents and criminal gangs since the start of the war in March 2003, according to an independent study published yesterday.

The figure is dramatically lower than the hotly contested previous estimate published in the Lancet medical journal last year, which asserted that as many as 100,000 had died.
the Iraq Body Count group, which published the new study, claims that it has been able to come up with a figure by analysing media reports.

The group claims that the largest proportion of the death toll - 37 per cent, or about 9,250 people - was inflicted by coalition forces. It blamed a further 36 per cent - about 9,000 deaths - on criminal gangs, and just 9.5 per cent, or about 2,375 deaths, on the actions of insurgents.

The U.S. effort in Vietnam became so infamous because as it became clear to them that they couldn’t win over the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese they adopted extremely brutal scorched earth policies. For example, in “Operation Phoenix” they tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants in an attempt to stamp out a rural insurgency. Once it became apparent that wasn’t succeeding in intimidating the Vietnamese they carried out an unprecedented bombing campaign. They dropped four times as many bombs on Vietnam, a small country, as were dropped on all countries during World War II. As one U.S. general put it they would bomb the country back into the Stone Age. Another U.S. officer went further and said they would keep bombing the place until there weren’t two bricks left stuck together in the whole country. This never did work but it was extremely brutal and led to untold death and suffering.

In Iraq we have not seen that - yet. But it is clear there is movement in that direction. For example, virtually the entire city of Falluja was razed (with God knows how many deaths not counted in the media reports that served as the basis for the numbers above). Clearly the U.S. was trying to make an example of what happens anywhere where it is clear the entire population opposes it. In effect they are saying: “Be our friend and we will give you things [see above for what a lie that is], be our enemy and we will do to you what we did to Falluja”. If/when the it becomes clear to the occupiers that the population has turned irretrievably against them you can expect to see many more parallels between the tactics used in Vietnam and the tactics that are employed in Iraq. Then even the numbers given by the “Lancent” will seem tame.

Of course, don’t expect to see this on T.V. or even read that much about it in the papers. There is one very central lesson that the U.S. military did learn from Vietnam. Keep a very, very short leash on the media and allow as little independent media coverage of the war as possible. Anyone who has sat through the television coverage of the Vietnam War and the Iraq war knows there is absolutely no parallel there.


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