Even before the spectacular presidential election campaign became a national
obsession, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression crowded out
other news, coverage of the Iraq War had dwindled to next to nothing. National
newspapers had long since discontinued their daily feasts of multiple - usually
front page - reports on the country, replacing them with meager meals of mostly
summary stories buried inside the paper. On broadcast and cable TV channels,
where violence in Iraq had once been the nightly lead, whole news cycles went
by without a mention of the war.
The tone of the coverage also changed. The powerful reports of desperate
battles and miserable Iraqis disappeared. There are still occasional stories
about high-profile bombings or military campaigns in obscure places, but the
bulk of the news is about
quiescence in old hot spots, political maneuvering by Iraqi factions, and the
newly emerging routines of ordinary life.
A typical "return to normal life" piece appeared October 11 in the New York
Times under the headline, "Schools Open, and the First Test is Iraqi Safety."
Featured was a Baghdad schoolteacher welcoming her students by assuring them
that "security has returned to Baghdad, city of peace".
Even as his report began, though, Times reporter Sam Dagher hedged the "return
to normal" theme. Here was his first paragraph in full:
On the first
day of school, 10-year-old Basma Osama looked uneasy standing in formation
under an already stifling morning sun. She and dozens of schoolmates listened
to a teacher's pep talk - probably a necessary one, given the barren and
This glimpse of the degraded
conditions at one Baghdad public school, amplified in the body of Dagher's
article by other examples, is symptomatic of the larger reality in Iraq. In a
sense, the (often exaggerated) decline in violence in that country has allowed
foreign reporters to move around enough to report on the real conditions facing
Iraqis, and so should have provided US readers with a far fuller picture of the
devastation George Bush's war wrought.
In reality, though, since there are far fewer foreign reporters moving around a
quieter Iraq, far less news is coming out of that wrecked land. The major
newspapers and networks have drastically reduced their staffs there and - with
a relative trickle of exceptions like Dagher's fine report - what's left is
often little more than a collection of pronouncements from the US military, or
Iraqi and American political leaders in Baghdad and Washington, framing the
American public's image of the situation there.
In addition, the devastation that is now Iraq is not of a kind that can always
be easily explained in a short report, nor for that matter is it any longer
easily repaired. In many cities, an American reliance on artillery and air
power during the worst days of fighting helped devastate the Iraqi
infrastructure. Political and economic changes imposed by the American
occupation did damage of another kind, often depriving Iraqis not just of their
livelihoods but of the very tools they would now need to launch a major
reconstruction effort in their own country.
As a consequence, what was once the most advanced Middle Eastern society -
economically, socially, and technologically - has become an economic basket
case, rivaling the most desperate countries in the world. Only the (as yet
unfulfilled) promise of oil riches, which probably cannot be effectively
accessed or used until US forces withdraw from the country, provides a glimmer
of hope that Iraq will someday lift itself out of the abyss into which the US
invasion pushed it.
Consider only a small sampling of the devastation.
The Economy: Fundamental to the American occupation was the
desire to annihilate Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists state apparatus and the
economic system it commanded. A key aspect of this was the closing down of the
vast majority of state-owned economic enterprises (with the exception of those
involved in oil extraction and electrical generation).
In all, 192 establishments, adding up to 35% of the Iraqi economy, were
shuttered in the summer and fall of 2003. These included basic manufacturing
processes like leather tanning and tractor assembly that supplied other
sectors, transportation firms that dominated national commerce, and maintenance
enterprises that housed virtually all the technicians and engineers qualified
to service the electrical, water, oil, and other infrastructure systems in the
Justified as the way to bring a modern free-enterprise system to
backward Iraq, this draconian program was put in place by the president's
proconsul in Baghdad, L Paul Bremer III. The result? An immediate depression
that only deepened in the years to follow.
One measure of this policy's impact can be found in the demise of the leather
goods industry, a key pre-invasion sector of Iraq's non-petroleum economy. When
a government-owned tanning operation, which all by itself employed 30,000
workers and supplied leather to an entire industry, was shuttered in late 2003,
it deprived shoe-makers and other leather goods establishments of their key
resource. Within a year, employment in the industry had dropped from 200,000
workers to a mere 20,000.
By the time Bremer left Iraq in the spring of 2004, the inhabitants of many
cities faced 60% unemployment. Meanwhile, the country's agriculture, a key
component of its economy, was also victimized by the dismantling of government
establishments and services. The lush farming areas between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers suffered badly. The once-thriving date palm industry was a
typical casualty. It suffered deadly infestations of pests when the occupation
eliminated a government-run insecticide spraying program. Even oil
refinery-based industrial towns like Baiji became cities of slums when plants
devoted to non-petroleum activities were shuttered.
This economic devastation fueled the insurgency by generating desperation,
anger, and willing recruits. The explosion of resistance, in turn, tended to
obscure - at least for Western news services - the desperate circumstances
under which ordinary Iraqis labored.
As violence has subsided in Baghdad and elsewhere, demands for relief have come
to the fore. These are not easily answered by a still largely non-functional
central government in Baghdad whose administrative and economic apparatus was
long ago dismantled, and many of whose key technical personnel had fled into
exile. Meanwhile, in early 2006, the American occupation declared that further
reconstruction work would be the responsibility of Iraqis. It is not clear into
what channels the growing discontent over an economy that remains largely in
the tank and a government that still cannot deliver ordinary services will
Electricity: A critical factor in Iraq's collapse has been its
decaying electrical grid. In areas where the insurgency raged, facilities
involved in producing and transmitting electricity were targeted, both by the
insurgents and US forces, each trying to deprive the other of needed resources.
In addition, Bremer eliminated the government-owned maintenance and engineering
enterprises that had been holding the electrical system together ever since the
UN sanctions regime after the 1991Gulf War deprived Iraq of material needed to
repair and upgrade its facilities. Maintenance and replacement contracts were
given instead to multinational companies with little knowledge of the existing
system and - due to cost-plus contracting - every incentive to replace
facilities with their own proprietary technology. In the meantime, many Iraqi
technicians left the country.
The successor Iraqi governments, deprived of the capacity to manage the
system's reconstruction, continued the US occupation policy of contracting with
foreign companies. Even in areas of the country relatively unaffected by the
fighting, those companies did the lucrative thing, replacing entire sections of
the electric grid, often with inappropriate but exquisitely expensive equipment
A combination of factors - including pressure from the insurgency, the soaring
costs of security, and an almost unparalleled record of endemic waste and
corruption - led to costs well beyond those originally offered for the already
overpriced projects. Many were then abandoned before completion as funding ran
out. Completed projects were often shabbily done and just as often proved
incompatible with existing facilities, introducing new inefficiencies.
In one altogether-too-typical case, Bechtel installed 26 natural gas turbines
in areas where no natural gas was available. The turbines were then converted
to oil, which reduced their capacity by 50% and led to a rapid sludge build-up
in the equipment requiring expensive maintenance no Iraqi technicians had been
trained to perform. In location after location, the turbines became
Even before the invasion, the decrepit electrical system could not meet
national demand. No province had uninterrupted service and certain areas had
far less than 12 hours of service per day. The vast investments by the
occupation and its successor regimes have increased electrical capacity since
the invasion of 2003, but these gains have not come close to keeping up with
skyrocketing demand created by the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops,
private security personnel, and occupation officials, as well as by the
introduction of all manner of electronic devices and products in the
Recent UN reports indicate that, in the last year, electrical capacity has
slipped to less than half of demand. With priority going to military and
government operations, many Baghdad