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    Middle East
     Jan 6, 2007
Operation bungle Iraq
Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Books on Iraq have become a growth industry since the US-led invasion in 2003. So much has been written on Iraq that one might want to be spared yet another marginal addition to the genre. Yet when an outstanding journalist with impeccable credentials such as the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran has an offering, it promises to count as a crucial, not marginal, contribution. His account of the nature and failings of the US occupation administration in Iraq is worth multiple readings for depicting reality from an objective, non-ideological stance.

Set in the 18-square-kilometer, overwhelmingly male American enclave in central Baghdad known as the Green Zone, Chandrasekaran's book opens with a description of the colonial trappings of the US Coalition Provisional Authority. The CPA headquartered in ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, which was managed by Halliburton, the US defense contracting firm reaping the spoils of war, courtesy of neo-conservative nepotism. Hired for hundreds of millions of US dollars to provide "living support services" to the CPA, Halliburton set up "the same sort of bubble that American oil companies build for their workers in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Indonesia". (p16)

Most CPA staff members had never worked outside the US and were hired on the basis of connections to Republican congressmen, conservative think-tanks and George W Bush-Dick Cheney re-election contributors. Fenced into the sterilized safety of the Green Zone, CPA officials referred to the rest of Baghdad as the "Red Zone" where "bad guys might choose to attack". (p 19) The real Baghdad with its frightful lawlessness and privation was wished away dreamily as another world. As war raged viciously all around, one could "hear stories with happy endings like the interim constitution and the democracy project". (p 21) Denied unvarnished sources of information about happenings, CPA staffers ludicrously "kept abreast of developments in Iraq by watching Fox News and reading Stars and Stripes, which was printed in Germany". (p.25)

The CPA's predecessor, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), was assembled haphazardly and overloaded with personnel with little experience in the Middle East and in nation-building. Many had no exposure to conflict situations and were "clueless as to what to do". (p 35) ORHA was plagued with internecine squabbling between the Pentagon and the State Department over appointments and priorities. Knowledgeable figures were chased out through the over-politicized interference of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney. The US Army did not care to help ORHA with logistics and security. ORHA head Joel Garner struggled simultaneously to please the Pentagon and not irritate the State Department. Lacking a political transition plan for Iraq, he was "set up to fail". (p 55)

Garner's successor, viceroy Paul Bremer of the CPA, wanted the United States to be as ambitious in Iraq as it had been in post-World War II Germany and Japan. A control freak who earned his spurs under Henry Kissinger, Bremer gathered a coterie of sycophantic young aides who never challenged his grandiose schemes and edicts. His functioning style was "don't contradict me". (p 65) Adamant that a permanent constitution should precede elections, Bremer brushed off Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's demand for the reverse sequence and stuck to his "awfully unrealistic" handover-of-sovereignty blueprint.

Bremer's unseasoned advisers tried to right Saddam's wrongs by favoring the once-oppressed Shi'ites at the expense of the once-ruling Sunnis and bungled enough to worsen fragile sectarian relations. His move to padlock the newspaper office of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was a "profound miscalculation" that triggered a massive uprising and opened a new front. (p 273) "Bremer's approach magnified rather than muted the very divisions that so many Iraqis rejected." (p 285) Nationalistic Iraqis suspected a Lebanon-like fragmented future under Bremer's arrogant vision. His overzealous de-Ba'athification policy was "not open for discussion" and had disastrous consequences. With one scrawl of his pen, the former Iraqi army, navy, Defense Ministry and intelligence service were disbanded. Angry pink-slipped soldiers "are all insurgents now". (p 77)

Bernie Kerik, the CPA's foreign policy adviser, "didn't listen to anything, hadn't read anything" and spent his time giving interviews saying that "the situation was improving". (p 86) His controversial tactics of arming Iraqi paramilitaries to restore law and order amplified the problems and led an American observer to comment that "he was the wrong guy at the wrong time". (p 87) The right persons were never tapped for CPA to be efficient.

The CPA economic team's obsession with crafting a free-market economy in Iraq had little resonance on the streets. Iraqis were wary of full foreign ownership of domestic businesses and privatization of the oil industry. For the public, the biggest problem was unemployment, not rapid non-transparent privatization that the CPA was rooting for. On being told that international law prohibited an occupation government from selling assets, Thomas Foley, head of the CPA's private-sector initiative, retorted, "I don't give a shit about international law." (p 126)

The economic team also studied harebrained ideas of issuing Iraqis debit cards for rations in a country with no automated teller machines. The CPA official in charge of the Iraqi stock exchange conjured up fancy ideals of computerization and new securities laws when the need was for blackboards. In the words of one Iraqi broker peeved at the non-practicality of it all, "Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia." (p 232)

The CPA's public relations office "never conceded a mistake and spun failures into successes to the point of absurdity". (p 129) It ran the new Iraqi Media Network as a crude propaganda tool with the logic that "we're paying for it, so we can decide what airs". (p 134)

Chandrasekaran delves into the murky world of fraudulent private security contractors who were subcontracted by the CPA in Iraq and earn inflated profits using false invoices. Some of them collected weapons seized by the US military and shipped materiel out of Iraq for sale. The weaponry they possessed and used was legally verboten. "They were above the laws of war." (p 146)

Throughout his stint in Iraq, Bremer insisted that power shortages would end soon, but it never happened. Prewar US statements hid the enormity of Iraq's infrastructure failure by positing that oil revenues could finance reconstruction. Until the Green Zone itself began to be hit by insurgent attacks, the CPA dished out the myth that "the country was becoming safer by the day", discrediting itself as an entity wallowing in make-believe. (p 179)

Iraq's health-care resuscitation was in the hands of James Haveman, who wasted previous resources on an anti-smoking campaign instead of raising awareness on preventing childhood diarrhea and fatal maladies. According to one American pharmacist, "Haveman and his advisers really didn't know what they were doing and viewed Iraq as Michigan after a huge attack." (p 216) The CPA's health measures were evaluated by the Iraqi minister of health as "a fool's errand". (p 219) The pity was that men like Haveman were untouchable by virtue of their ties to the Bush administration.

The Pentagon and the CPA were blind to the dangers posed by disaffected Iraqi nuclear scientists after the fall of Saddam and treated the matter as part of the de-Ba'athification purges. Parallel State Department attempts to gently reorient the scientists were blockaded in Iraq by fellow Americans. The Central Intelligence Agency's Iraq Survey Group searching for elusive weapons of mass destruction even threatened Americans aiming to achieve a soft landing for the scientists. One American general commented, "The CPA's missteps cost us one very valuable year." (p 289)

CPA officials assumed that change could be brought about simply by drafting laws, as it happens in the US. Bremer learned very late in the day that conceiving an inanity "in Washington and ramming it down the throats of Iraqis didn't work". (p 41) United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's assistant told Chandrasekaran that "the story of the Americans in Iraq is of missed opportunities". (p 246) One pensive CPA member recalled after Iraq was "handed over" to an interim government, "We were so busy trying to build a Jeffersonian democracy and a capitalist economy that we neglected the big picture." (p 276)

Chandrasekaran perorates his remarkable book of discoveries with the reality-check that Iraq did not require "a full-scale occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the tyrant". (p 290) One is left wondering whether there was a method in the madness and if the chaos that the CPA's ineptness bequeathed to Iraq was intentional. This book goes a long way in shattering the belief that the US is a benign hegemon resurrecting broken countries with finesse. That Americans can be blunderbusses despite the brouhaha is being borne out by the unspeakable human tragedy of Iraq.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Alfred A Knopf, New York, September 2006. ISBN: 1-4000-4487-1. Price: US$25.95, 320 pages.

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