Wheels up! Well, tomorrow evening, anyway

Ready to go, and if you need more reasons to want an independent journalism, read on, McDuff.

Tickets are purchased, gear is tested (mostly), packing is commencing and everything is coming together. I’ve not posted much these past few days because of the overwhelming number of loose ends to tie up. Plus, at the moment, I don’t really know any more than what’s on CNN et al. What’s the point of regurgitating? Starting this week however, the real purpose of Back to Iraq comes into view, as this becomes a much more heavily reported site instead of one based on analysis and commentary. (That will still be there, but in much smaller portions.)
I’ve been doing a fair number of interviews, too, as various media members want to know my story. Often they ask me why I’m doing this, what do I expect or hope to get out of this, am I crazy, etc. Well, I’m probably crazy, yes, but what I’m hoping to get out of this is some respect for the Web (and blogs) as a serious medium for independents. To all the journalism professors who say blogs aren’t “real” journalism, I say, “I don’t see you getting out of your tenured chair and putting your butt in the middle of Kurdistan to report on what’s happening.” To those who say, “You’ve got no editor,” I reply, “My readers are my editors.” To those who complain, “You’re biased, you offer nothing but op-eds,” I reply, “I am biased, but at least you know where I’m coming from. And just wait until next week when my butt is in Kurdistan.”
There have been a couple of stories of journalism being pulled away from its mission by corporate masters. While these are no means the rule, they are troubling.

  • Kevin Sites was shut down. While I wasn’t always impressed with his work, he did take some good photographs. CNN’s decision to shut him down is puzzling, considering he was saying nothing that would annoy his employers.
  • The BBC’s War Diaries, while interesting, seem a bit like an afterthought. And no doubt they are. The BBC reporters work hard.
  • And finally, Paul Krugman has reported in his column that Clear Channel, operator of approximately 1,225 radio stations, 39 television stations and which has equity interest in more than 240 radio stations, has been organizing pro-war rallies around the country.

As Krugman says,

the company’s top management has a history with George W. Bush. The vice chairman of Clear Channel is Tom Hicks, whose name may be familiar to readers of this column. When Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, Mr. Hicks was chairman of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, called Utimco, and Clear Channel’s chairman, Lowry Mays, was on its board. Under Mr. Hicks, Utimco placed much of the university’s endowment under the management of companies with strong Republican Party or Bush family ties. In 1998 Mr. Hicks purchased the Texas Rangers in a deal that made Mr. Bush a multimillionaire.

It should also be noted that Clear Channel is a major donor to the Republican party. Since 1997, the chairman and CEO, Lowry Mays, according to FEC records, has personally given $11,250, almost all to Republican candidates. (The exception is Rep. Charles Gonzales of the 20th District.)
Krugman’s point is partially that Clear Channel is doing a favor for George W. Bush, but his main point is that major corporations — including media companies — are merging with the government “into one big ‘us.'” The danger of this should be obvious.
Anyway, there’s so much going on now. It’s impossible to know the whole story of this war. But that’s OK, I’ve come to realize. It’s more important to tell a few stories of the war rather than the story of the war. That will have to be written later. And when the narrative is told, the media will have major role — mainstream, freelance and independent alike. And perhaps someone will look back and say, “The blogosphere stepped up to the plate. With commentary and analysis, its members provided a tonic for much of the mainstream media’s excesses. Others provided a meta-analysis, providing their readers with as much of a bird’s eye view of the coverage as possible. And for the first time, they sent one of their own to war.”

Situation seriously FUBAR

Fog of war, indeed. The global situation regarding Iraq has turned into a full-on cock-up. Turkey — with the prompting of the military — is having second thoughts on its vote Saturday. The U.S. announced the deployment of 60,000 more troops to be sent to Kuwait, bringing the forces in the region almost up to Desert Storm levels (Then approx. 500,000 with coalition forces.) Tomorrow is Hans Blix’s big day at the U.N., where he will deliver another report on the status of Iraq’s compliance with UNSCR 1441. The United States continues to work the phones for the votes on the Security Council, and perhaps most significantly, President Bush has called an 8 pm EST news conference in the East Room tonight.

Fog of war, indeed. The global situation regarding Iraq has turned into a full-on cock-up.
Turkey — with the prompting of the military — is having second thoughts on its vote Saturday. The U.S. announced the deployment of 60,000 more troops to be sent to Kuwait, bringing the forces in the region almost up to Desert Storm levels (Then approx. 500,000 with coalition forces.) Tomorrow is Hans Blix’s big day at the U.N., where he will deliver another report on the status of Iraq’s compliance with UNSCR 1441. The United States continues to work the phones for the votes on the Security Council, and perhaps most significantly, President Bush has called an 8 pm EST news conference in the East Room tonight.
This very well might be the moment the world has been dreading, in which Bush gives Saddam Hussein a final ultimatum — mainly so journalists, aid workers and diplomats can use the next few days to leave the country. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush’s opening statement in the East Room would address “the successes in the war against terror as well as the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein.” He also said Bush still has not decided whether to wage war.
FUBAR in Turkey
Saturday’s vote by the Turks was unexpected — or was it? — and the military mainly stayed out of the process. But now the Turkish military is signaling its support for U.S. plans.
Chief of general staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, has signaled to parliament that the military would really, really like it if the parliament approved the Americans’ request, despite the overwhelming opposition to the war. “It’d be a shame for something to happen to your little government,” he told parliament as his picked his fingernails with a bowie knife. (Not really.) Turkish papers are full of the speculation that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government will submit a new proposal after Saturday’s parliamentary vote. Why didn’t the military speak up before? Ozkok remarked that the military had not made its views public earlier in order to avoid influencing the parliament.
“If we had expressed our views, it would have amounted to pressuring the parliament for the approval of the resolution. It wouldn’t have been democratic,” Ozkok said. (Cue rueful laughter.)
In other words, Ozkok told parliament that the Turkish military believes in Turkish democracy — until it gets a vote it doesn’t like. Has he been taking lessons from Don Rumsfeld?
There is no doubt the civilian government got the message, as Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said Ozkok’s comments were “reasonable.” Parliament speaker Bulent Arinc, who is pursuing some agenda of his own, gave a more measured response, saying he appreciated the general’s remarks and thought the timing of the statement was “quite telling.”
Approximately 94 percent of the Turkish citizenry opposes a U.S. war with Iraq. President Bush can’t deride those numbers as he did the Feb. 15 marches, which brought tens of millions of people to the streets worldwide, as a “focus group.” Ninety-four percent is the population. So it seems in order to plant the seeds of democracy in Iraq, the United States is prepared to ignore the democracy next door in Turkey and stomp the sapling in Iraqi Kurdistan. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
Anyway, as far as plots by the Turkish military to unilaterally invade Iraqi Kurdistan if a northern front can’t be opened up in time (and make no mistake — the Turkish vote sent the White House reeling and grasping for alternatives), who the hell knows what’s happening? But statements from Ozkok have made clear that the idea of a Turkish invasion into the region is definitely on the table.

The Turkish official [speaking on condition of anonymity] said that Turkey’s generals were skeptical of the ability of the United States to ensure that the Iraqi Kurds did not try to break away if the Saddam Hussein were deposed.
In his remarks, General Ozkok alluded to those concerns, and sent a terse warning to the Kurds of northern Iraq.
“I remind them of our legitimate right to defend our national interests, and I hope they will be prudent and cooperative,” General Ozkok said. “Those who want to replace peace with confrontation will also take the responsibility and bear the consequences.” [From the New York Times]

The State Department is certainly taking the risk of a Turkish intervention seriously, with spokesman Richard Boucher emphasizing that a unilateral move on northern Iraq can not be allowed:

QUESTION: What about the demonstration in northern Iraq by the half a million Kurds? They’re afraid that the United States is doing a deal maybe with Turkey. What can you say to these people who are worried?
MR. BOUCHER: I think the first thing I would say is that we have been in touch with people in northern Iraq. You know that we had a delegation at the conference of the outside opposition, and we have been meeting over time frequently with the people who live in northern Iraq. And we’ve always been interested in their welfare and their safety. The United States has a very strong record on that point.
Second of all, I’d say that we’ve always, we’ve discussed very intensively with Turkish authorities the situation in northern Iraq, in particular in the context of these agreements we’ve just reached. And I think the basic outlook there, the basic principles that apply to the United States Government and the Turkish Government of looking for an Iraq that’s representative, where all the people of Iraq can be representative and play a role in their government, but that stays together as a unitary state, those are principles we’ve all adopted and that is our outlook on the situation. We’ve also, I think, made very clear that we would intend to coordinate any military activities very closely with the Turkish authorities and that we have opposed unilateral intervention from any quarter in northern Iraq.
QUESTION: On that, a follow-up on that last sentence. Do you think that now the Turkish forces will not enter independently of United States forces? That’s what everybody’s talking about in northern Iraq and in the Middle East.
MR. BOUCHER: As I said, I think first of all, our record on the safety of the people who live in northern Iraq has been quite well established over the years, and we do consider their safety in everything we do. We’ve been in close touch with the Turkish Government. We would need to coordinate any military moves with them and they with us, and we’ve always been opposed to unilateral moves into northern Iraq.

This one bears watching.
Meanwhile, back at the U.N. …
Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been working the diplomats, hoping to wrangle nine votes and no vetoes from France or Russia, although the latter seems increasingly unlikely. Why work the lines so hard if another resolution is “unnecessary” as the White House has contended for some time and it looks like a fight the U.S. is going to lose? Well, because domestic support for the war increasingly hinges on whether the U.N. approves it or not. And that applies even more so for Tony Blair, who could be toast without one — especially if Blix comes back tomorrow and says, as is expected, that Iraq is making progress and taking concrete steps toward cooperation.
All in all, it’s a confusing time, and if this is the White House’s plan for deception via confusion, it’s working well. No one seems to know what’s happening with Turkey, the troops and northern Iraq, what it will take to get the U.N. on board or even if Tony Blair will be prime minister at the end of the shooting. The Americans’ time table for war is slipping by the day, as the moon grows brighter and April’s heat grows nearer. Bush can’t afford to wait much longer. If the Security Council fails to approve the U.K.-U.S.-Bulgarian resolution, Bush may be ready to throw up his hands and roll the dice on thousands (millions?) of lives, the geostrategic balance and his presidency.
ASIDE: For a good roundup of the U.S. order of battle, check out this story from an old colleague of mine.

U.S. lobbyist helped draft Eastern Europe’s Iraq statement

Agence France Press is reporting that Bruce Jackson, a U.S. lobbyist and former DoD employee, helped draft the Vilnius 10’s statement of support for President Bush on Iraq.

This is from Agence France Press by way of CommonDreams.org, and it’s good.
Bruce Jackson, a U.S. lobbyist and former DoD employee helped draft the Vilnius 10’s statement of support for President Bush on Iraq.
Jackson, of course, said his role “vastly exaggerated.” However, the International Herald Tribune quoted Kestutis Jankauskas, deputy chief of mission at the Lithunian embassy in Washington, as saying Jackson had a “considerable role” and helped “initiate the text.”
Kind of makes you wonder if French president Jacques Chirac had some basis for his pique, especially if he thought the Americans were meddling in EU business…

U.S. to conquered Iraqis: Pay up

You know, every night I go to sleep thinking that the events of the day had pissed me off to such an extent that there was no way I could get more disgruntled at the venality of the Bush administration. And every morning I get up, read the newspapers and wires and I’m inevitably proven wrong.
The White House has said Iraq’s oil wealth will be used to pay for its own reconstruction following a U.S. invasion.
That’s cold, man.

You know, every night I go to sleep thinking that the events of the day had pissed me off to such an extent that there was no way I could get more disgruntled at the venality of the Bush administration. And every morning I get up, read the newspapers and wires and I’m inevitably proven wrong.
The White House has said Iraq’s oil wealth will be used to pay for its own reconstruction following a U.S. invasion.
“Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. And so there are a variety (of) means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction.”
Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. Yes, and why should the Iraqis be forced, in effect, to pay for the bombs that will soon rain down upon their heads? And this nugget from Fleischer: “It is, of course, the intention of the United States government to make certain the people of Iraq are not the victims in a war that would have been started by their leaders.”
I stand, mouth agape, at the audacity of the emphasized quote. Last time I checked, Bush was arguing for “pre-emptive defense,” which sure sounds like a rationale for starting a war.
But I digress. “Fleischer also pointed out that once Iraq is disarmed and Saddam is out of office, there will be no reason to continue to impose economic sanctions on Baghdad and trade will be reopened with Iraq.”
What he actually said was, “Once sanctions are lifted from Iraq, that provides a lot more means for the rebuilding and the reconstruction of Iraq.”
This is a exactly what the Iraqi opposition does not want. As Feisal al-Istrabadi, a founding member of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy said last Monday at Columbia, the U.N. should not lift the sanctions but instead suspend them. The ultimate lifting of the sanctions is the incentive for Iraq to truly democratize.
Note that Fleischer didn’t say “suspend;” he said “lifted.” And the give and take of the press conference yesterday, at which all of this came about, leaves one with the impression that the White House is all about lifting the sanctions as opposed to suspending them. This is a crucial point, obviously, because the sanctions allow for the United Nations to manage the finances of Iraq as a trust. While Saddam has managed to squirrel away billions, by and large the national budget is not fully controlled by his government.
Istrabadi wants to avoid making the provisional government, presumably headed by financier Ahmed Chalabi, “provisional” in the Iraqi sense of the word — i.e., in power for years and years. (Since 1968, the constitutions governing Iraq have been provisional constitutions and not permanent. Thus, there is no permanent rule of law.) By lifting the sanctions immediately, you grant a temporary government access to billions in oil revenues, presumably to do with what they will.
“You cannot hand over the purse strings of Iraq,” Istrabadi warned. “Saddam did not immediately rule by fear. He co-opted the elite during the 1960s and ?70s by drowning them in cash.”
So let’s look at the smoke signals from Washington and other places:

  1. Chalabi is in Iraq and prepared to declare a provisional government in Erbil;
  2. The Kurds (and others) are under the impression that there will be no democracy immediately forthcoming; (Peter W. Galbrait has his thoughts on this subject here. He basically blames the Turks);
  3. Fleischer’s advocacy for lifting the sanctions, in order to get the Iraqi oil wells online quickly so that Iraq can pay for its own reconstruction, will deliver the funds precisely to the people with a shady history financial history and a high stake in remaning in power since they’ve been in the political wilderness for 20+ years (in the case of Chalabi.)

Fleischer deftly sidestepped just this question of oil money and Iraqi governments in this exchange:

Q If the Iraqi people are going to largely be responsible for paying for their own reconstruction, will they be given a lot of freedom, in terms of how that reconstruction is going to be carried out? Or are we going to kind of guide them and tell them what needs to be done?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what’s going to emerge will be a government of the Iraqi people that comes from both inside Iraq and outside Iraq. There are no shortage of people who are dedicated to a different route for Iraq. And I think also one of the great issues that will be seen — if this does come to war — is how, when people have the ability to be free, they exercise that right to be free. The Iraqi people have lived under tyranny and under dictatorship. And as the nations of East Europe have shown us just recently, when the yolk of dictatorship is removed, people’s God-given rights to freedom emerge. And the President believes that that will be the case in Iraq.

Fleischer’s dodge and the previous points add up a weak puppet government easily controlled, dependent upon the United States and democractic in name only. Hardly the beacon of freedom to the rest of the Middle East that the White House claims Iraq can become. But then, a beacon of freedom and self-determination doesn’t fit neatly with the administration’s plans for the region.

U.S. extends betrayal of Kurds to entire Iraqi people; no democracy.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but in this case, democracy seems to be the second. The Bush administration seems intent on stamping out nascent Iraqi democracy in the interest of stability, giving the lie to the statement that the United States will liberate the people of Iraq. Why is this war being fought again?


Kurdish men buy ice creams in the Mazi supermarket in Dohuk. The supermarket was opened two years ago and is seen as a testiment to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. (Photo by Andrew Testa)

Northern Iraq is getting a bit crowded. About 5,000 Iraqi opposition troops, backed by Iran, have entered the PUK’s territory in Iraqi Kurdistan ostensibly to secure the border when war breaks across the region. Its real purpose, however, may be to repel attacks by the People’s Mujahideen Organization (MKO), an anti-Iranian group based in Iraq and strongly backed by Saddam Hussein. The Iranian troops are part of Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim’s Badr brigade, which is made up of Shi’ites opposed to Saddam Hussein. Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a mainly Shia Muslim group that fought in the failed 1991 uprising against Baghdad in southern Iraq. More recently, SCIRI has taken part in talks between the Iraqi opposition and the U.S.. According to the Web site for the SCIRI, “Hakim has an historical and warm relation with the Kurdish Movements in Iraq since his father gave a religious decree (Fatwa) which forbade the Iraqi army from fighting against the Kurds in Iraq. A mutual agreement as been signed by SCIRI with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani to work against Saddam’s regime. A similar agreement was signed with the Kurdish [sic] Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masood Barzani several years ago.”
This might be true, but one of the reasons the United States didn’t support the 1991 Iraqi intifada that started in Basra was because it was mainly a Shi’ite movement with heavy backing by Iran. (The opposition in the north was, of course, an effort led by the Kurds, who had been waiting for an opportunity to rebel since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.) Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the prospect of Iranian influence expanding to their borders and figuring a weakened Saddam was preferable to the ayatollahs, agreed with the United States that no support to the mainly Shi’ite rebels would be given.
How the Badr brigade fits into the political and military intrigues of Iraqi Kurdistan remains to be seen. Not only does the region play host to the PUK and the KDP, but also to various Islamic parties, Ansar al-Islam, U.S. special forces, several thousand Turkish troops (with more soon to come) the MKO and now the Badr brigade. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, but it can’t be good for U.S. planning.
Or perhaps it doesn’t care. One of the biggest stories yet to be carried by the mainstream American press is the apparent abandonment of democracy in Iraq post-Saddam. Kanan Makiya, author of “Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq” and a leading Iraqi dissident, penned a savage criticism of the Bush administration’s plans to replace Saddam and his cronies not with democratic government but with American generals and soldiers where Ba’ath functionaries once sat. “The plan, as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States-led delegation, further envisages the appointment by the U.S. of an unknown number of Iraqi quislings palatable to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a council of advisers to this military government.”
“We Iraqis hoped and said to our Arab and Middle Eastern brethren, over and over again, that American mistakes of the past did not have to be repeated in the future,” writes Makiya. “Were we wrong? Are the enemies of a democratic Iraq, the ‘anti-imperialists’ and ‘anti-Zionists’ of the Arab world, the supporters of ‘armed struggle’, and the upholders of the politics of blaming everything on the U.S. who are dictating the agenda of the anti-war movement in Europe and the U.S., are all of these people to be proved right?”
Most ominously:

We, the democratic Iraqi opposition, are the natural friends and allies of the United States. We share its values and long-term goals of peace, stability, freedom and democracy for Iraq. We are here in Iraqi Kurdistan 40 miles from Saddam’s troops and a few days away from a conference to plan our next move, a conference that some key administration officials have done everything in their power to postpone.
None the less, after weeks of effort in Tehran and northern Iraq, we have prevailed. The meeting will take place. It will discuss a detailed plan for the creation of an Iraqi leadership, one that is in a position to assume power at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place. We will be opposed no doubt by an American delegation if it chooses to attend. Whether or not they do join us in the coming few days in northern Iraq, we will fight their attempts to marginalise and shunt aside the men and women who have invested whole lifetimes, and suffered greatly, fighting Saddam Hussein. (Emphasis added.)

But unless the opposition can seize the oilfields from the American governors, they stand little chance of success in wresting the destiny of their country away from their new masters because they’ll have no money. There is no budget in the State Department for the Iraqi opposition groups next year.
“We don’t feel it’s necessary to fund it any longer,” said Christopher Burnham, assistant secretary for resource management.
In fact, the war has not been budgeted at all! No one seems to know very much at all about what the war will cost, what will come after Saddam and how to manage the damn place after the shooting dies down a bit.
“Conquerors always call themselves liberators,” said Sami Abdul-Rahman, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish administration, in a reference to Mr. Bush’s speech last week in which he said U.S. troops were going to liberate Iraq.
Mr. Abdul-Rahman said the U.S. had reneged on earlier promises to promote democratic change in Iraq. “It is very disappointing,” he said. “In every Iraqi ministry they are just going to remove one or two officials and replace them with American military officers.”
Last summer, I interviewed Mr. Abdul-Rahman. He gave me the copies of the two Kurdish constitutions the Kurdistan regional government had drafted. At the time, he could not have been more gracious and hopeful, assuring me, the skeptical reporter, of America’s good intentions. The irony should be obvious.
The cynicism should be as well. Tony Blair made what many felt was the clearest moral case this weekend for removing Saddam, for “liberating” the Iraqi people. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said, “I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.”
By not supporting a democratic Iraq, by appointing a controversial figure such as Ahmed Chalabi as provisional leader, by inviting Turks to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan and promoting some gauzy ill-thought-out vision of a democratic Middle East imposed by force of arms, the Big Idea idealism, which never rested comfortably on the shoulders of a president who detests complexity, comes off as callow, cynical and … what are the words? Oh, yes: “Absolute bullshit.” The ideas and principles upon which the United States was founded — “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice for all” — and for which we allegedly fought and won two world wars and the Cold War, have become mere words, talking points and awkwardly mouthed slogans used to make a case for a war that no one except for a small junta in Washington wants.
People in the pro-war camp often scoff at the “peaceniks” and “appeasers” of the ant-war crowd, calling them na�ve and saying they are consigning the Iraqis to oppression if they are opposed the war. But who are really the na�ve ones, I wonder, if the hawks believe this is a war of liberation?
(By the way, readers can find a piece I wrote back in November on the mixed signals given by the United States regarding democracy in Iraq here.)