Fables of the Reconstruction

A Coalition memo reveals that even true believers see the seeds of civil war in the occupation of Iraq

Ordinary Iraqis also "fear that some of the custodial staff note who comes and goes," according to the memo, causing a "segment of Iraqi society to avoid meeting Americans because they fear the Green Zone." It also derides the use of heavily armed personal-security details (PSDs) for CPA personnel, saying the practice inspires reticence among ordinary Iraqis. "It is ingrained in the Iraqi psyche to keep a close hold on their own thoughts when surrounded by people with guns," the memo notes. "Even those willing to talk to Americans think twice, since American officials create a spectacle of themselves, with convoys, flak jackets, fancy SUVs."

While the memo offers an encouraging and appealing picture of thriving businesses and patrons on the streets of a free Baghdad, it notes that "the progress evident happens despite us rather than because of us," and reports that "frequent explosions, many of which are not reported in the mainstream media, are a constant reminder of uncertainty."

Indeed, while boosters of the Iraqi invasion delight in the phrase "25 million free Iraqis," if the CPA memo is any indication, this newfound liberty does not include freedom from fear. "Baghdadis have an uneasy sense that they are heading towards civil war," it says. "Sunnis, Shias, and Kurd professionals say that they themselves, friends, and associates are buying weapons fearing for the future." The memo also notes that while Iraqi police "remain too fearful to enforce regulations," they are making a pretty penny as small arms dealers, with the CPA as an unwitting partner. "CPA is ironically driving the weapons market," it reveals. "Iraqi police sell their U.S.-supplied weapons on the black market; they are promptly re-supplied. Interior ministry weapons buy-backs keep the price of arms high."


Read the full text of the redacted memo from a U.S. official in Iraq upon which Jason Vest's "Fables of the Reconstruction" is based.

The memo goes on to argue that "the trigger for a civil war" is not likely to be an isolated incident of violence, but the result of "deeper conflicts that revolve around patronage and absolutism" reaching a flashpoint.

"Their Corruption Is Our Corruption"

Asserting that the U.S. must "use our prerogative as an occupying power to signal that corruption will not be tolerated," the CPA memo recommends taking action against at least four Iraqi ministers whose names have been redacted from the document. (Though there may be no connection, two weeks ago, Interior Minister Nuri Badran abruptly resigned, as did Governing Council member Iyad Allawi.) Also redacted is the name of a minister whose acceptance of "alleged kickbacks . . . should be especially serious for us, since he was one of two ministers who met the President and had his picture taken with him." (Though the identity of the minister in question cannot be precisely determined, the only Iraqi ministers who have been photographed with President Bush are Iraqi public-works minister Nesreen Berwari and electricity minister Ayhem al-Sammarai, on September 23, 2003.) "If such information gets buried on the desks of middle-level officials who do not want to make waves," the memo warns, "the short-term gain will be replaced by long-term ill."

Developing this theme, the memo asserts that the U.S. "share[s] culpability in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis" for engendering Iraq's currently cronyistic state; since "we appointed the Governing Council members . . . their corruption is our corruption." The author then notes that two individuals—names again redacted—have successfully worked to exclude certain strains of Shia from obtaining ministerial-level positions, and that for this "Iraqis blame Bremer, especially because the [CPA] Governance Group had assured Iraqis that exclusion from the Governing Council did not mean an exclusion from the process. As it turns out, we lied. People from Kut [a city south of Baghdad recently besieged by Shiite forces loyal to Muqtada al Sadr], for example, see that they have no representation on the Governing Council, and many predict civil war since they doubt that the Governing Council will really allow elections."

Fanning the embers of distrust is the U.S.'s failure to acknowledge that the constituencies of key Governing Council members "are not based on ideology, but rather on the muscle of their respective personal militias and the patronage which we allow them to bestow," according to the memo's author. Using the Kurds as an example, he reveals that "we have bestowed approximately $600 million upon the Kurdish leadership, in addition to the salaries we pay, in addition to the USAID projects, in addition to the taxes which we have allowed them to collect illegally." To underscore the point, the author adds that he recently spent an evening with a Kurdish contact watching The Godfather trilogy, and notes that "the entire evening was spent discussing which Iraqi Kurdish politicians represented which [Godfather] character."

The memo also characterizes the CPA's border-security policy as "completely irrelevant," going so far as to state that "it is undeniable that a crumbling Baathist regime did better than we have" in that regard. Noting that senior Defense Department officials do not fully understand the nature of the problem, the memo recommends that the US "deploy far greater numbers [of soldiers] than we have now" to the borders. The memo also criticizes the Defense Department - in particular the Office of the Secretary of Defense - for keeping potentially useful personnel in Washington. "There is an unfortunate trend inside the Pentagon where those who can write a good memo are punished by being held back from the field," it says, adding that "OSD harms itself, and its constituent members' individual credibility, when it defers all real world experience to others."

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