Fables of the Reconstruction

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

As the situation in Iraq grows ever more tenuous, the Bush administration continues to spin the ominous news with matter-of-fact optimism. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Iraqi uprisings in half a dozen cities, accompanied by the deaths of more than 100 soldiers in the month of April alone, is something to be viewed in the context of "good days and bad days," merely "a moment in Iraq's path towards a free and democratic system." More recently, the president himself asserted, "Our coalition is standing with responsible Iraqi leaders as they establish growing authority in their country."

But according to a closely held Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) memo written in early March, the reality isn't so rosy. Iraq's chances of seeing democracy succeed, according to the memo's author—a U.S. government official detailed to the CPA, who wrote this summation of observations he'd made in the field for a senior CPA director—have been severely imperiled by a year's worth of serious errors on the part of the Pentagon and the CPA, the U.S.-led multinational agency administering Iraq. Far from facilitating democracy and security, the memo's author fears, U.S. efforts have created an environment rife with corruption and sectarianism likely to result in civil war.

Provided to this reporter by a Western intelligence official, the memo was partially redacted to protect the writer's identity and to "avoid inflaming an already volatile situation" by revealing the names of certain Iraqi figures. A wide-ranging and often acerbic critique of the CPA, covering topics ranging from policy, personalities, and press operations to on-the-ground realities such as electricity, the document is not only notable for its candidly troubled assessment of Iraq's future. It is also significant, according to the intelligence official, because its author has been a steadfast advocate of "transforming" the Middle East, beginning with "regime change" in Iraq.

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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.

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'The Trigger For Civil War'

Signs of the author's continuing support for the U.S. invasion and occupation are all over the memo, which was written to a superior in Baghdad and circulated among other CPA officials. He praises Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, and laments a lack of unqualified US support for Chalabi, a long-time favorite of Washington hawks. (It bears noting that Chalabi was tried and convicted in absentia by the Jordanian government for bank embezzlement, in 1989, and has come under fire more recently for peddling dubious pre-war intelligence to the US.) The author also asserts that "what we have accomplished in Iraq is worth it." And his predictions sometimes hew to an improbably sunny view. Violence is likely, he says, for only "two or three days after arresting" radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, an event that would "make other populist leaders think twice" about bucking the CPA. Written only weeks ago, these predictions seem quite unwarranted, since simply trying to arrest al Sadr has resulted in more than two weeks of bloody conflict—with no end in sight—and seems to have engendered more cooperation between anti-Coalition forces than before.

Yet the memo is gloomy in most other respects, portraying a country mired in dysfunction and corruption, overseen by a CPA that "handle(s) an issue like six-year-olds play soccer: Someone kicks the ball and one hundred people chase after it hoping to be noticed, without a care as to what happens on the field." But it is particularly pointed on the subject of cronyism and corruption within the Governing Council, the provisional Iraqi government subordinate to the CPA whose responsibilities include re-staffing Iraq's government departments. "In retrospect," the memo asserts, "both for political and organizational reasons, the decision to allow the Governing Council to pick 25 ministers did the greatest damage. Not only did we endorse nepotism, with men choosing their sons and brothers-in-law; but we also failed to use our prerogative to shape a system that would work . . . our failure to promote accountability has hurt us."

In the broadest sense, according to the memo's author, the CPA's bunker-in-Baghdad mentality has contributed to the potential for civil war all over the country. "[CPA Administrator L. Paul] Bremer has encouraged re-centralization in Iraq because it is easier to control a Governing Council less than a kilometer away from the Palace, rather than 18 different provincial councils who would otherwise have budgetary authority," he says. The net effect, he continues, has been a "desperation to dominate Baghdad, and an absolutism born of regional isolation." The memo also describes the CPA as "handicapped by [its] security bubble," and derides the US government for spending "millions importing sport utility vehicles which are used exclusively to drive the kilometer and a half" between CPA and Governing Council headquarters when "we would have been much better off with a small fleet of used cars and a bicycle for every Green Zone resident."

While the memo upbraids CPA officials—an apparent majority—who stay inside the Green Zone in the name of personal safety, it also maintains that the Green Zone itself is "less than secure," both for Westerners and Iraqis. According to the author, "screening for Iranian agents and followers of Muqtada al Sadr is inconsistent at best," and anti-CPA elements can easily gather basic intelligence, since no one is there to "prevent people from entering the parking lot outside the checkpoint to note license plate numbers of 'collaborators.'"

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."

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."

The CPA's press operation—headed by Dan Senor, Bremer's senior communications adviser, who is seen by many as little more than a White House hack—doesn't escape the memo writer's criticism, either. The press office, he says, has made a bad political situation worse by "promoting American individuals above Iraqis." In one case, the memo says, "Iraqis present at the 4 am conclusion of the Governing Council deliberations on the interim constitution were mocking Dan Senor's request that no one say anything to the press until the following afternoon.... It was obvious to all that an American wanted to make the announcement and so take credit. Our lack of honesty in saying as much annoyed the Iraqis . . . [they] resent the condescension of our press operation."


Pre-War Concerns Validated

By and large, the March memo validates many points raised by career military, diplomatic, and intelligence officers before the war. For them, lack of planning for post-war stabilization was a primary matter of deep concern, which cannot be said for the Bush administration's hawkish advocates of "regime change."

Among the more informed and prescient in this camp is Retired USAF Colonel Sam Gardiner, a long-time National War College instructor and war-games specialist who asserted in February of 2003 that "the military is not prepared to deal with [Bush's] promises" of a rapid and rosy post-war transition in Iraq. Based on Gardiner's experience as a participant in a Swedish National War College study of protracted difficulties in rebuilding Kosovo's electrical grid after NATO bombed it in 1999, Gardiner made a similar study, in 2002, of the likely effect US bombardment would have on Iraq's power system. Gardiner's assessment was not optimistic. It was also hardly unknown: not only did he present his finding to a mass audience at a RAND Corporation forum, he also briefed ranking administration officials ranging from then-NSC Iraq point man Zalmay Khalizad to senior Pentagon and U.S. Agency for International Development officials.

Despite repeated assurances over the past year from CPA chief L. Paul Bremer that Iraq's electricity situation has vastly improved, the memo says otherwise, reporting that there is "no consistency" in power flows. "Street lights function irregularly and traffic lights not at all . . . Electricity in Baghdad fluctuating between three hours, on and off, in rotation, and four hours on and off."

"I continue to get very upset about the electricity issue," Gardiner said last week after reviewing the memo. "I said in my briefing that the electrical system was going to be damaged, and damaged for a long time, and that we had to find a way to keep key people at their posts and give them what they need so there wouldn't be unnatural surges that cause systems to burn out. Frankly, if we had just given the Iraqis some baling wire and a little bit of space to keep things running, it would have been better. But instead we've let big US companies go in with plans for major overhauls."

Indeed, as journalists Pratap Chatterjee and Herbert Docena noted in a report from Iraq in Southern Exposure, published by the Durham, North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, the steam turbines at Iraq's Najibiya power plant have been dormant since last fall. As Yaruub Jasim, the plant's manager, explained, "Normally we have power 23 hours a day. We should have done maintenance on these turbines in October, but we had no spare parts and money." And why not? According to Jasim, the necessary replacement parts were supposed to come from Bechtel, but they hadn't arrived yet— in part because Bechtel's priority was a months-long independent examination of power plants with an eye towards total reconstruction. And while parts could have been cheaply and quickly obtained from Russian, German, or French contractors— the contractors who built most of Iraq's power stations— "unfortunately," Jasim told Chatterjee and Docena, "Mr. Bush prevented the French, Russian, and German companies from [getting contracts in] Iraq." (In an interview last year with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bechtel's Iraq operations chief held that "to just walk in and start fixing Iraq" was "an unrealistic expectation.")

The CPA memo also validates key points of the exceptionally perceptive February 2003 US Army War College report, "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario." Critical of the U.S. government's insufficient post-war planning, the War College report asserted that "the possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious." It also cautioned that insufficient attention had been given to the political complexities likely to crop up in post-Saddam Iraq, a scene in which religious and ethnic blocs supported by militias would further complicate a transition to functional democracy in a nation bereft of any pluralistic history.

According to a Washington, D.C.-based senior military official whose responsibilities include Iraq, CPA now estimates there are at least 30 separate militias active in Iraq, and "essentially, [CPA] doesn't know what to do with regard to them— which is frightening, because CPA's authority essentially ends on June 30, and any Iraqi incentive to get rid of the militias is likely to go away after that date, as sending US troops around Iraq against Iraqis isn't likely to endear the new Iraqi government to its citizens."

And then there is the problem of Iran. According to the memo, "Iranian money is pouring in" to occupied Iraq— particularly the area under British control— and it asserts it is "a mistake" to stick to a policy of "not rock[ing] the boat" with the Iranians, as "the Iranian actors with which the State Department likes to do business . . . lack the power to deliver on promises" to exercise restraint in Iraq. According to senior U.S.intelligence and military officials queried on this point, the Iranian influence in Iraq is both real and formidable, and the US is, as one put it, at best "catching up" in the battle for influence. But the officials also added that pushing the point with Iran too hard - either through diplomatic channels or on the ground in Iraq - would likely be more troubled than the current course of action, possibly resulting in armed conflict with Iran or a proxy war in Iraq that the U.S. isn't ready to fight.

Famously, Lord Cromer once described Great Britain's approach to the Land of the Nile: "We do not rule Egypt; we rule those who rule Egypt." Compare that with several statements made by the U.S. official who wrote the memo considered here. Of one senior Iraqi official, whose name is redacted, he states that "it is better to keep [him] a happy drunk than an angry drunk." And he says of two other Iraqi leaders that they are "much more compliant when their checks are delayed or fail to appear," adding that "the same is true with other Governing Council members." The attitudes aren't much different, are they? And yet sometimes, the most true and heartbreaking view is afforded from the wheel of the mighty ship of state.


Jason Vest is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect. His book on the current Bush administration and national security will be published in 2005. This piece was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) for use by its members.

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