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IS THE IRAQI INTERIM ADMINISTRATION CRACKING DOWN ON CRIME?


Bush must be grateful that media attention has shifted away from Iraq — since all the news is always bad, the shift can only help his re-election campaign. But in the meantime, I am suffering from withdrawal symptoms. For two days in a row (July 13 and 14), my habitual sources (the New York Times and Washington Post), did not have featured articles on the war, and relegated coverage of the daily action to a single summary article in the back pages. I have had to double my dose of the richer and uncut coverage by independent reporters on the internet.


 


Others in my situation have pointed out that the fall-off in coverage is probably simple loyalty to the Bush administration and not an actual dearth of news. As Tom Engelhardt, of TomDispatch commented, “In first two weeks after the ‘transition,’ our media largely gave the Bush administration a free ride in Iraq.To take only one shred of evidence cited by Engelhardt, the number of U.S. combat deaths doubled in the two weeks after the June 28th transition, but the major media did not report this flare-up; instead they simply stopped reporting the still-mounting death toll of American soldiers. In the meantime, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post referred to this period as “relative calm,” while Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times labeled it “relatively quiet.” (If the Times and the Post agree, does that make it true?)


During this news hiatus — before the July 14 suicide attack brought Iraq back to the front pages — something potentially important did happen, though it was barely reported. Here is the entire New York Times coverage, from the middle of an inside article by Ian Fisher, under the banner: “Iraq Militants said to Behead Truck Driver From Bulgaria” (July 14, 2004):


 


On Tuesday, the interim Iraqi government, flexing its new muscles without American help, mounted a major sweep of criminals in Baghdad, arresting what officials said were 527 suspects in crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder.


 


Safety is, by far, the major concern of Iraqis, and they frequently complain that the American military has been less concerned with ordinary crimes, which have skyrocketed, than with bombings and terror attacks. The raids on Tuesday seemed intended to show that the new interim government, which took power [sic] from American occupation forces here two weeks ago, would not only move forcefully against everyday violence, but was capable of doing so alone.


 


“There was no coordination with the Americans in these arrests,” Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said. “This was done totally by Iraqis.”


 


The raid, the second in the past week, was carried out by the Baghdad police and Iraqi intelligence agents. Mr. Kadhim said that those arrested would be investigated for any links to the insurgents who attack American and Iraqi forces.


 


There are four things about this news item that merit comment:


 


·         First, the Iraqi administration is trying to do something about “the major concern of Iraqis.” This is the year’s gross understatement: in the May poll conducted by the Coalition (a very well run poll that covers the six largest cities in the country), 59% of Iraqis designated security as their major concern, more than all other problems combined. And, it needs to be understood, this insecurity derives largely from criminal, not insurgent, behavior. Fully 40% said that the main source of concern for their family “street crime” — more than twice the score for roadside bombings (17%), the next highest security problem.

This may sound very abstract, but it is not. The crime wave in
Iraq is so bad that people cannot go shopping without protection, they cannot go for picnics on the river, and many families simply stay locked in their houses, fully armed. On a more spectacular level, prosperous Iraqis have to fear kidnapping for ransom, which is an epidemic in most cities. (In fact, the chances of an Iraqi getting kidnapped is many magnitudes greater than the threat to foreigners, though the Western press makes it seem quite the opposite.). So this policy by the interim government is actually a sign of positive life: they are at least rhetorically trying to address one of the most pressing problems faced by their constituency.


 


·         Second, it is noteworthy that the Times is finally reporting that the “security” problems of ordinary Iraqis have little to do with the insurrection. Until now, the Times, the Post, and the other mass media have all conveyed the impression (or stated as fact) that people’s fears of violence were primarily caused by the insurgency (either through direct attack on civilians or by drawing American fire). Now, finally, the Times reported that “ordinary crimes” are the principle source of Iraqis’ “safety concerns.” (We should remember, however, that this key fact is buried on page 14 in the middle of an article headlined “Iraq Militants said to Behead Truck Driver From Bulgaria.”)


 


·         Third, the article reveals, in passing, that this one of the primary reasons for Iraqi hatred of the Americans. The operant phrase is: “the Iraqis frequently complain that the American military has been less concerned with ordinary crimes…than with bombings and terror attacks.” This is so understated that it is almost a lie. The U.S. forces have been relentlessly unwilling to respond to the ordinary crime that has become the major daily problem that Iraqis face.


 


·         This, too, is reflected in the recent CPA poll. Only 2% say that Coalition patrols are a main source of security, compared to 9% who see the Coalition as the chief source of danger. Fully 55% say they would feel safer if the U.S. left. The problem is made all the more palpable by the frequent American raids into Iraqi neighborhoods that result in break-ins and arrests of well respected residents; people that the Coalition suspects have information about the insurgency. The violence and determination with which these raids are undertaken, contrasted with the studied neglect of public safety, constitutes incontrovertible proof that the Occupation is simply unconcerned with the welfare of the Iraqi people. It is hardly surprising that 87% of Iraqis believe that the meager Iraqi security forces are likely to do a better job than the U.S. of protecting them.


 


·         Finally, in attacking this problem, the interim government went out of its way to dissociate this action from the Occupation. Allawi announced: “There was no coordination with the Americans. This was done totally by Iraqis.” In order for the interim government to have any credibility among Iraqis, it must not be associated with the Americans. In fact, more than three quarters of Iraqis said that the interim administration should “order the coalitions forces to leave Iraq,” even before the permanent government was formed.


 


This necessity for dissociation places the interim administration in an untenable position. The U.S. government will continue to insist on joint military patrols, on control of the reconstruction programs the U.S. has funded, and for collegial coordination between the newly minted administration and the newly minted American ambassador.(For proof of this, see the three articles in the New York Times on July 18 by Somini Sengupta, James Glanz, and Ian Fisher.) Such explicit cooperation makes it impossible for Allawi to maintain the “no coordination with Americans” stance he adopted for this operation. As a consequence, we can expect the credibility of the new administration to decline as quickly as its alliance with the Occupation is fully revealed. Brave declarations of independence will soon fall on deaf ears.


 


The campaign against ordinary crime is a worthy one, but its prognosis is not good. Unfortunately, we cannot be confident that it will do anything more than harass and arrest innocent people. This pessimistic prognosis rests on three unfortunate facts:


 


·         The 17 months of neglect by the Occupation have allowed individual thugs and criminals to evolve into organized crime, with ties to each other and to resourceful outsiders. They are now far better organized than the Iraqi police. In fact, many of the police are agents of, beholden to, or afraid of the organized criminals, and this means the police will go after small fry or innocent people. As time goes on, this effect will become larger and larger, with the enforcement process ultimately driving the little criminals into the protective cover of the larger criminal syndicates. It could actually make things worse.


 


·         Americans recruit, train, and supervise the Iraqi police, and they have little interest in catching these criminals. Instead, insofar as the police have the wherewithal to enter Iraqi communities to search houses and seize wanted individuals, the U.S. will demand that they search and seize people who might know something about the insurrection. This will do much more than soak up the time and resources of the police. It will also discredit them with the local population, and this lack of trust will make the task of catching criminals (if they even bother to try) much more difficult.


 


In the very first week of the new campaign, the migration away from criminal enforcement had already begun. Prime Minister Allawi had attributed the spectacular suicide bombing in the Green Zone as a response to “arrests of the last couple of days,” which were, according to Times reporter Gettleman, “sweeping up hundreds of suspected terrorists and criminals.” In other words, the focus on capturing criminals had already shifted to a joint operation against insurgents and criminals.


 


·         Even if these other factors were not at work, the Iraqi administration would likely abandon this effort in a short time. The “interim government” is staffed by political entrepreneurs whose alliance with the Bush Administration was constructed on the basis of relentless self-interest. In their previous incarnation as the Iraqi Governing Council, Allawi and his cohorts established an unblemished record of personal aggrandizement, gaining (as columnist Josh Marshall put it) “a (well-deserved) reputation for corruption.” Even the CPA, apparently oblivious to most aspects of the growing crisis from November to June, recognized this as a key problem — declaring that “their corruption is our corruption” in an April report that discussed the nepotism, favoritism, and venality of various key leaders. (A useful summary of the report can be found in the Village Voice, April 20.)



There is no reason for the “interim government” to behave differently from its Iraqi Governing Council, since its origins and make-up are largely identical. It will therefore pursue only those politics that directly benefit the leadership itself. Unfortunately, consistent law enforcement is not very profitable; whereas inconsistent law enforcement can be very profitable. In this atmosphere, we can predict that the raids will sooner or later (almost certainly sooner) become window dressing — once the interim administration forges lucrative alliances with organized crime.


 


Ultimately, the effort of the Iraqi government to gain credibility by serving the interests of ordinary Iraqis will founder on the same shoals that have brought the country to its current misery: the dynamics of American occupation are simply contrary to the welfare of the Iraqi people.


 


 


Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on Z Net and TomDispatch, and in Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).


 


 

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