Sucked into the Baghdad Triangle

I’ve taken a perverse degree of pleasure in tracking Iraq’s descent into utter chaos, so I couldn’t resist commenting on two bitterly amusing stories I’ve just read in the past day. The first beautifully illustrates the failed benevolence of the American troops, the latter the way the conflict has opened up a kind of Baghdad Triangle, into which resources and lives are sucked randomly, with no viable hope of an end. But hey, at least the stories that are starting to filter through now are entertaining. Like John Travolta’s legendary schlock-Scientology flick Battlefield Earth, Battlefield Iraq is now so bad it’s bordering on hilarious.

It’s now common knowledge that American neoconservatives were way off in their assessment of ordinary Iraqis’ attitudes to an invasion. They simply assumed they’d be welcomed as liberators instead of resented as occupiers. I think the idea might have been one of those truths they hold to be self-evident, instead of actually checking. So, because many ordinary Iraqis reacted to their presence less than enthusiastically, America has waged a battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis, as it’s always termed. And while most open military battles were won overwhelmingly by the Americans, the popularity contest is one they cannot hope to take out.

Salon tells the tale of one effort to make the Iraqis think slightly less unkindly of the Americans. Apparently, Iraqi kids constantly play soccer. So some bright spark in the figured that by handing out a batch of shiny new soccer balls, the children might stop viewing the American troops as those scary guys that carry huge weapons and blow up our houses, but instead see them as our kindly older friends who distribute goodies. And sure, that’s the same kind of thinking used by pedophiles when they stuff their trenchcoat pockets full of lollies and stroll down to their local public school. But you’d imagine that in a soccer-mad country, it would have gone down fairly well.

So, the troops were given a huge truck full of boxes of soccer balls. But, to cut a long story short, the US Army managed to forget to include pumps. They tried using Humvee tyre pumps, but they didn’t work. This posed a dilemma, which they passed up to the batallion colonel, who ruled that no pumps were to be ordered. So, the troops were ordered to distribute thousands of flat soccer balls to the children of Iraq. Who used them as hats, and floated them in canals. Brilliant. And then as the flat-soccer-ball convoy returned to its base, the kids started throwing rocks at it.

The spin that the Army spokesperson put on this was particularly hilarious. “To focus on the air in the balls, or lack thereof, undermines the American spirit of generosity and completely misses the point of giving,” he said. Yeah, right, it’s the critics that have missed the point in this story.

But as amusing a vignette about America’s incompetence as this is, a story in The Guardian today goes far beyond soccer balls. Since the troops had no chance of winning Iraqi hearts and minds, the next best option, it seems, was to buy them. To the tune of US $12 billion, the largest cash disbursement ever from the Federal reserve. And what happened to this massive truckload of money? Sorry, massive multiple truckloads – 363 tonnes in fact, making our own shameful AWB payments appear positively modest. Why, it disappeared.

The extent of the incompetence is detailed in a memorandum prepared for a Senate Committee meeting. And it’s breathtaking:

“One CPA official described an environment awash in $100 bills,” the memorandum says. “One contractor received a $2m payment in a duffel bag stuffed with shrink-wrapped bundles of currency. Auditors discovered that the key to a vault was kept in an unsecured backpack.

“They also found that $774,300 in cash had been stolen from one division’s vault. Cash payments were made from the back of a pickup truck, and cash was stored in unguarded sacks in Iraqi ministry offices. One official was given $6.75m in cash, and was ordered to spend it in one week before the interim Iraqi government took control of Iraqi funds.”

And, joy of joys, we may have yet another AWB scenario, where the Coalition is directly funding people to fight against them:

The memorandum concludes: “Many of the funds appear to have been lost to corruption and waste … thousands of ‘ghost employees’ were receiving pay cheques from Iraqi ministries under the CPA’s control. Some of the funds could have enriched both criminals and insurgents fighting the United States.”

It seems that they didn’t particularly care about how the money was disbursed because it came from the Iraqi treasury. Of course. And meanwhile, the civil servants who might actually have helped with the reconstruction weren’t paid for months because Iraq’s banking system had been completely shut down. Is there any wonder that they’re having a few difficulties winning hearts and minds?

Given the staggering extent of this disaster, which will surely become ever clearer as more investigations are conducted into the shambles that the invasion was from start to finish, it should come as a blissful relief to read today that the Pentagon is now secretly planning for impending defeat in Iraq. Which would allow all of us to wake from this collective nightmare.

Except for ordinary Iraqis, that is, who we’ve plunged into a probably endless civil war. I think we can safely call it that now, can’t we?

Dominic Knight

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