Oct. 6, 2007
Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad during the Surge
Review of Pepe Escobar’s Latest Book
Pepe Escobar’s new book on Baghdad Besurged is full of surprises, the first being that it opens in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub.
The immediate relevance of the locale is conveyed by the presence of American troops and mercs from Iraq and other outposts of Empire, booked to celebrate Carnival through a Miami travel outfit called Tours Gone Wild. This prologue also establishes the author’s chops as a citoyen du monde. Brazilian by birth, working now for “Asia Times” and traveling with a French TV editor, Escobar credibly observes that the planet is being Brazilianized, not Americanized, by which he means subjected to “a civil war with no front, no army, no rules and no honor” — a state in which his native land has been inured for decades.
The next surprise strikes quickly: Escobar, for all his worldly wisdom, proves no less vulnerable to assault than those lacking long careers on the global news beat. Despite niggling thoughts of peril, he leaves the “Green Zone” safety of an upscale district to mingle with lesser revelers — and gets mugged within 100 meters! This made him one of 128 victims recorded by the city’s police on a typical day, but he was lucky not to suffer worse than a faceful of spray foam and emptied pockets. The number of fatal shootings is just as high (running at about 150 on a daily basis, nationwide, with most presumably in Rio).
“The underprivileged masses of the global South are desperate,” he mused after the experience, “and ready to do anything … Undocumented, un-credit carded and flat broke, I felt just like one of them.”
Escobar’s admirable empathy gets its next workouts across the Atlantic, but still not in Baghdad or even Iraq. His first two chapters are set in Syria, where Damascus is home to around 200,000 of at least a million displaced Iraqis (a crew growing by some 40,000 monthly). These are the fortunate, although prices are vastly inflated and quarters are cramped. Unlike their counterparts in Jordan, for instance, they’re allowed to work, open businesses, receive 50 percent-subsidized healthcare and send their children to school. Even so, many can’t get by and, when their money is gone, they’re forced back to Iraq unless successful in obtaining scarce visas for entry elsewhere — usually Australia or Canada, perhaps Europe for those with family ties.
Thousands of refugee families face imminent repatriation, according to a former math teacher, who now earns just $100 each month selling bus tickets and has to tap his dwindling savings for three times that sum. Nobody wants to go, as is perfectly natural. The surprise here is that the largely separate Sunni and Shiite communities which sprang up in Damascus were unprecedented for residents of pre-invasion Baghdad. Said retired government official Azia Abu Ammar, a Shiite long wed to a Sunni, “In Baghdad most marriages are mixed.” The retired government trade official emphasized, “There is no Sunni against Shiite. The Americans provoked it. Since the beginning they started talking about separate areas.”
How’s that for a kick in the head?
Ammar and others insist the crisis in their homeland can resolve only when when foreign troops withdraw, thereby removing the provocation that attracts foreign insurgents. They see al-Qaeda as “an American creation” — yep, another shocker. So let’s pause and let these facts sink in. Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad got along well, even cozily in most households, before Shrub intruded. And al-Qaeda is the spawn of American meddling.
As Escobar moves on to examine present conditions in Iraq’s capital, he tells us five “overlapping wars” have developed in the wake of American intervention. Two target Americans in general — waged separately by Sunni guerillas (mainly foreigners) and Shiite Sadrists. Two more target the American-backed “Green Zone” government — waged separately by the same Sunni guerillas and the shadowy Wahhabist group calling itself both al-Qaeda in Iraq and The Islamic State of Iraq. Additionally, Sunni guerillas are fighting against assorted Shiite death squads and militias such as the Sadr Army and The Islamic State of Iraq, which operates by sparking chaos, bombing Sunnis in hope they’ll attack Shiites.
Obviously this is far from the picture of sectarian civil strife that we’re getting in the US. If he’s right, we could stop four of these conflicts instantly, merely by leaving and ceasing to prop Maliki up. Thus the Iraqis could get on with forming a central government that suits them and expelling foreign Arab troublemakers. Then would come amity — not overnight but pretty soon – and the return of their exiled middle class: the folks with the skills to make a country work, who had a little cash set aside but not enough to build a bunker around themselves and wait out the fracas.
Seconding Escobar’s notion that a united Iraq is not only possible but desired by most citizens is news that broke while I was reading his book. As reported by After Downing Street, a semi-secret peace conference held in Finland during late August was attended by a bevy of unnamed Iraqis and facilitated by leaders from Northern Ireland and South Africa, who famously resolved their own differences a few years back. Among the principles and objectives agreed by Iraqi signatories, who pledged to meet again with the aim of evolving a peace process, was: “a common vision … on the importance of termination of the presence of foreign troops in Iraq through … completion of national sovereignty and rebuilding a national army and security apparatus according to a national vision within a realistic timetable.”
“A common vision…a national vision” – hmmm. So why did our Senators just vote support for a federalist vision? Are they as confused as most of us about what’s really happening in Iraq? No doubt that’s true of many, who believe we’re currently stuck there, trying to referee a civil war. Seemingly the most honest of our media are saying so now. Still, might some Senators favor regional administration as a way to legitimize oil deals signed in Kurdistan without approval in Baghdad?
As recently reported by many, including Rigzone, there’s uproar in the capital over an exploration pact the Kurds concluded with one of Shrub’s Texas cronies, Ray Hunt — head of Hunt Oil and a member of the administration’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Responding to this, Janet Ritz blogged on Sept. 16 for the Huffington Post, “If the surge’s purported effort is to buy time for Baghdad to come to a political reconciliation, why has one of Bush’s closest allies … gone north to Kurdistan instead of waiting for Baghdad to finalize their own oil revenue sharing law (one of those unmet benchmarks)?”
The Kurds, let’s recall, feature nowhere in Escobar’s “five wars” analysis, except obliquely through endorsement of the targeted government and American interventionists. With the big ol’ USA in their corner, they’re doing fine, thanks, and even willing to risk a jab at Baghdad. Granted, lack of loyalty to Greater Iraq is understandable from a minority group who suffered so greatly under Saddam Hussein. Granted, too, a smaller piece of something beats a bigger piece of nothing — but Big Oil might reasonably reach the same conclusion, if compelled. So what’s the hurry? It’s impossible not to smell Shrub and His Thugs behind this Kurdish rush to shoot themselves in the foot and invite further enmity from their countrymen –- not only those opposing the present government, but that government, itself.
Could it be that Nuri al-Maliki is on his way out, with Washington’s blessing? Escobar thought so, as early as last spring. Besides being associated with deteriorating security in the minds of ordinary people, he is opposed by “all strands” of insurgents who, as Escobar noted, “will never allow the Bush administration — or Anglo-American Big Oil — to control Iraq’s oil wealth.” That Maliki’s cheerleading for the oil giveaway was getting nowhere made Washington go off him, in addition to which he’d begun cozying up with Iran.
Also within the early 2007 timeframe of Red Zone Blues, Escobar speculated that Allawi, the former interim PM, may be on his way back in. Conversations throughout Baghdad told him “Iraqis terrified by the current carnage are more and more inclined to turn to Iyad Allawi as the only possible solution.” He added ruefully, “The true measure of the overwhelming Iraqi tragedy is that people in Baghdad are now yearning for an ersatz Saddam.” In a recent interview, the author told Paul Jay (senior editor of “US Labor against the War”) that strongman tactics on the part of Allawi might well restore civil order and even gain passage of the oil law.
While no fan of the “ex-Ba’athist, embezzler-in-Yemen and former CIA and MI5 asset” who ordered assaults on Fallujah and Najaf in 2004, Escobar seems to find the idea of partition less savory than Allawi. Red Zone Blues was written long before a federalist solution gleamed in many eyes besides Joe Biden’s, but one of his most recent “Asia Times” columns addresses this notion with the utmost hostility. I won’t veer off into that territory here, since I want to talk about the book, but the article deserves your attention. It fully sets us straight on why partition is no answer at all and, outside the US, is being regarded as far from a well-meaning thought.
In his ramblings around Baghdad, which he describes as a gulag, Escobar’s “roving eye” — the title of his “Asia Times” column — fixes frequently on economic issues. His prior volume, which I look forward to reading, was Globalistan: How the Civilized World is Dissolving into Liquid War, and he cites it in connection with the city’s transformation into “a Pentagon-enforced Condofornia imposed over an Arab Slumistan.” Condofornias and Slumistans have been created worldwide, since Reagan’s reign unleashed savage capitalism and the ultra-rich began taking all the winnings. The walls dividing them normally keep Sluminstanis out, but there’s a dark reverse of that in Baghdad: The Great Wall of Adhamiyah, which ghettoizes a Slumistan. Within is what’s become a Sunni hotbed of resistance to the Maliki government and the corporatist diktats of former proconsul Paul Bremer, especially as they relate to the oil snatch. Outside the wall, more than three miles long and about 12 feet high, Adhamiyah is all but encircled by US forces, with some roads into the area ablocked and all controlled by checkpoints. There are also checkpoints inside, manned by police from Shiite cleric Maqtada ad-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, who regularly create commotion in order to snag cell phones for resale — as befell one of Escobar’s traveling companions.
Following the more usual Condo/Slumi pattern is the ultimate “Green Zone”: the heavily guarded enclave encompassing the US Embassy, Iraqi Parliament and homes of the most privileged. Heavy security also exists around all military encampments and official buildings, as well as in certain smaller parts of the city, where residents can afford to hire private bullies, watchmen and sharpshooters.
Most of the capital remains a “Red Zone” — hence, the terror felt by refugees facing return, as by those unable to immigrate or take refuge in Sadr City, viewed by its denizens as the safest place in the country. That’s why about three million of the five million unfortunates still in Baghdad have squeezed into its ramshackle buildings, on average 11 people to a house. You probably figure it’s all-Shiite and protected by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army but — surprise, surprise — there are Sunnis in the mix and tribal guards police the 24-square km district. Want another eye-opener? The flags lining main streets there are Iraqi, not partisan. Muqtada is a hard-core nationalist, not a bit interested in Iraqi’s being dominated by Iran.
Yet this is the “place that Pentagon generals dream of smashing.” Escobar tells us more: “The radio station of choice is Peace 106 FM. Kids in Argentine soccer jerseys play in the streets … (T)here are 100 schools … (and) plans to build a local university. The municipality has the land, 300 hectares; they also want to build a medical center and a park. But they need help. And no help is coming from the Maliki government …The key problem is Shiite/Shiite violence. The Badr Brigades… trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards … (clash) with the Mahdi Army… This boiled down in essence to a rivalry between eminent families … the al-Sadr and the al-Hakim … a good old class struggle – between the bourgeois, al-Hakim-conrolled SCII and the Sadrist popular masses. Muqtada was winning for obvious reasons: the bourgeoisie — collaborating with the occupation ––was absolutely inept at government and Iraq was plunging into even more misery than sub-Saharan Africa …”
Yep, it’s that bad. Yearly per capita income may be less than US$400 now, with unemployment at 60 percent (probably 70 percent in Sadr City). In 1980, per capita income was $3,600. That fell to $860 in 2001, after 10 years of sanctions, and was published as $530 in 2003.
Let’s pause again and let things sink in: Baghdad is awash in money — so many billions that dozens of them simply disappear — but most Iraqis are living on virtually nothing and can’t get work. And we’re allowing our government’s overpaid contractors to import the cheapest possible labor, instead of hiring them! How the hell could they not hate us?
The impact of the sanctions was another major shock, at least to me. That point was best made when Escobar talked with members of the so-called Sanctions Generation. Most children of that era are young adults now, some already college graduates. Growing up in the hungry 1990s is a memory they’ll never shake, but those actually born after 1991 and thus undernourished from infancy are also afflicted with weak and undersized skeletal structures. Only Saddam and his set, whom the US and UN meant to punish, lived comfortably, while the rest suffered. Many suffer still, and not only from health problems. Lots of loveless marriages were contracted, for instance, and financial desperation led others into vice.
The sanctions did nobody’s ethics any good and continued deprivation is doing the same thing today. As Escobar reports, students frantic to finish their degrees and get out of the country threaten professors with “bullet” messages and cheat openly — and these are the good kids, compared to the ones setting bombs. Young people with well-founded hopes for the future aren’t impelled toward destructive behavior. Had our tax dollars been spent with this in mind, there could have been a genuine reconstruction of Iraqi society.
As for why they weren’t, the only answer is greed: the same greed that’s turning every country where corporate interests reign supreme into zones of green and red, Condofornias and Slumistans. Our own college students, recent studies informed us, are also scared enough about economic survival that they routinely cheat and threaten their professors, too (with lawuits, instead of ammunition). That’s exactly how the rulers of the universe want them to enter the workplace: scared beyond all thought of principle. Or of complaint.
Near his conclusion, Escobar strikes a similar note — after supplying a lot more informative and often surprising material that I’ll leave to your discovery — saying, “There’s no ‘democracy’ to speak of anywhere. This is a plutocratic world … Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek evaluates how hard it is today to think of a credible alternative to the current system: ‘…(It) is easier today to imagine a total catastrophe destroying all life on Earth than a radical change in social life … (A)n asteroid touches the Earth, but capitalism survives.’ ”
Transparently, putting some reins on unbridled corporatism is something we all need to get cracking on in our respective portions of the globe, and working Americans are beginning to wake up to the extent of injustice inflicted upon us over the past 30 years. We in America should also get cracking on a nationwide Vietnam-scale stop-the-war movement, Escobar says as practically his parting shot. “The whole world,” he writes, “is baffled at how more than 60 percent — and counting — of US public opinion is against the Iraq war while at the same time there’s no rage exploding in the American street.” I’d like to see more public fury, too; we’re burning with it. However, as he pointed out himself, real democracy has been crushed here, too. Besides working three times harder to survive now, people are very much aware of themselves as targets, not masters or even beneficiaries, of government — and, as for raging in the streets, we know Shrub and His Thugs have all those empty concentration camps just waiting for us.
Red Zone Blues is published by Nimble Books.