Strange doings in Iraq

With troubling reports emerging from the U.S.-occupied country, the president needs to pay more attention.

Published September 20, 2005 8:28PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney checks in with a summary of recent news from Iraq.

When a reporter asked him in Mississippi earlier this month if he could provide adequate attention to both the needs of the Gulf Coast and the foreign relations issues that confront him, George W. Bush got a little indignant. "I can do more than one thing at one time," he snapped. "That's what -- I hope you -- by the time I'm finished president, I hope you'll realize that the government can do more than one thing at one time, and individuals in the government can ... And so if I'm focusing on the hurricane, I've got the capacity to focus on foreign policy, and vice versa. But I thank you for asking that question."

Bush is touring the Gulf Coast yet again today, and that got us to thinking about another question for the president -- how are things going in Iraq on your watch?

Here's the news we're hearing, which includes a mounting death toll and two stranger-than-fiction mysteries.

The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq has moved past the 1,900 mark with the deaths of five more U.S. soldiers: Four were killed by roadside bombs near Ramadi, while a fifth died in an explosion near Baghdad. Four more Americans, a U.S. diplomat and his security team, were killed today in a suicide bombing. Also, an Iraqi freelance journalist who worked with the New York Times was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on Monday in Basra.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Iraqi authorities are preparing an arrest warrant for the former defense minister under the Bush-appointed interim government of Ayad Allawi. The minister, Hazim Shaalan, who is "understood to be living in Jordan," is implicated in what Iraq's senior anticorruption official calls "possibly the largest robbery in the world" -- the bilking of more than $1 billion from the Iraqi treasury. According to the official, Judge Raid al-Rahdi, as much as $2.3 billion has "disappeared" from Iraqi government accounts, in part through multimillion-dollar arms deals, not vetted through proper channels, in which grossly inflated prices were paid for outdated or substandard equipment.

And back in the United States and Britain, television viewers must be puzzling over the reports they're seeing of British troops in Basra using an armored vehicle to smash into an Iraqi police station. There are conflicting reports, but we know that Iraqi authorities took two undercover British soldiers into custody after they got into a gun battle with Iraqi police that resulted in the death of at least one traffic police officer -- a CNN report indicated that the soldiers began "firing on civilians in central Basra," while British authorities claim the incident began when the undercover soldiers were stopped by the police.

In a statement issued today, British Brigadier John Lorimer explained what happened after the soldiers were arrested. The British soldiers were supposed to be handed over to coalition authorities, but this never occurred, despite the orders of Iraq's interior minister, Lorimer said. Fearing that the soldiers' lives were in danger, Lorimer ordered the assault on the police station. The team discovered the soldiers had been moved -- the men had been handed over to Shiite militia men, according to the AP -- and was able to rescue them at a house nearby.

The raid on the police station produced scenes of Iraqis -- who CNN reported were members of the Mehdi Army, a militia controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr -- attacking the British forces and of one British soldier catching fire from a burning tank. CNN described "dozens of Iraqis surrounding British armored vehicles and tossing gasoline bombs, rocks and other debris at them."

The details of the event remain unclear, but it appears that the incident in Basra is an example of the tension in Iraq between military officials who have sworn to serve the Iraqi government and the American-led coalition and militiamen loyal to Shiite clerics, who were unwilling to see the British soldiers' actions go unpunished.

However all of this plays out -- a good first step, in the case of the missing billions, would be for the American media to start reporting on it -- these incidents serve as yet another reminder that the situation in Iraq is tenuous and complex, and requires the kind of hands-on and nuanced approach from the U.S. government that President Bush hasn't found the time to provide.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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