Corruption in Iraq: Where did they learn that?

A searing New York Times piece reveals theft and bribery are rampant.

By Joan Walsh

Published December 2, 2007 5:51PM (EST)

Right-wing war supporters loved Damien Cave's excellent New York Times piece charting improvements in Baghdad in the wake of the U.S. military troop surge. On "Reliable Sources" last week, Howard Kurtz noted that many felt the liberal media had taken too long to report the good news in Iraq. Well, I hope right-wing hawks spread Cave's latest far and wide, too: "Nonstop Theft and Bribery Are Staggering Iraq." The headline says it all, but the details are chilling too:

"Jobless men pay $500 bribes to join the police. Families build houses illegally on government land, carwashes steal water from public pipes, and nearly everything the government buys or sells can now be found on the black market.

"Painkillers for cancer (from the Ministry of Health) cost $80 for a few capsules; electricity meters (from the Ministry of Electricity) go for $200 each, and even third-grade textbooks (stolen from the Ministry of Education) must be bought at bookstores for three times what schools once charged.

"'Everyone is stealing from the state,' said Adel Adel al-Subihawi, a prominent Shiite tribal leader in Sadr City, throwing up his hands in disgust. 'It's a very large meal, and everyone wants to eat ...' The extent of the theft is staggering. Some American officials estimate that as much as a third of what they spend on Iraqi contracts and grants ends up unaccounted for or stolen, with a portion going to Shiite or Sunni militias."

Cave interviews a young father and new police recruit who says every single person in his training class of 850 paid between $400 and $800 to get the slot. Transparency International, a nonprofit that studies corruption, says Iraq is now the third most corrupt country in the world, beyond Myanmar and Somalia.

Cave is an excellent reporter (full disclosure: he used to work for Salon) who left Iraq for a spell back in the U.S. and is doing incredible reporting on his return. In an online conversation about the "return to normalcy" piece the right-wing blogosphere loved, he noted the signs of progress but also warned about ongoing trouble. One fact that stood out to me from Cave's talk with the Times' Mike Nizza was the way the military was itself paying for Iraqi cooperation. "At one point, south of Baghdad, I watched an American lieutenant pass out $10 bills to a long line of Iraqis for about 20 minutes of canal cleaning work as a proud sheik sat nearby, like a godfather, full of pride and power," Cave told Nizza.

I can already anticipate worldly-wise neocons pouncing on their keyboards to explain this is just how those Arabs operate, but in fact the image reminded me of nothing more than the way the Bush administration has privatized the war and handed out contracts to its cronies. Just imagine Dick Cheney as the proud sheik, and you've got the picture.

So while my first reaction to Cave's story today was outrage -- Is this what we're fighting for? -- then I remembered: Cronyism, corruption and incompetence are the hallmarks of the administration that pushed the invasion. So maybe the answer is yes.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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