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The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Some Chomsky

I doubt Oliver "Krapp" Kamm can write anything like this stuff (or attract the attentions of Elle Macpherson, that's for sure!)

"New World Relationships": Noam Chomsky, Khaleej Times, March 10, 2006

The prospect that Europe and Asia might move toward greater
independence has troubled US planners since World War II. The
concerns have only risen as the ‘tripolar order’ — Europe, North
America and Asia — has continued to evolve. Every day, Latin America,
too, is becoming more independent. Now Asia and the Americas are
strengthening their ties while the reigning superpower, the odd man
out, consumes itself in misadventures in the Middle East.

Regional integration in Asia and Latin America is a crucial and
increasingly important issue that, from Washington's perspective,
betokens a defiant world gone out of control. Energy, of course,
remains a defining factor — the object of contention — everywhere.
China, unlike Europe, refuses to be intimidated by Washington, a
primary reason for the fear of China by US planners, which presents a
dilemma: Steps towards confrontation are inhibited by US corporate
reliance on China as an export platform and growing market, as well
as China's financial reserves, reported to be approaching Japan's in

In January, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin
Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia visited Beijing, which is expected to lead
to a Sino-Saudi memorandum of understanding calling for "increased
cooperation and investment between the two countries in oil, natural
gas and investment," The Wall Street Journal reports. Already, much
of Iran's oil goes to China, and China is providing Iran with weapons
that both states presumably regard as deterrent to US designs. India
also has options. India may choose to be a US client, or it may
prefer to join the more independent Asian bloc that is taking shape,
with ever more ties to Middle East oil producers. Siddarth
Varadarajan, deputy editor of The Hindu, observes that "if the 21st
century is to be an 'Asian century,' Asia's passivity in the energy
sector has to end."

The key is India-China cooperation. In January, an agreement signed
in Beijing "cleared the way for India and China to collaborate not
only in technology, but also in hydrocarbon exploration and
production, a partnership that could eventually alter fundamental
equations in the world's oil and natural gas sector," Varadarjan
points out. An additional step, already being contemplated, is an
Asian oil market trading in euros. The impact on the international
financial system and the balance of global power could be
significant. It should be no surprise that President Bush paid a
recent visit to try to keep India in the fold, offering nuclear
cooperation and other inducements as a lure.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, left-centre governments prevail from
Venezuela to Argentina. The indigenous populations have become much
more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador,
where they either want oil and gas to be domestically controlled or,
in some cases, oppose production altogether. Many indigenous people
apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies and
cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit
in their SUVs in traffic gridlock.

Venezuela, the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere, has forged
probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American
country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil to China
as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile US
government. Venezuela has joined Mercosur, the South American customs
union, a move described by Argentine President Nestor Kirchner as ‘a
milestone’ in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as a
"new chapter in our integration" by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva. Venezuela, apart from supplying Argentina with fuel
oil, bought almost a third of Argentine debt issued in 2005, one
element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the
controls of the International Monetary Fund after two decades of
disastrous conformity to the rules imposed by the US -dominated
international financial institutions. Steps towards Southern Cone
integration advanced further in December with the election of Evo
Morales in Bolivia, the country's first indigenous president. Morales
moved quickly to reach a series of energy accords with Venezuela.

The Financial Times reported that these "are expected to underpin
forthcoming radical reforms to Bolivia's economy and energy sector"
with its huge gas reserves, second only to Venezuela's in South
America. Cuba-Venezuela relations are becoming ever closer, each
relying on its comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost
oil, while in return Cuba organises literacy and health programmes,
sending thousands of highly-skilled professionals, teachers and
doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected areas, as they do
elsewhere in the Third World.

Cuban medical assistance is also being welcomed elsewhere. One of the
most horrendous tragedies of recent years was the earthquake in
Pakistan last October. Besides the huge death toll, unknown numbers
of survivors have to face brutal winter weather with little shelter,
food or medical assistance. “Cuba has provided the largest contingent
of doctors and paramedics to Pakistan," paying all the costs (perhaps
with Venezuelan funding), writes John Cherian in India's Frontline,
citing Dawn, a leading Pakistan daily.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan expressed his ‘deep gratitude’
to Fidel Castro for the ‘spirit and compassion’ of the Cuban medical
teams —reported to comprise more than 1,000 trained personnel, 44 per
cent of them women, who remained to work in remote mountain villages,
"living in tents in freezing weather and in an alien culture" after
Western aid teams had been withdrawn. Growing popular movements,
primarily in the South, but with increasing participation in the rich
industrial countries, are serving as the bases for many of these
developments towards more independence and concern for the needs of
the great majority of the population.

Up For the Coup?

"One day in 1975 Harold Wilson took time off to show them [the painted portraits & photos of all British PMs since Robert Walpole found on the main staircase at 10 Downing Street]to me. At the end of my guided tour he said mysteriously "Time to go before the tanks come rumbling down Whitehall to cart us all off."- Long time Labour activist Illtyd Harrington, quoted in this week's New Camden Journal (23/3/06, The Review section, p.II).

Back in my mid-teens I found mainstream politics somewhat boring. As I've got older, if not more mature, I'm much less enamoured about the thought of civil war, revolution and extremist political movements brawling all over the streets of Britain. So when I came across references in my visits to my local library (mid-1980s)about there being potential plots to bring down the governments of Harold Wilson illegally I was interested to say the least. This was increased by reading the various allegations in the papers at around the time that the Thatcher Government tried to ban Peter Wright's "Spycatcher" (a rubbish book).

There has been a lot wrtten in the last month or so on the 30th anniversary of Harold Wilson resigning as PM. The more looking back at it, there was a lot going on. I've seen a lot about plans for a coalition "National Government" of the centre, particularly as I can see it, if there had been a vote in the June 1975 Referendum to pull out of the (then) European Economic Community. On the "Right" there was talk of the military coup d'etat. On the "Left" the Labour Party was moving in a more anti-Establishment posture and the unions were full of beans. Plus Northern Ireland was falling apart and the Scottish & Welsh Nationalists were doing well in the polls. Throw in the upsurge of support for the National Front and it would have made a good film script to say the least.

The following piece by Jonathan Freedland (again- I'll be honest: I disagree with loads he says, but he's a good writer- a bit like by someone further to the "Right" in the shape of Geoffrey Wheatcroft). I disagree with Freedland's comment that keeping Britain in the (then) EEC was something Wilson should be remembered fondly for, but I must be honest- if Britain had voted to pull out, it would have provoked the biggest domestic political crisis in Britain since the 1926 General Strike, and where would that have led us to?

Anyway, here's Mr F's piece:

Enough of this cover-up: the Wilson plot was our Watergate
It seems fantastic now, but 30 years ago there really was a plot to carry out a coup d'etat against a British prime minister
Jonathan Freedland,The Guardian, Wednesday March 15, 20

Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of Harold Wilson's resignation as prime minister. For most people under 40 that fact will mean little; many will struggle to place the name. And yet, at the time, Wilson's departure was a political earthquake, wholly unexpected and assumed to have reshaped the national landscape. For Wilson had been at or close to the top of British politics for 12 years, spending all but four of them in Downing Street. For a large chunk of the 60s and 70s, the words "prime minister" instantly evoked the face and flat Yorkshire vowels of Harold Wilson.

Now, though, he is all but forgotten. He did not have long to play the elder statesman, pounding the lecture circuit or doing prestigious TV interviews: his galloping Alzheimer's disease, and the assault it made on his once-famed memory, put paid to that. He became a shambling, confused figure, spotted wandering on his own around the House of Lords, until his wife Mary finally took him off to his beloved Isles of Scilly. On an ITV1 documentary, whose first part aired last night, the journalist John Sweeney recalls seeing a familiar face on a Westminster park bench, sandwiched between two winos: it was the former PM, his eyes vacant.

Yet we should not let Wilson slip so easily into oblivion. Both his career, and the manner of its ending, have some useful lessons for today - ones that Tony Blair would do well to heed.

First, that resignation has never been fully explained. The ITV programme offers the personal, medical theory: Wilson could tell his brain was weakening, and rather than deny reality - as his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother had done - he resolved to quit while he was still on top. But that cause was almost certainly joined by another - one argued in tomorrow's BBC2 docudrama, The Plot Against Harold Wilson.

As Peter Wright confirmed in his book Spycatcher, Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services. Prompted by CIA fears that Wilson was a Soviet agent - put in place after the KGB had, the spooks believed, poisoned Hugh Gaitskell, the previous Labour leader - these MI5 men burgled the homes of the prime minister's aides, bugged their phones and spread black, anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media. They tried to pin all kinds of nonsense on him: that his devoted political secretary, Marcia Williams, posed a threat to national security; that he was a closet IRA sympathiser.

Such talk stoked up an establishment already trembling at what it saw as Britain's inexorable slide towards anarchy, if not communist rule. Institutions were collapsing, inflation was rising, tax was at a near-mythic top rate of 98%, and Britain was losing the last outposts of empire. Above all, the trade unions, riddled with leftists and Soviet sympathisers, seemed to have the nation under their thumb. "It was no longer a green and pleasant land, England," recalls retired Major Alexander Greenwood, Colonel Blimp made flesh.

The great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d'etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order.

It sounds fantastic, almost comic. But watch Greenwood talk of setting up his own private army in 1974-75. Listen to the former intelligence officer Brian Crozier admit his lobbying of the army, how they "seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover". Watch the archive footage of troop manoeuvres at Heathrow, billed as a routine exercise but about which Wilson was never informed - and which he interpreted as a show of strength, a warning, even a rehearsal for a coup. Listen to the voice of Wilson, who five weeks after resigning summoned two BBC journalists to tell them, secretly, of the plot.

Much of this has been known for a while; many of those involved have admitted as much and do so again in the BBC film. Yet officially it never happened: a 1987 inquiry under Margaret Thatcher concluded the allegations were false, implying that the fading Wilson had descended into paranoia. This can't be allowed to stand. Not only does it do an injustice to Wilson, it also represents an enormous cover-up. For this was the British Watergate, a conspiracy designed to pervert the democratic choice of the people. The circumstances of that time - mighty unions and the cold war - were entirely different. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Wilson plot, to realise what Britain's hidden powers are truly capable of, then these events deserve a proper reckoning. Blair should do a final service to the last Labour leader before him to win an election - and establish an independent inquiry.

In the process, he might realise how much the two have in common. The early Wilson, like the early Blair, was hailed as the harbinger of a new Britain, in touch with the mood, and the young people, of the age. Wilson gave MBEs to the Beatles, Blair gave tea to Noel Gallagher. Both were multiple election winners, skilful players of the media.

Still, historians may spot other, less comfortable parallels. First, both took heat for backing the US in an unpopular war: Wilson and LBJ in Vietnam, Blair and Bush in Iraq. Second, their reputations were badly muddied by sleaze - specifically alleged abuse of the honours system by handing out gongs and peerages to undeserving cronies. Third, they will both stir admiration for the electoral sorcery that produced winning streaks for Labour, but will both face a question: what legacy of substance did they leave behind?

If anything, these parallels are unfair to Wilson. He may have publicly backed LBJ, but privately he rejected the president's repeated request to lend even a symbolic British military presence to the war in Vietnam; Wilson refused to send so much as a marching band. Johnson punished him for it, but the PM held firm.

The Lavender List was a bad error, rewarding some, like Lord Kagan, who were later revealed to be corrupt. But Wilson did not sell peerages for cash, as Blair's Labour has done. In his day there was no need: his Labour party was funded by the trade unions, so did not need to go cap-in-hand to millionaires.

As for legacy, Wilson was mocked for citing the Open University as his greatest achievement: but that is an institution which has changed thousands of lives for the better. Along with facing down Ian Smith in Rhodesia, and steering Britain towards a Common Market yes vote in 1975, it's not such a bad record. Blair should reflect on it and pause: if his destiny is to be remembered for Iraq, he might prefer to suffer Wilson's recent fate - and be forgotten.

"Customer Service?" More larfs guv!

It's great to know that it's not just plebs like us, but also Mrs. Andrew Marr (the BBC's longtime Political Editor for non-Limeys/Poms/Rosbifs reading this) who gets treated like an inconvenience by those who use one of the greatest phrases since the ex-Eastern Bloc's rulers used "People's Democracies" to describe themselves...

Britain's service sector is now a failing digital souk: Too many offers and not enough information - instead of empowering us, the modern economy is making us gullible
Jackie Ashley, The Guardian, Monday March 13, 2006

Lillian Lazonby was an elderly woman who lived in Birmingham and died last week of a massive stroke brought on by stress. The stress that killed her was apparently caused by one of the scourges of today: junk mail. She became addicted, not to alcohol or drugs but to the false hope that junk mail brings. When she died she had spent her life savings on bogus draws and competitions. There were 10,000 letters in her flat.

You know the letters because they fall through the letterboxes of every home in the country. They are the ones telling you to hurry because you've just won a prize and only need to send a modest processing fee to collect it; the multicoloured junk about foreign lotteries, vague schemes to turn your luck around and get-rich-quick chain letters. Most of us throw this rubbish straight in the bin. But plenty have replied, sent a cheque, and had some worthless token back. A few, like Lillian, become seriously addicted and spend money - in her case, apparently, £36,000 - on prize draws.

It is one of those stories that seems to symbolise so much else about everyday life in the Britain of the 2000s. From the hysterical "sign up now ... buy this ... special deal" pop-ups that infest websites to the cold-callers who ring home telephones at all hours of the day and night, we are surrounded by a marketing frenzy that would astonish and appal earlier generations. It has sneaked up on us, just like the surveillance society, an irritation now morphing into a menace.

True, there have always been snake-oil salesmen - and there have always been gullible people. From the spivs and the excesses of hire-purchase, to the pools mania and the pyramid-selling ramps, modern capitalism has always been attended by outright hucksters. All that has changed, you might say, is that the delivery systems are faster and what was once a national problem is now global.

Is this just an inevitable result of globalisation and the "more open market in services" that every minister lauds? Is it an inevitable part of our greedier society, just one end of a scale of gullibility and debt that leads, at the other end, to the Blairs and their £4m mortgage, which rumour says they are desperately struggling to service?

It is certainly part of a bigger story that the political world barely discusses: the inefficiency of our so-called service economy. Ignore the fraudsters for a moment, and think about the mainstream businesses Britons are entangled with - pension companies, banks, major shopping companies. Total household debt is now an astonishing £1,168bn. Consumer credit, bloated as it is, grows at a slightly lower rate than it used to, but borrowing for mortgages continues to rocket, up another £9.2bn in January. Tony and Cherie are not alone.

All of this might not matter if the credit industry knew its customers and wasn't engaged in cut-throat competition to sell, sell, sell. But there is a huge greed-and-gullibility market that is entirely legal and even mainstream, operating alongside the scams and "congratulations" letters dropping on doormats. It stretches from badly educated families who don't realise the debt-traps they are entering to those middle-class people pumping up their indebtedness in the hope that the housing market will keep on rocketing.

Debt helplines and debt charities have been deluged by calls in the first part of the year; young people are said now to be part of a "debt culture", helped along by student loans. At least, at long last, the iniquitous store cards, with their APRs of 30% or more, are coming under scrutiny, with new regulations ahead.

In theory, the modern digital economy should have empowered us all so that we are better able to manage the gap between our incomes and our raging desire to buy more, and to make an easy buck, somehow, somewhere. We have a vast apparatus of regulations, a state bureaucracy overseeing banking and credit, endless private advisers and more websites than any normal person could visit in a lifetime. Once, Labour politicians would have been full of puritanical warnings about debt and greed, but those days have long gone. The mood today is: why worry? Britain's growing - hallelujah!

Well, having just spent an enforced week at home thanks to family illnesses, I've been subjected to a mild service-economy reality check. I've taken the chance to try to sort out my tax affairs, book a domestic flight, order new parts for the dishwasher and summon help to fix the squeaking of the tumble-drier and an extremely slow-draining sink. (None of this is remotely possible if, like the majority of the country, you cannot guarantee to be at home 24/7, awaiting visits and phone calls.) This means listening to loops of smug recorded messages about how valuable my custom is (interspersed with soothing music) and occasionally hurling phones across the room when, after 40 minutes, you are finally cut off. There are at least moments of comedy. The recorded messages for one insurance company now feature calming "fragments of great poetry".

When you finally penetrate the computer-telephony wall, it is typical to talk to someone who knows nothing about the account, the policy or whatever. The only lines that work are the lines that sell. This is not a service economy. This is a failing digital souk, and it is where most of Britain now has to live.

There are simply too many offers and demands out there about how to spend or save our money. All the attempts of government to help the consumer are well-meaning, but the sheer power of the market is a hundred times stronger. What should be done? The government seems frankly intimidated by the service sector, as it might have once been intimidated by the owners of car-making companies or by trade unions. Yet indebtedness, bad financial advice and rip-off scams probably cause more misery to more people than most of what Westminster discusses. More aggressive legislation, and more open criticism by ministers, should surely be at the centre of political debate.

You could argue, of course, that a prime minister who struggles so much with his own mortgage and ministers who have been in so much hot financial water already are hardly best placed to advise the rest of us. But the duty of government is to plunge itself into the problems of wider society, to know the daily life it oversees. In this case, it isn't. Lillian Lazonby was an extreme case. But in her hope, gullibility and increasing panic, she could stand for millions.

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq...

"I am in blood/Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er."- Macbeth, 'The Scottish Play', Act III, Scene IV.

That's Shakespearean for "Hey, look, guys, I mean, why can't we just move on?"

I'm so bloody angry about the whole Iraq debacle. Thousands of people have died, with even more injured, for a pack of lies promoted by a bunch of huckster politicians and their chickenhawk armchair general cheerleaders in the media. On top of that, full scale civil war in Iraq hasn't even started yet. Let's hope its not a sideshow to the Big One in Iran...

I could spend the rest of this post just effing and blinding, so I will just post some stuff I've seen recently, which makes me think "what the f...?"

The first one makes me think of HL Mencken's comment in 1919 that "To die for an idea is undeniably honourable. How much more honourable it is to die for ideas that are true."

Mr Blair, you sent my son to die in a war based on lies: Occupation has achieved nothing positive. It is time to bring our troops home and let the Iraqi people decide their own future
Pauline Hickey, The Guardian, Thursday March 2, 2006

Dear Prime Minister,
Ref: Sgt Christian Ian Hickey of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, who became 97th fatality of the Iraq conflict

As a parent yourself, you will be aware that the most precious thing we have in our lives is our children. Until four months ago, I had been blessed with two grown-up sons. I still cannot get used to speaking about one of my sons in the past tense. My youngest son Christian, 30, was a member of the armed forces; he was an exceptional character, full of fun, with great sense of humour and was a generous, caring person who brought the best in people. He was an excellent soldier, who had progressed rapidly through the ranks, and became full sergeant at the age of 29. I enclose summary from the Coldstreams' website ( to show I am not biased as his mother.

Since the death of my son on October 2005, three days before his tour was to end, I have started to question why the invasion of Iraq occurred. My son's remit in Iraq was as a "peacekeeper", helping with the rebuilding of schools and the infrastructure, and training the Iraqi police to enable them to maintain stability in the future. At the time of his death, Chris was the platoon commander and was responsible for clearing a safe route for a large convoy.

The Iraqi police have been implicated in the death of my son, from a roadside bomb. There will be no further investigation as they were spoken to, photographed and searched, then allowed to go as an Iraqi police service lieutenant colonel arrived and confirmed their identities. It makes nonsense of our involvement with them, as their own chief of police says that he can only trust 25% of his own men. This suggests that the remainder is made up of insurgents who would think nothing of killing coalition troops.

My son was on foot patrol when the bomb exploded. This was to minimise casualties should they come in contact with an improvised explosive device. The only vehicles available to them were fibreglass Jeeps; there were no armoured Land Rovers. The British government had sent a consignment of armoured Land Rovers for the Iraqi police prior to my son's death. His commanding officer spoke out about this following my son's death, as he had requested the essential Land Rovers but was turned down on the basis that they were not suitable for the roads. Would the Iraqi police not have been using the same roads as the troops? I understand that your wife, Cherie Blair, has a government bulletproof vehicle. I would question who is at most risk: British troops in a war zone or your wife driving around London?

Does the British government not have a duty of care to the troops in Iraq? My son had to purchase his own boots before going out to Iraq as the standard army-issued boots were unsuitable and melted in the intense heat. The British troops were known to the American troops as "the borrowers" due to their lack of equipment and short supplies. When the death of the 100th soldier was announced on television, I was appalled to hear that instruction had come from you not to hype up the significance of the number. If this is correct, you have little humanity and do not deserve an army who are not able to question the politics and decisions made, but have to go where they are told. I was interested to hear about Maya Anne Evans, who was arrested for peacefully reading out the names of the dead soldiers, including my son, at the Cenotaph. She was arrested by 14 police officers, received a criminal record, and was fined £100.

A Ministry of Defence poll found that up to 65% of Iraqi citizens supported attacks on British troops, less than 1% thought allied military involvement was helping their situation, and 82% were strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops in their country. For nearly two years, the British public has been inundated with US and British "exit strategies". You should not need such a strategy when the above statistics speak for themselves, and the Iraqi people want us out.

It is time to bring the troops home and let the people of Iraq decide their own future. The west cannot enforce a democratic government upon them. The occupation of Iraq has not achieved anything positive; the people are in a worse situation now than under Saddam Hussein. We have lost 103 dedicated soldiers. They died in a war based on lies, for nothing, and it has robbed them of a future.

Going to war is one of the most important decisions this country could have taken. It has resulted in many deaths, and has far-reaching implications for the country's future in the international community. From the information I have collated, the legality of the invasion is questionable - and questions must be asked and answers given. I feel it is important that, as the prime minister and the person who made the ultimate decision to invade Iraq, sending some of our troops to their death, you should have a moral duty to answer the soldiers' families' questions.

I would welcome the opportunity to meet you for such discussion. I personally find all forms of violence and aggression abhorrent. Conflict is rarely resolved though wars of aggression - negotiation is a much better tool to try to resolve issues. I am employed as a child protection social worker, and would be held accountable if a child was injured or died because I failed do my job adequately. There would be an inquiry. I accept this as part of my employment. However, if what I am reading about your involvement and the accusations in Philippe Sands' book are correct - and I note you are not in the process suing him - surely you too should be accountable for your actions, and there should be redress in the form of an inquiry at the very least.

As far as I am aware, neither you nor any government representative has attended any of the soldiers' funerals or visited the many injured. (This was recently reported as 230, while in January 2005 the figure stood at 790. I am sure who does the figures, but perhaps they should be redeployed.) The true cost of this war in terms of wasted lives of both Iraqis and of coalition troops, and the true, undisclosed financial cost, far outweigh any gains. We cannot police the whole world because they do not agree with us or will not cooperate with us. I await your response with interest.

This is an edited version of a letter delivered by Pauline Hickey to 10 Downing Street yesterday

The article below made me think that in a few years time people will be demonstrating en masse (if the "morality police" et al haven't driven them away) on the streets of Baghdad holding pictures of Saddam Hussein in the same way they have in Moscow in recent years with pictures of Joe Stalin.

They ask, we ask: was it worse under Saddam?
Zaki Chehab, New Statesman, Monday 20th March 2006
Kidnappings, power cuts, sectarian hatred, medical shortages, petrol queues, intimidation of women and a mass exodus of talent: all part of life in the new Iraq.

In June last year, in al-Jadriyah, a wealthy suburb of Baghdad, the wife of a veterinary surgeon received a call that people in the city have come to dread. It was from an unknown group claiming respon-sibility for kidnapping her husband a few hours earlier and demanding a ransom of $100,000. Her response was not what they expected. She thanked them and urged them to pay her $200 in return for killing her husband, describing him as useless, unemployed and penniless. She desperately needed the money, she said, to buy essential medicine for her youngest son. The gang, assuming they had nabbed the wrong person and were not after all in possession of a professional man of means, released the vet unharmed. His wife's unorthodox reaction had saved him.

The vet was one of the lucky few; thousands more Iraqis have been killed by their kidnappers, many of them after large ransoms have been paid. Even school- children are not spared: at a press briefing this month, Abdul Falah al-Sudani, the minister for education, said that 76 schools around the country have been attacked since April 2003, resulting in the deaths of 64 students and 310 teachers or other school employees. This was threatening to paralyse the entire school system, putting in jeopardy the educational rehabilitation of the country, he said.

The story is the same at the universities. Isam al-Rawi, head of the Teachers' Association of Iraqi Universities, says that more than 200 lecturers have been murdered since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in what he describes as "organised killings". Just last week, four lecturers were kidnapped from al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and to date no trace of them has been found. Samir, a sports teacher from Fallujah, told me resignedly: "Threats to teachers like myself, and their assassination, have become something normal in Iraq and we have to live with that."

With kidnap gangs singling out the children of professional parents, it is little wonder that families are fleeing the country in what amounts to a severe brain drain. University professors, doctors, engineers and businessmen and their next of kin seek refuge abroad, many in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where tens of thousands of Iraqis have already settled over the past three years. (There are so many of them, in fact, that property prices in Amman are soaring.) The shrinking of the intellectual heart of Iraq has all but extinguished private investment and the consequences are being felt by the entire country at the most basic levels. Unemployment is running at 60 per cent and life for the Iraqi people is more difficult than at any time in living memory.

The frequent bombs, of course, are terrifying, but their effect is all the greater and all the more depressing because a lack of decent hospital facilities has led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of civilians admitted to the emergency wards. Late last year, Basma, a young medical student I know, returned home in tears one evening from her work at what used to be Iraq's finest hospital, the Medical City in Baab al-Mouaadem, central Baghdad. That afternoon, she explained to her family, two car bombs had exploded in separate neighbourhoods and ambulances had ferried the victims to her hospital. Doctors were standing by in the emergency operating theatre, but they had to make snap decisions about treatment not on the basis of what was medically possible, but to fit the limited equipment and medicines at their disposal.

A 23-year-old man, who had lost an eye, also had both legs and an arm amputated, even though Basma believes these could have been saved in earlier times. A 14-year-old boy had to have his leg amputated to avoid gangrene poisoning, but the hospital had no prosthetic limbs for his rehabilitation.

There is a scarcity of basic equipment that most hospitals store in ample quantities as a matter of course. Many injuries caused by car bombs require silk stitching thread for wounds to delicate parts of the body such as the face. Iraqi surgeons, however, have to use nylon thread, leaving the victims of shootings and bombings with more prominent physical scars to compound their psychological trauma. The situation today, the professionals insist, is even worse than in the last years of the old regime, when essential materials were in short supply because of UN economic sanctions.

Iraqis genuinely hoped that the quality of life in their country would soon rise to meet international standards once Saddam was no longer in power and sanctions had ended. Calculations based on the value of the country's oil reserves suggested that there would be plenty of money to spend on improving public services and strengthening the infrastructure. That optimism has vanished, and reconstruction has proved to be an illusion.

There has been no visible improvement to any of the services that are basic to civil society: drinking water, electricity supply, functioning sewage systems, schools and hospitals. Drinking water used to be available from household taps, but that is no longer safe to drink. Potholes in the roads, which were a com-mon cause of complaint in Saddam's time, not only still exist but are even bigger. There were occasional power cuts in the old days but generally the citizens of Baghdad enjoyed a regular supply. Now they are reduced to electricity for just one hour in every six each day.

Nazha al-Said, an elderly lady in her seventies from the Dora neighbourhood in south-eastern Baghdad, didn't mince her words when she spoke to me. She accused the new rulers of being more corrupt than the previous regime, and pointed to the lack of progress in helping people survive summer temperatures that can reach an overwhelming 55 C between June and August. Although some people can sleep on rooftops at night, there is a high risk of suffocation, particularly in neighbour-hoods such as al-Sadr City, where more than three million people are squashed into 25 square kilometres of slums, with several families living together in every house. Most people can't afford electricity generators to power air-conditioners, even if they could find them on sale.

It is bizarre, travelling through a country that has one of the largest oil reserves on earth, to observe the long queues of cars at petrol stations. Drivers have become so resigned to this that they often bring their entire families along to keep them company. It is not unusual to see picnics being laid out along the roadside to pass away the time, while someone guards the car for fear of losing that precious place in the queue. People even risk their lives to fill their tanks - bombs can explode at the rate of five or more per day. The black market is thriving, with gangs selling petrol at hiked-up prices to those willing and able to pay to avoid the dangerous queues. One driver I encountered in Kirkuk was disgusted at the length of a queue we joined. "This city sleeps on a sea of oil and just look at us," he lamented.

Naturally, the biggest concern for Iraqis is security. The civilian death rate is higher than ever, and not a day passes without reports of dozens killed, whether it be from car bombs or sectarian murder. It has become second nature to brief your loved ones as they leave for work, school or the market, reeling off the list of streets and neighbourhoods that have become recent targets for suicide bombers or kidnap gangs, and reminding them to steer well clear.

Identifying particular districts with particular groups is easier than ever. Sectarian cleansing began in Baghdad and elsewhere immediately after the fall of the old regime, with Shias or Kurds going to Sunnis living in predominantly Shia or Kurdish areas, accusing them of being part of Saddam's regime and warning them to move out. Sectarian killings often followed. Sunnis fled in terror, leaving clearly defined Shia and Kurdish areas. Soon Sunnis adopted the same tactics, forcing Shias out of heavily populated Sunni areas such as al-Adhamiyah, Dora and Saidiya.

This is something new in Iraq, a break with history that many Sunnis and Shias are reluctant to acknowledge. I have heard people pour scorn on television news broadcasts warning of a sectarian war and point instead to the large number of mixed marriages in Iraq, said to account for almost 50 per cent of the popula- tion. In addition, they say, the religious leadership of both the Sunnis and Shias are working to calm their supporters and create harmony. Certainly many cross-community bonds survive. A prominent Shia woman, who served as a minister in the interim government of Iyad Alawi, told me she has five sisters and that four of them are married to Sunnis, as is she. She impressed on me how impossible it would be for her sisters to turn against their husbands and children, just because they came from a different branch of Islam. She felt this was the case for the many others across the country who have married into a different sect.

The general sense of insecurity is aggravated by the lack of organised and trustworthy policing. It is widely accepted that many crimes take place right under the noses of the police force, and that the police often fail to intervene and protect people targeted by gangs. The police themselves have been involved in kidnapping and murder. Many blame the increasingly powerful Shia militias that have infiltrated the police. Militia leaders also encouraged their troops to join the payroll of the interior ministry, and Sunni leaders complain that death squads attached to the ministry have killed large numbers of Sunnis.

The scale of death among Iraq's male population may even have unbalanced the country's demographics, with disastrous consequences for women. The number of widows is growing rapidly and the rate at which women are being kidnapped or forced into prostitution is increasing. On 8 March, International Women's Day, Yanar Mohammed, leader of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, announced that more than 2,000 women have been kidnapped since the fall of the regime.

Many women live isolated lives, their social contact limited to conversations over the telephone. Those who continue going to work, particularly in the Shia south, can find themselves harassed by Islamic militias. "Morality police" in Basra are likely to stop them as they enter schools and government buildings, checking they are wearing the hijab. This Taliban-style enforcement continues despite guarantees under the new constitution that women should be free to choose how they dress.

Concepts of justice and law have little meaning for ordinary Iraqis. They watch the televised trial of Saddam Hussein, but it seems surreal - a kind of reality-TV show, but one far removed from their own reality. When Saddam is found guilty, as inevitably he will be, it will do little to change the grim and ever-worsening situation on the ground.

Zaki Chehab works for al-Hayat newspaper and for Lebanese broadcasting, and is the author of Iraq Ablaze (I B Tauris)

How can such an oil rich country as Iraq be in such in a mess. Wasn't it going to be subject to a new "Marshall Plan"?

'Iraq was awash in cash. We played football with bricks of $100 bills'
At the beginning of the Iraq war, the UN entrusted $23bn of Iraqi money to the US-led coalition to redevelop the country. With the infrastructure of the country still in ruins, where has all that money gone? Callum Macrae and Ali Fadhil on one of the greatest financial scandals of all time
The Guardian, Monday March 20, 2006

In a dilapidated maternity and paediatric hospital in Diwaniyah, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Zahara and Abbas, premature twins just two days old, lie desperately ill. The hospital has neither the equipment nor the drugs that could save their lives. On the other side of the world, in a federal courthouse in Virginia, US, two men - one a former CIA agent and Republican candidate for Congress, the other a former army ranger - are found guilty of fraudulently obtaining $3m (£1.7m) intended for the reconstruction of Iraq. These two events have no direct link, but they are none the less products of the same thing: a financial scandal that in terms of sheer scale must rank as one of the greatest in history.

At the start of the Iraq war, around $23bn-worth of Iraqi money was placed in the trusteeship of the US-led coalition by the UN. The money, known as the Development Fund for Iraq and consisting of the proceeds of oil sales, frozen Iraqi bank accounts and seized Iraqi assets, was to be used in a "transparent manner", specified the UN, for "purposes benefiting the people of Iraq".

For the past few months we have been working on a Guardian Films investigation into what happened to that money. What we discovered was that a great deal of it has been wasted, stolen or frittered away. For the coalition, it has been a catastrophe of its own making. For the Iraqi people, it has been a tragedy. But it is also a financial and political scandal that runs right to the heart of the nightmare that is engulfing Iraq today.

Diwaniyah is a sprawling and neglected city with just one small state paediatric and maternity hospital to serve its one million people. Years of war, corruption under Saddam and western sanctions have reduced the hospital to penury, so when last year the Americans promised total refurbishment, the staff were elated. But the renovation has been partial and the work often shoddy, and where it really matters - funding frontline health care - there appears to have been little change at all.

In the corridor, an anxious father who has been told his son may have meningitis is berating the staff. "I want a good hospital, not a terrible hospital that makes my child worse," he says. But then he calms down. "I'm not blaming you, we are the same class. I'm talking about important people. Those controlling all those millions and the oil. They didn't come here to save us from Saddam, they came here for the oil, and so now the oil is stolen and we got nothing from it." Beside him another parent, a woman, agrees: "If the people who run the country are stealing the money, what can we do?" For these ordinary Iraqis, it is clear that the country's wealth is being managed in much the same way as it ever was. How did it all go so wrong?

When the coalition troops arrived in Iraq, they were received with remarkable goodwill by significant sections of the population. The coalition had control up to a point and, perhaps more importantly, it had the money to consolidate that goodwill by rebuilding Iraq, or at least make a significant start. Best of all for the US and its allies, the money came from the Iraqis themselves.

Because the Iraqi banking system was in tatters, the funds were placed in an account with the Federal Reserve in New York. From there, most of the money was flown in cash to Baghdad. Over the first 14 months of the occupation, 363 tonnes of new $100 bills were shipped in - $12bn, in cash. And that is where it all began to go wrong.

"Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money," says Frank Willis, a former senior official with the governing Coalition Provisional Authority. "We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced."

The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption. "American law was suspended, Iraqi law was suspended, and Iraq basically became a free fraud zone," says Alan Grayson, a Florida-based attorney who represents whistleblowers now trying to expose the corruption. "In a free fire zone you can shoot at anybody you want. In a free fraud zone you can steal anything you like. And that was what they did."

A good example was the the Iraqi currency exchange programme (Ice). An early priority was to devote enormous resources to replacing every single Iraqi dinar showing Saddam's face with new ones that didn't. The contract to help distribute the new currency was won by Custer Battles, a small American security company set up by Scott Custer and former Republican Congressional candidate Mike Battles. Under the terms of the contract, they would invoice the coalition for their costs and charge 25% on top as profit. But Custer Battles also set up fake companies to produce inflated invoices, which were then passed on to the Americans. They might have got away with it, had they not left a copy of an internal spreadsheet behind after a meeting with coalition officials.

The spreadsheet showed the company's actual costs in one column and their invoiced costs in another; it revealed, in one instance, that it had charged $176,000 to build a helipad that actually cost $96,000. In fact, there was no end to Custer Battles' ingenuity. For example, when the firm found abandoned Iraqi Airways fork-lifts sitting in Baghdad airport, it resprayed them and rented them to the coalition for thousands of dollars. In total, in return for $3m of actual expenditure, Custer Battles invoiced for $10m. Perhaps more remarkable is that the US government, once it knew about the scam, took no legal action to recover the money. It has been left to private individuals to pursue the case, the first stage of which concluded two weeks ago when Custer Battles was ordered to pay more than $10m in damages and penalties.

But this is just one story among many. From one US controlled vault in a former Saddam palace, $750,000 was stolen. In another, a safe was left open. In one case, two American agents left Iraq without accounting for nearly $1.5m.

Perhaps most puzzling of all is what happened as the day approached for the handover of power (and the remaining funds) to the incoming Iraqi interim government. Instead of carefully conserving the Iraqi money for the new government, the Coalition Provisional Authority went on an extraordinary spending spree. Some $5bn was committed or spent in the last month alone, very little of it adequately accounted for.

One CPA official was given nearly $7m and told to spend it in seven days. "He told our auditors that he felt that there was more emphasis on the speed of spending the money than on the accountability for that money," says Ginger Cruz, the deputy inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction. Not all coalition officials were so honest. Last month Robert Stein Jr, employed as a CPA comptroller in south central Iraq, despite a previous conviction for fraud, pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal more than $2m and taking kickbacks in the form of cars, jewellery, cash and sexual favours. It seems certain he is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a further 50 criminal investigations under way.

Back in Diwaniyah it is a story about failure and incompetence, rather than fraud and corruption. Zahara and Abbas, born one and a half months premature, are suffering from respiratory distress syndrome and are desperately ill. The hospital has just 14 ancient incubators, held together by tape and wire.

Zahara is in a particularly bad way. She needs a ventilator and drugs to help her breathe, but the hospital has virtually nothing. Her father has gone into town to buy vitamin K on the black market, which he has been told his children will need. Zahara starts to deteriorate and in desperation the doctor holds a tube pumping unregulated oxygen against the child's nostrils. "This treatment is worse than primitive," he says. "It's not even medicine." Despite his efforts, the little girl dies; the next day her brother also dies. Yet with the right equipment and the right drugs, they could have survived.

How is it possible that after three years of occupation and billions of dollars of spending, hospitals are still short of basic supplies? Part of the cause is ideological tunnel-vision. For months before the war the US state department had been drawing up plans for the postwar reconstruction, but those plans were junked when the Pentagon took over.

To supervise the reconstruction of the Iraqi health service, the Pentagon appointed James Haveman, a former health administrator from Michigan. He was also a loyal Bush supporter, who had campaigned for Jeb Bush, and a committed evangelical Christian. But he had virtually no experience in international health work.

The coalition's health programme was by any standards a failure. Basic equipment and drugs should have been distributed within months - the coalition wouldn't even have had to pay for it. But they missed that chance, not just in health, but in every other area of life in Iraq. As disgruntled Iraqis will often point out, despite far greater devastation and crushing sanctions, Saddam did more to rebuild Iraq in six months after the first Gulf war than the coalition has managed in three years.

Kees Reitfield, a health professional with 20 years' experience in post-conflict health care from Kosovo to Somalia, was in Iraq from the very beginning of the war and looked on in astonishment at the US management in its aftermath. "Everybody in Iraq was ready for three months' chaos," he says. "They had water for three months, they had food for three months, they were ready to wait for three months. I said, we've got until early August to show an improvement, some drugs in the health centres, some improvement of electricity in the grid, some fuel prices going down. Failure to deliver will mean civil unrest." He was right.

Of course, no one can say that if the Americans had got the reconstruction right it would have been enough. There were too many other mistakes as well, such as a policy of crude "deBa'athification" that saw Iraqi expertise marginalised, the creation of a sectarian government and the Americans attempting to foster friendship with Iraqis who themselves had no friends among other Iraqis.

Another experienced health worker, Mary Patterson - who was eventually asked to leave Iraq by James Haveman - characterises the Coalition's approach thus: "I believe it had a lot to do with showing that the US was in control," she says. "I believe that it had to do with rewarding people that were politically loyal. So rather than being a technical agenda, I believe it was largely a politically motivated reward-and-punishment kind of agenda."

Which sounds like the way Saddam used to run the country. "If you were to interview Iraqis today about what they see day to day," she says, "I think they will tell you that they don't see a lot of difference".

You say you shouldn't gloat, and it is bad manners, but more and more of the cheerleaders for this imperial adventure are giving us their mea culpas. However, the Grinning Chimp and his cohorts in the White House are sticking to their guns (and not afraid to use them, are you, Dick?!).

As Greg Palast argues, the Bushies are quite happy with what they have acheived thus far.

Bush Didn't Bungle Iraq, You Fools
Greg Palast, The Guardian, Monday, March 20, 2006

Get off it. All the carping, belly-aching and complaining about George Bush's incompetence in Iraq, from both the Left and now the Right, is just dead wrong.

On the third anniversary of the tanks rolling over Iraq's border, most of the 59 million Homer Simpsons who voted for Bush are beginning to doubt if his mission was accomplished.

But don't kid yourself -- Bush and his co-conspirator, Dick Cheney, accomplished exactly what they set out to do. In case you've forgotten what their real mission was, let me remind you of White House spokesman Ari Fleisher's original announcement, three years ago, launching of what he called,




O.I.L. How droll of them, how cute. Then, Karl Rove made the giggling boys in the White House change it to "OIF" -- Operation Iraqi Freedom. But the 101st Airborne wasn't sent to Basra to get its hands on Iraq's OIF.

"It's about oil," Robert Ebel told me. Who is Ebel? Formerly the CIA's top oil analyst, he was sent by the Pentagon, about a month before the invasion, to a secret confab in London with Saddam's former oil minister to finalize the plans for "liberating" Iraq's oil industry. In London, Bush's emissary Ebel also instructed Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, the man the Pentagon would choose as post-OIF oil minister for Iraq, on the correct method of disposing Iraq's crude.

And what did the USA want Iraq to do with Iraq's oil? The answer will surprise many of you: and it is uglier, more twisted, devilish and devious than anything imagined by the most conspiracy-addicted blogger. The answer can be found in a 323-page plan for Iraq's oil secretly drafted by the State Department. Our team got a hold of a copy; how, doesn't matter. The key thing is what's inside this thick Bush diktat: a directive to Iraqis to maintain a state oil company that will "enhance its relationship with OPEC."

Enhance its relationship with OPEC??? How strange: the government of the United States ordering Iraq to support the very OPEC oil cartel which is strangling our nation with outrageously high prices for crude.

Specifically, the system ordered up by the Bush cabal would keep a lid on Iraq's oil production -- limiting Iraq's oil pumping to the tight quota set by Saudi Arabia and the OPEC cartel.

There you have it. Yes, Bush went in for the oil -- not to get more of Iraq's oil, but to prevent Iraq producing too much of it.

You must keep in mind who paid for George's ranch and Dick's bunker: Big Oil. And Big Oil -- and their buck-buddies, the Saudis -- don't make money from pumping more oil, but from pumping less of it. The lower the supply, the higher the price.

It's Economics 101. The oil industry is run by a cartel, OPEC, and what economists call an "oligopoly" -- a tiny handful of operators who make more money when there's less oil, not more of it. So, every time the "insurgents" blow up a pipeline in Basra, every time Mad Mahmoud in Tehran threatens to cut supply, the price of oil leaps. And Dick and George just love it.

Dick and George didn't want more oil from Iraq, they wanted less. I know some of you, no matter what I write, insist that our President and his Veep are on the hunt for more crude so you can cheaply fill your family Hummer; that somehow, these two oil-patch babies are concerned that the price of gas in the USA is bumping up to $3 a gallon.

Not so, gentle souls. Three bucks a gallon in the States (and a quid a litre in Britain) means colossal profits for Big Oil, and that makes Dick's ticker go pitty-pat with joy. The top oily-gopolists, the five largest oil companies, pulled in $113 billion in profit in 2005 -- compared to a piddly $34 billion in 2002 before Operation Iraqi Liberation. In other words, it's been a good war for Big Oil.

As per Plan Bush, Bahr Al-Ulum became Iraq's occupation oil minister; the conquered nation "enhanced its relationship with OPEC;" and the price of oil, from Clinton peace-time to Bush war-time, shot up 317%.

In other words, on the third anniversary of invasion, we can say the attack and occupation is, indeed, a Mission Accomplished. However, it wasn't America's mission, nor the Iraqis'. It was a Mission Accomplished for OPEC and Big Oil.

Of course, when Bush opens his mouth, another quote from 'The Scottish Play' comes to mind...

"...a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." (Act V, Scene V).

The Prodigal Returns

Hello there! Serious apols for a total lack of blogging over the past few weeks & some explanation is in order.

Apart from working nights on a week on, week off basis (which leaves one when working with a life like a fascist slogan: "Eat, Sleep, Work") I spent a week off trying to write my essay on Britishness for the Fabian/Guardian competition on time and under 3,000 words. Well, I completed it 47 short of the limit. If I win it'll be in The Guardian. If not I'll post it up here.

The other big thing is that I might be standing for public office for the first time ever (I've stood in student elections, but students aren't the bloody public are they?!). I would be a paper candidate in West Hampstead ward for Camden council elections on May 4th. There would be no campaign at all except that my name would be on the ballot paper on behalf of the Greens. Apparently there are a couple of other Greens in the ward (who I must phone soon) which I'm glad of. The main effort will be in nearby wards where the Greens are hopeful of getting a few councillors and holding the balance of power. The council is currently Labour controlled but it looks like being No Overall Control after May 4th. Anyway, I'll keep you posted on that. However, more to the point, more postings on the blog will now appear!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Water water everywhere...

Apols for the lack of blogging recently, but my spare time has been taken up by that competition essay on Britishness. The closing day is next week (17th- Saint Patrick's Day, which is a bit ironic) so I'm concentrating on that. The ideas are coming thick & fast: it is just putting them in order and keeping it to 3,000 words max which are causing me grief.

So I'll leave you with thoughts on the weather (v.British!). It's started raining here but I suppose the drought is still on. Hose pipe bans, water metering etc etc. However, when the rest of the world has droughts it's 30 degree centigrade/celsius (what is the difference?), cloudless blue skies and constant sunshine. Here it is cold & grey with a biting wind. Bloody typical- we can't even get a decent drought together...

PS The spell check for "Britishness" offers "Brutishness"...