Stealing Home

by JON BROWN

Iraq’s looting commenced when the cheap-seat crowd swept out of the bleachers to tear up the field. The circling sky-box set waited. With wholesale privatization, the real looting is about to begin. Why settle for souvenirs when you can walk off with the stadium?

Predatory and outrageous? Not at all. It’s business as usual by WTO standards. Yet the privatization announcement, issued in Dubai by an interim finance minister, prompts a question: How is it that the U.S. gets to auction off Iraqi assets at bargain-basement prices? Iraq is not an American possession, yet the U.S. aims to peddle a national patrimony under rules that allow foreign companies to extract Iraqi capital at will. Undoubtedly the Bush administration will point to authorization from the unelected, U.S.-appointed Iraqi governing council for the clearance sale. Interestingly its current president, the neocon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, is a convicted embezzler. (Substitute Middle Eastern "Jordan" for the Midwestern state in "Indiana Wants Me" for a fitting presidential theme song.) His one-month term ends Sept. 30.

An inopportune introduction to Bush’s speech at the UN on Tuesday? Perhaps not. For the administration to award party favors to them’s that brung ’em-the $2,000-a-plate lobbies that fuel American elections-it must get a move on, signing over the Iraqi economy before domestic electoral necessities force the U.S. to cede authority. Indeed, a place at that exclusive table for the carving up of Iraq may be the quid, otherwise known as "baksheesh," to the quo of foreign assistance, otherwise known as "mercenaries."

The goings-on call to mind a certain quintessentially American document, the Declaration of Independence, with its quaint notion of consent of the governed-which is in fact the elemental basis of the United States, its founding principle. What consent can the U.S. claim to justify the de facto expropriation of Iraqi public and private assets? The winking claim that opening the market to outside investment is for the Iraqi people’s own good fails by the Declaration’s own standard. It’s not for a foreign power, especially one that obliterated a country’s infrastructure and currently occupies it, however benevolently in its own eyes, to decide. Nor can an imposed government legitimately divest the Iraqi economy. By fundamental American tradition and law, the proposed selloff is not only wrong but axiomatically illegal.

For proof look no further than the Declaration itself: "That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." Precisely that is absent in Iraq. The U.S. occupation derives its powers from military might, not consent. It is not, therefore, a just power, and hence illegitimate. The U.S. may protest that it is a liberator, not an oppressor with "a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny." Yet consider Declaration complaints against an erstwhile King George.

Electricity outages, fuel shortages, contaminated water? "HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good." "It is not necessary for Uday and Qusay to be dead," Younis says. "We need water and electricity. At night, we have two hours of electricity on and four hours off. It was better before the war." An open sewer runs past their front door and rubbish is piled up on the street. In the small courtyard it is clean and tidy, but stiflingly hot. Since the day before they had not had electricity to power the ceiling fans, and no one in the household – from her 80-year-old father to her grandson of six month- had managed to sleep. "You cannot know what it is like to live in this heat with no power and no fuel. It is intolerable."

Anarchy and a crime wave? "HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection." Nor does an 11 p.m. curfew ensure nighttime peace. Thieves easily exploit its lax enforcement in the absence of police patrols. "At the beginning we were relieved that the looters did not attack residential districts," says Ms. Khadimi. "But now we are afraid to be in our houses." "It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy," he said, jabbing his hand in the air. Mr. Rumsfeld insisted that words such as anarchy and lawlessness were unrepresentative of the situation in Iraq and "absolutely" ill-chosen.

Indefinite detainment without charge? "FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury." "A civilian car came up with American soldiers in it. Then more soldiers in military vehicles. I told them I didn’t understand what had happened, that I was a scientific researcher. But they made me lie down in the street, my face on the tarmac, tied my arms behind me with plastic-and-steel cuffs and tied up my feet and put me in one of their vehicles. Some soldiers drove me back to Baghdad after 33 days in that camp. They dropped me in Rashid Street and gave me back my documents and Danish passport and they said ‘Sorry’. Yes, they were ‘sorry.’"

Accountability? "FOR protecting [soldiers], by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants." The shooting in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, occurred less than 48 hours after gunfire during a demonstration Monday night that hospital officials said killed 13 Iraqis. "The evildoers are deliberately placing at risk the good civilians," said Lt. Col. Tobin Green of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "These are deliberate actions by the enemy to use the population as cover." "Even when US troops on a raid in Mansour six weeks ago ran amok and gunned down up to eight civilians- including a 14-year-old boy-the best the Americans could do was to say that they were "enquiring" into the incident. Not, as one U.S. colonel quickly pointed out to us, that this meant a formal enquiry. Just a few questions here and there. And of course the killings were soon forgotten.

Elections and local authority? "HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them." With a great sense of accomplishment, the council finished its report on June 11, a mere 9 days after they were elected. When they went to turn in the report, however, they were told that the council had been disbanded and they should go home. Majid and his fellow council members were stunned. They were given no reason for their dismissal. In less than two weeks, they had been elected and fired. It made no sense. "Perhaps we made too many suggestions. Perhaps they didn’t like our suggestions," said Majid, struggling to find an explanation. "Or perhaps this is democracy, American-style. In any case, what can we do? They are the occupiers and we are the occupied."

Inaccessible authorities? "HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures." For its own protection, the council has been all but invisible since it was appointed last month. The council works cloistered in a building set back more than half a mile from the road. Visitors can enter only if they are met by a council member and after they have been checked by U.S. soldiers. Once inside the complex, they must drive past a second American checkpoint, stop their cars and wait while a soldier removes a set of road spikes.

A national for-sale sign? "FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever." Chanting their demands for work, they marched toward Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace, headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority-the almost all-American body, headed by L. Paul Bremer III, that runs Iraq. When I asked one of the organizers why they didn’t go to their own leaders in the Iraqi Governing Council, he looked blank. ‘We don’t know where they are,’ he said.

And what of the judiciary, military, and police? "HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries. HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance. HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures." "Life in Baghdad can only be described as bizarre," [Wooldord] writes. "We are based within a huge compound… in Sadam (sic) Hussein’s former Presidential Palace. The place is awash with vast marble ballrooms, conference rooms (now used as a dining room), a chapel (with murals of Scud missiles) and hundreds of function rooms with ornate chandeliers which were probably great for entertaining but which function less well as offices and dormitories … I work in the ‘Ministries’ wing of the palace in the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Within this wing, each door along the corridor represents a separate ministry; next door to us, for example, is the Ministry of Health and directly across the corridor is the Finance Ministry. Behind each door military and civilian coalition members (mainly American with the odd Brit dotted about) are beavering away trying to sort out the economic, social and political issues currently facing Iraq. The work is undoubtedly for a good cause but it cannot but help feel strange as our contact with the outside world-the real Iraq-is so limited."

The litany goes on, with Iraqis able to lay claim to virtually every colonial grievance. Glowing encomia by the likes of Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice can’t elide the biblical cadences of the Declaration’s words: "HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People. HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation."

Unfair? Eighteenth-century England thought as much. Certainly the Bush regime can and will indignantly invoke the overthrow of the Baathist regime in exculpation of the ancient accusations of America’s founding fathers. But without the consent of the governed, the U.S. acts illegitimately, damned by the very text that inseminated it as a nation and an idea, the betrayer not just of the Iraqi people but of itself. The coming privatization is to Iraq what taxation without representation was to colonists: tyranny. It is unjust, but more than that it is, ironically, un-American, if "America" is to retain any of the Declaration’s aboriginal, and apparently lost, meaning.

JON BROWN is JON BROWN, except when Roscelin Nimba. Email either at dogen@mindspring.com.

 


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