Multinational Monitor

MAR 2004
VOL 25 No. 3


Saddam’s Debt: The Emerging Conflict Over How to Deal with Saddam’s Devastating Economic Legacy
by Justin Alexander

Hijacking Iraq’s Skies: The Secret Plans to Privatize Iraqi Airway
by Svetlana Tsalik, Isam al Khafaji and Julie McCarthy

"Don’t Worry About Price:"Whistleblowers Sound the Alarm on Halliburton in Iraq
by Representatives Henry Waxman and John Dingell


The Aftermath: Iraq’s Perilous Future Under U.S. Control
an interview with Medea Benjamin

The Privatized Military: The Unmonitored, Unregulated and Unchecked Global Growth of Private Military Firms
an interview with Peter W. Singer


Behind the Lines

Outsourcing Common Sense

The Front
Justice on the Range - Pakistan's Oil Spill Disaster

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News

The Aftermath Iraq’s Perilous Future Under U.S. Control

an interview with Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is founding director of the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, and co-founder of CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement that seeks positive social change through proactive, creative protest and non-violent direct action. Benjamin was a leader of the U.S. citizen movement against the war in Iraq, and remains actively engaged in monitoring conditions in post-war Iraq, which she has visited on several occasions.

Multinational Monitor: Is Iraq better off now, after the U.S. invasion?

Medea Benjamin: People are not better off in their daily lives. There are still shortages of electricity. The water system is contaminated. The telephone system is still not totally back on. The security situation is abysmal. The unemployment rate is probably above 60 percent. In terms of daily life, people are worse off than they were under Saddam.

In terms of ability to speak out, there is more freedom of speech, more possibility of organizing independent organizations, more possibility of building civil society.

In the longer term, if Iraq doesn't descend into civil war, there is a possibility it could be a more vibrant society with grassroots sectors that are active participants in society. But whether that occurs is totally a question mark.

MM: If the situation unfolds in a more positive direction in the medium and long term, would that provide a retrospective justification for the war?

Benjamin: I don't think so. There might be a more vibrant civil society, but there could very well be an imposition of free market fundamentalism that squashes the private sector that existed, that represses workers, and that allows the sale of Iraqi resources to foreign corporations. If that is indeed the way things develop, I wouldn't consider that a long-term benefit for society.

I also don't think that our global community or our democracy are well served by the precedent of a pre-emptive war that was waged on false pretenses.

MM: What is the level of organized or random violence, in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, and how is that affecting people's day to day lives?

Benjamin: People feel scared to go out of their homes. They only go out when necessary, to go to work, school and the markets. They never know if they are going to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, because so much of the violence seems random.

Certainly for women, the lack of security has been a terrible problem. There is a new wave of rapes and abductions and sex trafficking that makes many women afraid to leave their homes.

That can be attributed to the terrible mistake the U.S. made when, after the invasion, they dismissed the entire police force, and left the country to be looted and pillaged.

MM: To what extent is the Iraqi economy functioning, especially outside of the realm of the U.S. contractors and their activities?

Benjamin: There are still bustling marketplaces. There are still a lot of small businesses that are functioning, although many have gone out of business. Particularly hard hit are those that have been hurt by the shortages of electricity, the chaos, the lack of security and the looting, or those that happen to be in locations where the U.S. has put up roadblocks. Other Iraqi businesses have been hurt by the new competition that has resulted from the lifting of tariffs on foreign goods. There are thousands of businesses that have gone bankrupt since the invasion.

Despite that, life goes on. The Iraqi people are very entrepreneurial. They continue to try to find ways to survive.

MM: How are the private contractors performing? What are they doing, and how well are they doing it?

Benjamin: They are doing a miserable job. It is amazing to know that huge amounts of money are being put into the hands of U.S. companies for rebuilding, and then to see so little evidence on the ground, almost a year later.

I was shocked when I visited the hospitals. They are worse off now than they were under sanctions. They lack the most basic equipment and medicines.

I thought the hospitals would be the one place where the U.S. would pour money in, because it is easy, limited and the benefits are immediate. People would be happy if they saw that, after sanctions were lifted, the hospitals were clean and well stocked.

But instead there are hospitals today that not only lack the basics but are so unsanitary that 80 percent of patients leave with infections they didn't have when they arrived. Some of the hospitals are almost like war zones. The U.S. forces stood by after the invasion while the hospitals were looted, and they haven't been re-equipped. Patients come in and yell and even hit the doctors, because they are not getting the medicines and treatment they or their children need. Doctors are so disillusioned that they are trying to leave the country. Certainly this is not what Iraqis expected after being occupied by the richest country in the world.

MM: Are the hospitals something for which the contractors have responsibility?

Benjamin: Yes. Bechtel and Abt Associates have large contracts for the hospitals.

MM: You mentioned the levels of violence against women. How are women's roles, in law and society, evolving post-invasion, and how does that contrast to their status under Saddam?

Benjamin: For the past 100 years, women have fought for and won a lot of gains in Iraqi society that made them the envy of many women in the Middle East. Iraqi women were doctors, lawyers, journalists, judges, university students, merchants. Many of these gains, however, are now threatened post-U.S. occupation, because the more conservative Islamic clerics are gaining power. For example, in the 1950s, Iraq passed a very modern civil code that placed issues related to the family -- marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody -- in the hands of civil courts.

On December 29, 2003, however, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council tried to revoke that civil law and put those issues into the hands of Islamic courts. Shocked women mobilized and organized, and managed to roll back that resolution.

But there are concerns that the rollback is temporary, because the very people who pushed it are the ones who will probably be strengthened in the political transition that happens June 30.

It is also important to understand that the United States government was totally in charge of deciding who would get power, and who wouldn't, in this transition period. It could have appointed many women to important positions, and it didn't. There were many well-educated women who could have been picked for the Governing Council, or to be ministers or governors of provinces. Yet the U.S. picked only three women for the 25-person Governing Council, only one woman minister, no women governors, and no women on the committee that was writing the interim constitution.

Women activists in Iraq see the U.S. as having deliberately undermined the position of women in their efforts to gain the support of the more conservative Islamic clerics.

MM: How have workers fared under the occupation?

Benjamin: When the U.S. came in, it changed national laws on investment, to favor foreign investors, allow for full and immediate repatriation of profits, exempt companies working in the oil industry from lawsuits. It created what the Economist called a "capitalist dream."

Yet when workers petitioned the U.S. authorities to change the repressive law of Saddam Hussein that denied workers in the public sector the rights to collective bargaining, to form unions or to strike, the U.S. said they couldn't change those laws. That would have to be up to a new Iraqi government, they said. So workers have not gained their basic rights to organize into independent unions.

Workers have also faced a tremendous wave of unemployment. One of the saddest things in Iraq today is to see highly skilled workers -- whether skilled construction workers, or engineers or architects -- standing idle on street corners, without an opportunity to rebuild their country. This while U.S. contractors get to decide who will work and who won't, and often import engineers at 10 times the salary of local engineers -- foreign engineers who know nothing about Iraq and have not been successful at getting the job done.

MM: What is the status of privatization of the Iraqi government-controlled industries?

Benjamin: Paul Bremer was very gung-ho on privatization. He pushed through laws that would give foreign companies tremendous opportunities to buy up government-run companies, and set out to start the sale of over 200 state-run companies. But he found tremendous resistance inside Iraq to privatization, and foreign companies are not exactly knocking down the doors to go into Iraq right now, because it is so unstable. So the fast track on privatization has been temporarily halted.

But the U.S. authorities certainly want to see an economy in Iraq that would be a model of their view of the free market, a model they would hope to spread to the rest of the Middle East. So while the plans for privatization are temporarily on hold, if the U.S. has its way, Iraq will see its resources sold off to the highest foreign bidder.

MM: Who is now in control of the oil industry?

Benjamin: The oil industry has not been privatized. In fact, in the edict that the U.S. authorities passed on privatization, oil was exempted, at least temporarily, because of the backlash inside Iraq toward the privatization. U.S. rules do allow for the privatization of many of the aspects of the oil industry, including marketing, distribution and provision of inputs.

Right now, while the Iraqi oil industry is still a national industry, the U.S. controls the country and therefore controls the oil industry. It is determining how the oil resources are spent, the level of production, the sales. So while in theory Iraqis control their own oil industry, in practice the U.S. controls everything.

MM: Have particular companies gained special arrangements with the Iraqi oil industry?

Benjamin: In terms of servicing the oil industry, Halliburton has made a real killing, getting billions of dollars in contracts. In terms of sales, Chevron made the first post-invasion purchases of Iraqi oil in the U.S., and French, Russian and British oil companies are also buying Iraqi oil. But I'm not sure that contracts have been entered into related to development of the oil industry.

MM: Will decision making in the broad economy change after the transition to so-called self-rule in June?

Benjamin: I mentioned the difficulties of daily life for Iraqis, but I didn't mention that the one thing that keeps the Iraqi people from starving is the food ration system, which reaches virtually every household. This is the system that was put in place under sanctions, using Iraqi oil money.

The U.S. authorities wanted to put an end to the ration system, because they think it is inefficient, too expensive and not value creating. But they found that Iraqis had become accustomed to having their basic food needs met. They had a sense of entitlement. So the U.S. has so far not been able to put an end to the ration system. It would like the new Iraqi government to do that and to free up billions of dollars that are now spent guaranteeing the population has enough food to keep them alive.

This will be a very big struggle in the months to come, because it does take up a lot of Iraqi resources; on the other hand, it would be very politically delicate for a new Iraqi government to take away people's food rations. I don't know how that issue is going to play out.

There are other services that the Iraqi government had provided for people. These include free public education -- all the way through graduate school, and even including post-graduate studies -- and free and universal healthcare. As we know in the United States, the U.S. government does not believe in either of those two things. I think it is trying to promote Iraqis to power who also believe that people are not entitled to education, healthcare or food.

MM: How much autonomy do you expect the new Iraqi government to have?

Benjamin: The U.S. would like to see a new government that is totally compliant. Yet as it has seen in the past year, it can't control Iraqis. There are divisions that the U.S. is exacerbating, among the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen. The Shiites will obviously have the greatest control, but who within the Shiite community? Will it be Achmad Chalabi, who has no base inside Iraq but who the U.S. is promoting? Or will it be Shiite clerics, who have a large base of support but are not particularly pro-American?

If the new government is composed of people who have a base in their communities, it will be a government that is much more independent, and potentially much more anti-American.

MM: If you were able to take over the decision-making of U.S. policy today, what would you have the U.S. government do regarding Iraq?

Benjamin: I would go before the United Nations, and admit that it was a terrible mistake to launch a preemptive strike on Iraq. I would say that preemptive strikes would no longer be a tool in U.S. foreign policy, and that from this time forward we will work closely with the international community and show a healthy respect for international law.

But in the meantime, the Iraqi people need the help of the international community. I would urge the United Nations to oversee the political transition, including direct elections. I would implement an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops, encourage the international community to help speed up the training of Iraqi army and police, and work to put in place a backup UN peacekeeping force of about 30,000 to 40,000 to support an Iraqi army.

I would take the U.S. money allocated for reconstruction, tear up the contracts with the U.S. companies, and instead use that money to build up the appropriate ministries inside of Iraq, as well as to support Iraqi businesses.

MM: Do you believe the U.S. and international opposition to the war and subsequent U.S. policy in Iraq has made a difference?

Benjamin: I think the opposition has made a tremendous difference, starting with the way the war itself was conducted. The protest movement changed the "shock and awe" policy that would have resulted in the deaths and maiming of many more Iraqis to a less intensive invasion. I think the protest movement forced the Bush administration to go to the United Nations. It forced the Bush administration to back down on plans to potentially invade other countries, and instead enter into negotiations with countries like North Korea.

Perhaps most importantly, the protest movement in the United States has shown the world community that not all Americans agree with the Bush administration's aggressive, militaristic policies. In fact, one of the most important things we can do to make us safer here at home is to show the American face of compassion and peace to the world community.


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