Iraq: Desperately Seeking Tourists


March 13, 2011: While the demonstrations against corruption have died down, they have not gone away. Politicians have seen polls, and heard from their street-level operatives, indicating that the anger is widespread and not going away. But unlike the uprising in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, Iraqis don't want to overthrow their elected government, they just want politicians to do what they were elected for. This, the politicians are still reluctant to do, especially when it comes to stealing public funds. The voters know that, and are already seeking new candidates who will deliver honest (or at least more honest) and effective government.

The increasingly autonomous government of the Kurdish north has refused government orders to remove several thousand troops it had recently moved to the south of the city of Kirkuk. This was done on February 24th, to provide additional security for large demonstrations taking place the next day in Kirkuk. But the Kurdish troops never withdrew, and now control all roads leading into the city.  This is part of a pattern, apparently leading to Kurds taking control of Kirkuk. For example, three months ago, the Arab dominated government capitulated to the Kurdish minority up north, and allowed the Kurds to make deals with foreign oil companies to develop oil fields in Kurdish territory. Still unresolved are the disputes over whether the northern city Kirkuk (and the oilfields underneath it) is Kurdish. The Kurds are 22 percent of the national population, and are largely concentrated in the far north, where they have ruled themselves for the last fifteen years. The Kurdish army is smaller, but better trained and led than the Arab forces to the south, and the Iraqi Arabs know it. They also know that the Americans trust the Kurds more than the Arabs, and would likely take the side of the Kurds in a civil war. So the Arabs move carefully when dealing with the Kurds. But giving up Kirkuk means losing about half of Iraqi's oil production (about a million barrels a day). The Kurds are apparently ready to make a deal for only a portion of the Kirkuk oil fields (which, altogether, still have about ten billion barrels left, worth, currently, over a trillion dollars.)

Mobile phone service has transformed Iraqi society, and the economy. Information travels much more quickly, and that makes a big difference. Cell phones were introduced after Saddam was overthrown in 2003, and by the end of that year, there were 400,000 users. Now there are 21 million users (just about everyone), but only about 77 percent of the country is covered. That is changing, as service is constantly expanded and upgraded. While this has helped bring years of peace to most of the country, it has not brought back foreign tourists. Except for religious pilgrims, mainly from Iran, the foreigners stay away, as they have since the 1970s. About ten percent of the nearly two million tourists and pilgrims last year were visiting religious sites. And less than one percent of those were foreigners. Iraq has been off limits, or at war, for decades, and it's taking time for the bad reputation to wear off.

March 12, 2011: In response to weeks of pro-reform demonstrations, parliament voted to reduce their pay by half (to $60,000 a year, more than ten times what the average Iraqi makes.) Left unchanged was the $20,000 a month each legislator receives for housing and security. Stopping the corruption is another matter, since, officially, all this stealing doesn't take place. But considering the lavish lifestyle of most Iraqi politicians, there is more than $300,000 a year (the old max pay) coming in.

In the northern city of Mosul, seven soldiers in civilian clothes, driving away from their base in a minibus, were ambushed, leaving six of the troops dead.

March 9, 2011: The general in charge of the police rapid response battalions (SWAT) was caught, by Integrity Commission (anti-corruption) investigators,  accepting a $50,000 bribe. An arrest could not be made, because the general ordered his bodyguards to beat the anti-corruption police. However, the next day, the Integrity Commission brought along a larger force, and made the arrest.  

For the third time in the past few weeks, terrorists attacked a major pipeline. The damage from the explosion will take three days to repair, and will delay the shipment of 1.2 million barrels of oil (worth over $120 million).

March 8, 2011: In the northern city of Iraq, police raided a terrorist hideout and, in addition to seizing half a ton of explosives and many other weapons, arrested the al Qaeda "finance minister" for Iraq (Ibrahim Muhammed Ahmed al Juburi). This was a major catch, as al Jaburi was long sought. An Iraqi, al Jaburi not only raised (or stole) lots of money locally, but was critical in procuring weapons and explosives for terrorist operations.

March 7, 2011: Syrian border guards seized a truck load of weapons that was being driven in from Iraq. The driver admitted that he was promised $5,000 if he drove the truck from Baghdad to deliver them to a location in Syria. Dozens of assault rifles and pistols, plus ammo and explosives, were found in hidden compartments in the truck. This is part of the al Qaeda retreat from Iraq, although this incident was probably more of an illegal arms transaction with Syrian terrorists.

March 6, 2011: In the Kurdish north, unidentified gunmen raided a pro-reform radio station, and wrecked all their equipment. In February, a similar raid took place against a pro-reform TV station. The Kurdish government in the north, while more effective than the national one, is still corrupt. The northern politicians are trying to terrorize key reform leaders and media into keeping quiet. This has included attacks by "unidentified men" on protestors. But everyone knows who is doing what to whom, and it all comes down to who has the most resolve.  The Kurds have, over the centuries, never been able to unite, but they have produced some remarkable local clan leaders and warlords (the medieval "Arab" general Saladin was a Kurd). These clan leaders were quite effective in keeping their own kinsmen in line, and resisting efforts to unite with other clans. That has changed, for the moment, in the north, as the two main Kurdish clan alliances share power. But this reform movement could upset these ancient customs. Then again, maybe not. Tradition, for better or worse, has demonstrated enormous staying power in this part of the world.

In the south (Basra) two roadside bombs, apparently attempting to attack American patrols, failed. One bomb caused no casualties, the other killed six civilians on a bus, and wounded many others.

February 28, 2011: The Baiji refinery, attacked three days ago by terrorists, has returned to operation (at 50 percent capacity).






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