Iraq: Search for a Cure

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January 23, 2006: In Iraq, it's the best of times, and the worst of times. Iraq is the only real democracy in the Arab world, and the only country with the most unfettered media. But Iraq still has the institutions that are considered the curse of the Arab world. For example, many members of Saddams secret police are still in business, trying to terrorize the majority into letting the Sunni Arabs gain more power. Islamic radicals are also using terror to try and impose a religious dictatorship. And don't forget organized crime. You don't hear much about this in the Arab world, but these gangs have been part of the culture for so long that their activities are hardly noticed. "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" is not just an old folk story, it's a recognition of how organized crime has long thrived. But with the civil war going on for the last three years, and Saddam's emptying of his prisons three years ago, the gangsters are thriving like never before. Kidnapping is the most popular crime (along with extortion, burglary, grand larceny, car jacking, contract murder and so on), and it has caused many middle class Iraqis to flee the country.

Foreigners are prime kidnapping targets, because it is known that Europeans will pay large ransoms for their citizens. This has led to crimes on crimes, with at least one German kidnapping victim, Susanne Osthoff found to have gotten part of the ransom from her Iraqi collaborators. Apparently Osthoff, who was openly pro-terrorist, while working for an aid organization in Iraq, had helped organize her own kidnapping, to raise money for her terrorist friends, and herself. This sort of thing enrages most Iraqis, who blame foreigners (other Arabs, Americans, pro-Saddam Europeans) for most of their problems. But the free press also puts the spotlight on the flaws of Iraqi society. The corruption is in plain view as never before, and it is not a pretty sight. It is becoming very obvious that Iraqi officials cannot be trusted with large amounts of money. For a long time, everyone looked the other way as public money was looted, while everyone competed for the positions of power that gave access to that money. It was considered honorable to steal for your family and tribe. Now, it is out their in plain sight, in a free media, that the stealing of public money does more harm (to the entire country) than good (for the thief and his clan).

But it's not easy being an honest official, for Iraqi politics has long been a blood sport. Many crooked politicians think nothing of using violence against more honest rivals. This makes the investigation of assassination attempts a complex undertaking. Was the dead official an honest man? If so, he enemies would have to include any associates who were dirty, as well as the usual terrorists and gangsters trying to get a message across.

Despite the exploitative headlines about the violence in Iraq, the economy continues to grow, and the politicians are learning how to make deals and compromise. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the biggest threat to Iraq is the corruption of those who run the government. This corruption, in turn, springs from customs that tolerate the use of bribes and coercion in commercial dealings. These customs are common throughout the Middle East, and have long been one of the causes of misunderstandings and confusion in dealings between Middle Easterners and outsiders. Such corruption is thousands of years old, and common in many other parts of the world. But the corruption is becoming a major issue as it is realized that the economic and military superiority of the West springs, in large part, from the rule of law and a government system that enables business, and especially entrepreneurs, to flourish. The corruption has to go if Iraq is to thrive, and at the moment, no one is quite sure how to make the corruption go away.

 

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