Iraq: How Do You Fight a Bribe?

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June 12, 2006: The government is going after the source of most of the current violence; the oil gangs. Most of them are based in southern Iraq, where oil is exported, and there are many ways to cross land and sea borders with cheap, often stolen, Iraqi oil. The basic problem in Iraq is artificially low prices for oil. That was a policy instituted by Saddam in the 1990s as a publicity stunt (few people could afford a car, or had much money anyway). For example, nearly half of Iraq's potential oil revenue is lost to corruption and theft. Thieves tap right into pipelines, put the oil on barges and float it away to neighboring countries, where unscrupulous brokers buy the oil at a discount. If the oil thieves encounter any of the security troops guarding the oil facilities, they bribe them. This is fine for the security guards, whose main job is to prevent terrorists from blowing things up, not stealing some oil. Another popular scam is to take advantage of the subsidized fuel inside the country. You can buy gasoline for less than 25 cents a gallon. It costs much more than that in neighboring countries. That's why there are always fuel shortages in Iraq. The gas is illegally bought up and exported. Stop this illegal trade, and you stop the fuel shortages. But too many Iraqis are too accustomed to taking a bribe. The government has been confronting this situation for over a year, but it's an indication of how poor the political leadership is, that nothing has been done. Because of this, Westerners working in Iraq, come home with a much better feeling about their own politicians, who look like miracle workers compared to their Iraqi counterparts.

Western, mainly American, advisors have been working with the Iraqi politicians, and some progress has been made. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the U.S. in Iraq is the establishment of polling organizations and a free press. The politicians have been feeling the heat, and responding to the discontent of the voters. Some American political advisors believe that it will take a few election cycles, with free and fair elections, to put Iraqi politicians in proper fear of the electorate. Getting voted out of office is a great incentive to actually doing your job. But in the Middle East, the pattern is for politicians to establish a police state and screw the voters.

If the government can raise the price of oil products and break up some of the oil gangs, that will be a significant accomplishment. If not, the gang related violence will continue in the south.

Meanwhile, the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi continues to reverberate. Data obtained from the scene of the bombing has generated over fifty raids and the arrest of hundreds of terrorist suspects. Many more documents, weapons and bombs were seized. Al Qaeda has responded with threats of massive new attacks, and disinformation about how Zarqawi actually died ("beaten to death by U.S. soldiers" is the current favorite.) The mass media has fallen for this, but fantasies like this don't have legs and will soon disappear. Same thing with the spate of "U.S. troops slaughter civilians" stories. On closer examination, these turn out to be terrorist disinformation designed to be snapped up by mass media eager for spectacular stories.

The violence is increasingly involving criminal gangs fighting to stay in business. Kidnappings are down, and criminal arrests are up. There are so many people in the prisons that many Sunni Arabs held as suspected terrorist supporters, are being freed, to make way for common criminals. This is being done as part of the ongoing negotiations with Sunni Arab politicians and tribal leaders over a comprehensive peace deal with the Sunni Arab community. It's the Sunni Arabs who have been the source of nearly all the violence in the past three years, and a final deal is being held up by disagreements over amnesty for those who killed for Saddam. Some Sunni Arab hardliners even want amnesty for some of those who have killed since Saddam fell. The government is under great pressure from the Kurdish and Shia Arab voters to not let a lot of Sunni Arabs get off without punishment. But for the Sunni Arab community, they either get an amnesty deal, or keep killing (or at least supporting the killers.) The government is prepared to keep killing as well, and that's how it all may end, with the Sunni Arabs bludgeoned into a more peaceful attitude.

 

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