Life in Iraq
"Saddam is student, Bush is his teacher"

Overall, Iraqis have two positions on U.S. troops in Iraq: fix everything and get out within a year, or get out now because they're doing nothing but stealing their resources.

Iraqis tells me Saddam is a student, and Bush is his teacher, and now the "teacher" has come to Iraq to get his "student." There's almost no one in Iraq - neither pro- nor anti-Saddam, neither defender nor opponent of the U.S. invasion - who won't argue that the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq is to control its oil and colonize the country. Many Iraqis believe Saddam is an "Ali Baba" - a thief - but they go on to say that the U.S. is an even bigger "Ali Baba" who came to Iraq for oil.

The U.S. bombings and invasion have destroyed government ministry buildings (1, 2, 3), police stations, Ba'ath party offices, TV stations, many stores, private houses, public utilities and telecommunication systems (destroyed since the first Gulf war, and never repaired due to sanctions). Yet the U.S. military intentionally spared the Ministry of Oil building; it was back in business shortly after the end of the war.

When it comes to oil, there's no question that all eyes remain focused on Middle East production, despite the importance of other major international producers such as Mexico, Russia and Venezuela. Iraq and the other key Gulf region oil producers like Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, still carry such weight that the distraction of Iraq's oil exports could deeply affect the international oil market.

The United States, on the other hand, uses its military and political muscle to manipulate international oil prices in its own favor, sending a clear message to the world that America is the only country allowed to decide who can produce oil, who can sell it and who can buy it at what price.

Although it sounds implausible, since the invasion, a major gas shortage condition exists in Iraq, site of the world's second largest oil reserve. The Iraqi domestic oil supply has plummeted into crisis and everyday at gas stations in Baghdad, hundreds of cars line up for hours to fill their tanks. The alternative is expensive (yet convenient) black market oil on the street.

Many Iraqis accuse the U.S. of only focusing on protecting international oil exports, at the same time ignoring the restoration of the domestic supply of gas and electricity.

Al-Daura Oil Refinery general manger Dathar Al-Khashab says his company produces gasoline for the Baghdad market. U.S. bombing during the 1991 Gulf War damaged his plant severely, but this time, Americans didn't attack the facility and it basically went unharmed. Like most Iraqi bureaucracy, for their own survival, they must deal with their new boss - the U.S. occupiers. "You give me any President and I will put his photo there [the wall behind his desk]. There's no problem; as I say, we are practical. Any President in Iraq can have his photo there." Al-Khashab explains, "We have to deal with it, and try to get the maximum out of it … there's U.S. force here now. This is not imaginary; this is a fact. So, we are practical people. We have to deal with it, if it's what's best for our country."

Al-Daura Oil Refinery is one of the most valuable "cash cows" in Iraq. There have been recent attempts by the U.S. in the form of the CPA and the the de facto government in Iraq to install an oil council controlled by Americans, but this failed due to strong Iraqi opposition.

According to Al-Khashab, Kellogg Brown Root Services, a subsidiary of Halliburton (Vice President Dick Cheney served on the board of Halliburton between 1995 to 2000), contacted the Al-Daura Oil Refinery. He maintains that the Refinery didn't need Kellogg's help, though, and that there was no direct business contact between them. "So far, everything has been transparent. We have nothing hidden from either side, and we are trying first and foremost to keep it that way. That was one of the points raised by the U.S. administration, that the oil industry should be kept very transparent, and it will then be evident to the Iraqis where the money is going, and that's a good things to start with," he explains.

But Al-Khashab also expresses no illusions about American intentions. "I think U.S. policy, well, I cannot say they have never thought of oil in Iraq." He smiles and continues. "Of course, this is one of the main points. But, according to promises we have received from the U.S. administration, the crude oil is for the Iraqis. So we'll then see how these promises will be implemented in the field," he says.

There's no doubt that everyone, American and Iraqi, wants to keep Iraq's oil industry afloat, and make sure the workers stay happy to keep the oil machine running. According to Al-Khashab, the Refinery was able to produce and sell before and after the war, so they have some income. All employees in the Refinery received their monthly salaries for April through June of 2003 without any delay.

It's a different story for the majority of Iraqi government workers and ordinary citizens. Their offices were destroyed by the U.S. troops. They lost their jobs and no one is giving them unemployment insurance. The U.S. is, however, able to pay US$30 million to informants who provided Americans with the whereabouts of Udei and Qusay Hussein. They are willing to shell out another US$25 million for "Saddam's head". It doesn't seem, however, there's any spare change left for the millions of desperate and unemployed Iraqis.

According to an unofficial survey, Iraq's unemployment rate since the invasion is up to 90 percent, and those few fortunate who do have jobs and manage to get paid their wages make just around US$20-$30 per month. Any Iraqi who works as a manual laborer on the U.S. base can earn twice that average, but he is considered as a traitor by most.

This doesn't mean that Baghdad doesn't have food or drink, or that no one can afford it. There are plenty of rich Iraqis and foreign businessmen, and they can get anything they want. For less than US$3, you can eat like a king. Many rich people have satellite telephones, imported goods, and satellite TVs (which were banned under Saddam Hussein, but are now freely available after the war). American-made GMC 8-passenger trucks are everywhere. Most poor Iraqis, on the other hand, have had their lives ruined by the war. They have no money, no water and no help. But life still need to go on.

Health Hazards, Water Crisis and Suffering Children
Many Iraqis feel very angry at U.S. troops and U.S. corporations who came "to rebuild Iraq". While they stay in the air-conditioned rooms of the once beautiful "Saddam's palaces," desperate and angry Iraqis rage and swelter outside the fence in up to 120-degree summer heat. There is almost no effort from the American-run Coalition Provisional Authorities (CPA) (the U.S. occupiers' shadow government in Iraq set up after the invasion) to clean up the buildings, remove the wepons (1, 2, 3, 4), or fix the utilities destroyed by the war.

So far, the only visible "rebuilding" has been to replace the Saddam monument with a new "Freedom" monument in the newly renamed "Freedom" square (formerly known as Al-Frdos square) next to the Palestine Hotel.

The dust from the destroyed buildings poses a grave threat to the health of the inhabitants of Baghdad, primarily respiratory disease. Even worse, many Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons used during the attacks are still lying around the city and countryside in rubbled buildings or destroyed Iraqi tanks.

One example is the Ministry of Planning building in central Baghdad. Gerard Ungermen and Audrey Brohy, producers of the acclaimed documentary "Hidden War of Desert Storm", revisited Iraq in July. They came to this Ministry building with a radiation meter to check the radiation levels from highly toxic DU bullets and rounds found on the ground there that were fired by U.S. during the war. Although it was not a military target, U.S. forces bombed and destroyed the building, allowed looters the freedom to ransack the remains, and then let arsonists burn the building.

Scott Peterson, Baghdad correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, states that the U.S. fired more DU rounds in heavily populated civilian areas (1, 2) this time than during the 1991 Gulf War. "It's not very dangerous if you're few feet away from the DU rounds," Peterson says, but he worries the children will mistake the heavy, funny-looking DU bullets for toys.

Ammunition and unexploded weapons abandoned by the Iraqi military are everywhere. According to recent estimates by a British Member of Parliament, there are between 2,000 and 17,000 unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs remaining on the ground in Iraq. These British bomblets pose a daily threat to civilians, especially to the children, looking for toys or scrap materials to sell.

However, the biggest threat against Iraqi children is unsafe water and its related disease, malnutrition, and the breakdown of much of Iraq's health system after the fall of the former regime. Immediately after the war, the Ministry of Health stopped functioning, communication between the capital and the local officials became impossible, and vital services like routine immunization collapsed, leaving children vulnerable to disease. With the help of the international community, the Ministry of Health was able to get back to business, but still not to return to the pre-war level.

One example of this breakdown is the availability of vaccines. The country's vaccines were kept in a storeroom at the Vaccine and Serum Institute of Baghdad. Missiles struck the Institute during the U.S. invasion and all electricity to the storeroom was cut, spoiling the vaccine supply.

"When the electricity went down, the cold chain system for preserving vaccines was rendered useless," according to Carel de Rooy, the United Nations International Children's Funds (UNICEF) representative in Iraq. "More damage was caused when looters tore apart wiring, compressors and circuit boards at the Institute, making immediate emergency repairs to the cold chain impossible. In the end, all vaccine stocks were spoiled and had to be destroyed," he added.

Everyone in Iraq I interviewed told me it's not the war killing them, it's the decade-old sanctions. A simple medicine like Cipro (an antibiotic), which anyone can easily get at any local drug store in the United States, was impossible for Iraqis to get under sanctions. In fact, thousands of Iraqi children died during the sanctions for one very simple reason: they drank dirty water that made them ill, but died because there was no medicine to save them.

During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. warplanes bombed and destroyed the water system in Iraq. The U.N sanctions imposed after the war deliberately blocked the import of any equipment to rebuild the water system. After the U.S. invasion last March, the water system was spared, but the U.S. failed to protect pumping stations and water treatment facilities from looters.

Carel de Rooy from UNICEF says ironically, the lives and healh of Iraq's children health during the sanctions were dire already, but after the U.S. invasion, there is even more suffering.

According to de Rooy, just before the U.S. invasion in March, the diarrhea problem caused by drinking dirty water was in the order of 14 bouts per child per year for children under five, as compared to about 4 bouts of diarrhea per child per year before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. "We know that today in the southern part of Iraq, the upsurge of the occurrence of diarrhea in children under five [in 2003] as compared to last year [2002] is due to the decrease in the amount of water provided coupled with the decline in its quality.

The reality is, in the 1980s, Iraq was one of the richest, most industrialized, and highly technologically advanced countries in the Middle East. In fact, at that time, the United Nations estimated that Iraq would enter the ranks of the industrialized countries by the mid-1990s. Sadly, this prediction never came to pass, brought down by war and sanctions. The average Iraqi lost everything because of sanctions. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and the regime collapsed, poor, angry and desperate Iraqis looted government facilities for financial revenge - yet they lost even more this time, because they destroyed virtually all government services - services which America has no intention of restoring.

For example, I visited a "thieves market" in Baghdad where they openly display and sell looted items from government buildings. At the same time, they complain to me that no one has come to fix their water supply, which means they have to drink water mixed with sewage from broken pipes on the street.

U.S. occupational forces and the CPA have failed in their weak attempt to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. Instead, they focus on catching Saddam and granting oil contracts to American oil companies in Iraq. Oil-services giant Halliburton, which has direct ties to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, has won contracts worth more than US$1.7 billion and it stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars more under a no-bid contract awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this according to the Washington Post. In the eyes of many Iraqis, this is sheer American arrogance and continued evidence of a U.S.-Israel conspiracy.

more of Lee Siu Hin's writings on Iraq and U.S. Militarism: from Covert Action Quarterly and ChangeLinks