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<nettime> Come on over the water's lovely
R. A. Hettinga on Sun, 1 Jun 2003 07:26:38 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Come on over the water's lovely


The Telegraph

Come on over the water's lovely 
(Filed: 01/06/2003) 

I've spent the past couple of weeks on a motoring tour of western and
northern Iraq, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The roads are empty
except for the occasional burnt-out tank and abandoned Saddamite limo. You
can make excellent time, because it will be several months before a
deBa'athified Iraqi highway patrol squad is up and running and even longer
before they replace the looted radar detectors. On the boring stretches of
desert motorway you can liven things up by playing D-I-Y contraflow. And
best of all, if you avoid Baghdad and a couple of other major cities,
you'll find the charming countryside completely unspoilt by Western
reporters insisting that America is "losing the peace". 

For most of the Iraq war and its immediate aftermath, it was easy for any
relatively rational person to dismiss the media doom-mongering. Hundreds of
thousands of dead civilians?  Never gonna happen. Hand-to-hand
street-fighting as Baghdad morphs into Stalingrad? Dream on. Even that
Iraqi National Museum "disaster" was an obvious hoax, though I was sad to
see my friends at The Spectator fall for it and add their own peculiar
twist that it was all a conspiracy of a sinister US antiquities lobby. 

But, when the naysayers started moving on to claim that the whole post-war
scene was going disastrously for the Yanks, I honestly didn't know what to
make of it. As a general rule of thumb, when two non-government
organisations, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, the BBC
and the New York Times agree that the whole powder keg's about to go up,
it's a safe bet that things are going swimmingly. But who knows? Even these
guys have got to be right once a decade or so. So I decided to see for

Unlike those parliamentary delegations getting ferried around by the
military and Continental television crews embedded with convoys of NGOs, I
have no contacts either in the Ministry of Defence or the World Food
Programme. So I hopped on a flight to Jordan, rented some beat-up Nissan
piece of junk in Amman and headed east. After four hours, I passed a sign
on the highway saying "IRAQI BOARDER 39km". I assumed this was a misprint,
but 39km down the road there were indeed some Iraqi boarders, boarding in a
United Nations refugee camp in the no-man's land between the Jordanian and
Iraqi frontier posts.  Lacking one of the gazillion pieces of paperwork
necessary to get past the interminable Jordanian frontier bureaucracy and
gamely bluffing my way through, I left the car on the shoulder just past
the sentry box a few yards from the tents. I returned to find a woman and
her children clustered round it and anxious to know whether I could offer
them safe passage to a third country. It seems they lacked the relevant
papers to satisfy the Jordanians and, unlike yours truly, had been unable
to talk their way round. 

Although the camp had set up enough tents for hundreds, the members of this
family were the only refugees in residence. The singular of that "IRAQI
BOARDER" sign was a slight exaggeration, but not by much. And that
underpopulated border camp is a fine motif for what's going on: vast
numbers of bureaucrats are running around Iraq with unlimited budgets in
search of a human catastrophe that doesn't exist. 

"Had a lot of refugees?" I asked the Jordanian customs officer. 

"We had about 10 through last week," he said. "Palestinians." 

"Where were they headed?  Amman?" 

"No, he said. "They were going back to Iraq." 

Apparently, having fled across the Jordanian border to the UN facility near
Ruweished, they concluded after a few days that the camp wasn't quite up to
snuff and decided to go back home. Amazing. Over on the West Bank, the
Palestinians have been in their grotesque UN "refugee" "camps" for more
than 50 years.  But, faced with a choice between Ruweished and the "chaos"
and "insecurity" of Iraq, the Palestinians have finally found a refugee
camp up with which they will not put. Incidentally, when I was there, every
Iraqi refugee in the UN camp at Ruweished was Palestinian. In other words,
this isn't a human crisis but Arab politics - the longstanding refusal by
Middle Eastern regimes to accord Palestinian residents any kind of legal

Many of those in the Ruweished camp are the husbands and children of
Jordanian women, but it makes no difference: flee Iraq with Palestinian
documents and you get slung in a refugee camp. The inability of their Arab
brothers to resist screwing over the Palestinians is not a problem George W
Bush can fix, only King Abdullah, and all that UN refugee camp is doing is
letting His Majesty get away with it. 

So that's the most basic thing about post-Saddam Iraq: for all the
"anarchy", no one's fleeing. In the course of my trip, I drove as far east
as the outskirts of Baghdad and as far north as Kirkuk. I spent a pleasant
evening prowling round Saddam's home town of Tikrit, where I detected a
frisson of menace in the air, but marginally less than in, say, Stockwell,
south London. Come to think of it, I was wearing a suit and tie (the Robert
Fisk look isn't really my bag) and carrying substantial amounts of hard
currency, which I'd never do after dark round Tottenham. I had an illegally
acquired firearm but, even in Tikrit, I was relaxed enough to leave it in
the glove box. 

In the western towns, which were relatively unscathed by the war, it's the
almost surgical removal of the regime that you're struck by. Every Main
Street roundabout has its empty plinths where the Saddam portraits stood.
There are generally a couple of large blocks plus a compound and maybe a
fancy house with elaborate decorative stonework with their doors and gates
hanging off the hinges and the odd goat or donkey defecating over the
interior: these are the Ba'athist buildings, and they're the sole target of
highly focused looting. Everything else is untouched - the poky grocery
stores piled high with boxes of soda you could boil a lobster in, the
ramshackle auto shops with their mounds of second-hand tyres, all these are
open for business, and in the end they're more relevant to the future of
Iraq than the legions of unemployed Saddamite bureaucrats in Baghdad or the
NGO armies in their brand new, gleaming white Chevy Suburbans and Land
Rovers cruising the streets touting for business like drug pushers in
search of junkies. 

Last Saturday, I was back in Rutba, a town I rather like in its decrepit
way, and stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant with big windows, a high
ceiling with attractive mouldings and overhead fans, and a patron who
looked like a Sinatra album cover, hat pushed back on his head. As I got
out of the car, I noticed across the street a big, white sports utility - a
sure sign that someone from the welfare jet set was in town. This one was
marked Oxfam. "Hmm," I thought. "Must be some starvation in the

The winsome young Arab boy with a face as lovely as Halle Berry's and a lot
less grumpy brought me a whole roast chicken - stringy but chewy - piled
with bread and served with a generous selection of salads. I managed to
determine that the Oxfam crowd was holding a meeting with the Red Cross to
discuss the deteriorating situation. But just what exactly was
"deteriorating"? As my groaning table and the stores along Main Street
testified, there was plenty of food in town. Was it the water? I made a
point of drinking the stuff everywhere I went in a spirited effort to pick
up the dysentery and cholera supposedly running rampant. But I remain a
disease-free zone. So what precisely is happening in Rutba that requires an
Oxfam/ICRC summit? Well, the problem, as they see it, is that, sure,
there's plenty of food available but "the prices are too high".  That's why
the World Food Programme and the other NGOs need to be brought in, to
distribute more rations to more people. 

Can you think of anything Iraq needs less? If prices really are "too high",
it's because storekeepers are in the first flush of a liberated economy.
Given that the main drag in Rutbah has a gazillion corner shops lined up
side by side, competition will soon bring prices down to what the market
can bear, if it hasn't already.  Offering folks WFP rations will only put
some of those storekeepers out of business and ensure that even more people
need rations. But perhaps that's the idea. 

And perhaps that's why I found rather more hostility towards the WFP, the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees et al than towards the
military. "Americans only in the sky," one man told me, grinning as a
chopper rumbled overhead. "No problem." Down on the ground, meanwhile, the
new imperial class are the NGOs. They shuttle across the globe, mingling
with their own kind - other SUV users - and bringing with them the values
of the mother country, or the mother bureaucracy. Like many imperialists,
they're well-meaning: they see their charges as helpless and dependent,
which happy condition has the benefit of justifying an ever-growing aid
bureaucracy in perpetuity. It will be very destructive for Iraq if the
tentativeness of the American administration in Baghdad allows the
ambulance-chasers of the NGOs to sink their fangs into the country.

I'm pleased to report, then, that the obscene Oil For Food programme has
been radically privatised. In much of Iraq, the government petrol stations
have been pillaged and the gas pumps stripped of their metal panels so that
they stand on two thin metal pins, their hoses hanging loose, like R2D2
before he goes in for a service. Instead, entrepreneurial Iraqis stand
along the roadside with small tanks of mysteriously acquired petrol.
Heading back to Jordan, I pulled up in the desert. "How much for a
fill-up?" I asked. 

"Ten dollars," the man said. 

"I've only got a 20," I said. 

"That's good," he said. "Bush," he added, pointing to the picture of Andrew
Jackson on the bill. 

"Close enough," I said. Afterwards, he wanted another 20 for his
seven-year-old boy. I'm a softie but not that soft, so I fished out a
Canadian 20. 

"What this?" he said suspiciously. "American one dollar?" He pointed to the
Queen's portrait. "Who this?"

"George Washington," I said. 

He'll have a hard job getting rid of the Canadian but that Yankee 20 he'll
change in one of the stores back in town and he'll do himself and the local
economy more good than the UN's bloated boondoggle ever will. 

Of course, this is only one guy's experience of Iraq. But I'd like to think
that it's catching on. 

In Ramadi, in another cafe, the maitre d', in honour of my presence,
flipped the television over to BBC World. Some Beeb type was doing a piece
about some Baghdadi who hadn't been paid since March. Now what sort of
fellow hasn't been paid since March? A chap who worked for the toppled thug
government perhaps?  Might be a committed thug ideologue, might be just a
go-along-to-get-along type. But, given that the new Iraqi government is
never going to be as huge as the old one, maybe that chap should just stop
whining to the BBC and look for a gig in the private sector. Ditto for the
BBC reporter, come to that. 

As usual, the piece wound up with the correspondent standing in the
children's ward of the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre predicting more doom
and gloom. By contrast, every medical facility I went to in Iraq was well
short of capacity. The NGO types concede that Iraqis aren't exactly rushing
the hospitals, but say that's because they know that there are no drugs
and/or they're worried that they can't afford them. Might be that. Or it
might be that they don't want to be stuck on a ward trying to get a
moment's sleep under the blazing lights of round-the-clock CNN and BBC
camera crews filming their reporter yakking away in front of a telegenic
moppet whose acute tonsillitis is somehow all Rumsfeld's fault. These days,
I always laugh my head off at BBC World reports. And, in that Ramadi cafe,
I was touched to find that, even though most of them hadn't a clue what he
was going on about, within half a minute, the rest of the crowd was roaring
along with me. 

Back in Jordan, I drove the long stretch of empty road through the dark
towards Ruweished. Judging from the spectacular sodium blaze in the
distance, the town was evidently a lot bigger than I remembered it. By
night, it looked the size of Birmingham. But it wasn't the town at all,
just the UN camp - hundreds of floodlights lighting up a colossal area in
the centre of which were those handful of tents containing the unfortunate
Palestinian spouses of Jordanian women while they plead with King Abdullah
to be let in. Just 'cause you've only got a couple of refugees is no reason
not to light up the sky. Money no object, that's the UN way. And anyway we
all know it's Bush's fault. 

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah {AT} ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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