|June 13, 2006|
Organized Crime Is the Underreported Story in "Mess O'Potamia"
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
On hearing the news of last week's killing of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug who was the putative leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, I couldn't help but think of the comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley's classic line: "They say you shouldn't say nothing about the dead unless it's good. He's dead. Good."
Yet, there's something fundamentally repugnant about celebrating the death of even the most heinous of souls. The jubilation that greeted his demise veered from the merely odd -- the enlarged photograph of his bloated dead face revealed at the military's press conference, mounted in an oak frame like a diploma or a family portrait -- to the downright grotesque. The New York Post's front page featured the same photo augmented by a comic strip balloon from Zarqawi's mouth, reading, "Warm up the virgins." The delicatessen on the next block from me had the taste to place its pile of that day's edition of the Post face down.
There can be no denying that Zarqawi was responsible for bloodthirsty acts of terror and that his death is some kind of watershed moment in the Iraqi conflict, but the nature of that moment remains ambiguous -- ghamidh, as they say in Arabic, a word that comes in all too handy when talking about Iraq.
Nor can there be any denying that we played a major role in building his reputation as a star in the terrorist firmament, from the moment Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned him in his famous UN speech just before the war -- Zarqawi's first moment in the world media spotlight.
In fact, as Nation Institute fellow Tom Engelhardt wrote Sunday, "As far as we can tell, he never actually controlled more than a few hundred to a thousand Iraqis and foreign jihadis (though he may have trained others in Iraq, which in the wake of the American invasion has indeed become the president's 'central theater in the war on terror,' for mayhem elsewhere)."
Even the president expressed a little ghamidh about the significance of the hit. "Zarqawi is dead," he said, "but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
Inadvertently, Zarqawi's death was the curtain raiser for what can best be described as Iraq Week in Washington: Monday's Camp David skull session with senior advisors trying to eke out a more cohesive Iraq strategy, President Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, Wednesday's scheduled Iraq Strategy Group meeting at the White House, and Thursday's House floor debate over a Republican resolution declaring that "the United States will complete the mission in Iraq and prevail in the Global War on Terror."
For all the grandstanding, none of this seems to promise any real progress in cleaning up "Mess O'Potamia," as Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" calls it. Take just one aspect of the mess. Over the last two weeks, I've had conversations with a news cameraman who has been to Iraq seven times, most recently for the elections in February; an Iraqi-American sociology professor and an Iraqi graduate student preparing to return home for the first time in two and a half years. The grad student's mother, who's in Baghdad, wants him to stay here; she's certain he'll be murdered when he gets back.
To a man, all three of them made the same observation. On top of the insurgency and sectarian fighting, what's adding immeasurably to Iraq's pain -- and going largely unreported in the Western press -- is organized crime.
It's impossible to know how many of Iraq's murders, car bombings, assaults and kidnappings are the dirty work of ruthless, apolitical gangsters, but they're a major factor in Iraq's continuing inability to build a new, post-Saddam society. Thoroughly infiltrating business and government, organized crime keeps a healthy Iraqi economy from growing, prevents incentive among the people and underwrites a flourishing black market in everything from oil and weapons to medicine and cigarettes.
As with so much that failed to occur post-"victory." an anticipated influx of thousands of American military police never materialized. The nationwide looting that started as soon as Saddam's statue hit the pavement in Firdos Square was just the beginning of the crime wave that continues to this day.
Our presence is resented, the graduate student told me, but, "People are more concerned with organized crime and their basic needs than the fact that Americans are there. The biggest things missing are infrastructure and security."
Even if the new Iraqi government and we could wave some wand and end the civil war already underway, the vast, deeply embedded machinery of crime and corruption would remain. As we reduce the size of our force there, the United States and its allies somehow have to figure out a way to redirect money and energy toward a stabilized economy and an effective police force.
It's going to take years. And is probably impossible. "Mess O'Potamia" indeed.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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