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The memo

[Below is the full text of the redacted memo upon which Jason Vestís April 20 article prepared for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) is based. AANís original intention was to withhold the release of the full memo, as it includes a section with new and useful leads on corruption in the United Nations Oil-For-Food Program that Jason Vest was working on developing as a separate story. However, given the high degree of reader interest and number of media queries the current story has generated, we have decided to go ahead and release the memo. The memo was received as an e-mail without the headers.ó Editor]



I want to emphasize: As great as the problems we face, and the criticisms back home, and mindful of the sacrifice that almost 600 Americans have made, what we have accomplished in Iraq is worth it. While Iraqis joke, " Americans go home ó and take us with you. " The gratitude which they express is sincere and unsolicited, and not limited to a single political class. The political bickering back in the United States has worried Iraqis, who fear that a Kerry victory will mean an American withdrawal, short-term civil war, and long-term empowerment of the most radical elements of society throughout the Islamic world. Nevertheless, several Iraqi political movements have begun reaching out to Senate Democrats to keep their bases covered.

I have conflicting impressions of where Iraq is going. It is easy to see progress in Baghdad. Driving from Jadriya to Mansour around 7 p.m. on March 4, shops were bustling. Women and girls, some with hair covered and other not, crowded shops selling the latest fashions from Italy via Lebanon, cell phones and electrical gadgets, fancy shoes, and cell phones. Baghdadis are out and about, looking more self-assured. Gone is the confusion that permeated Iraqi society in the aftermath of Saddamís fall. Shwarma and ice cream shops do a booming business, and families patronize restaurants. Twenty-somethings and teenagers meet in internet cafes. The internet cafes that we see from the roadside on the main streets are just the tip of the iceberg; many mahalla have their own internet cafes set off in alcoves off side streets. Even in poorer areas like Baghdad al-Jadida, new plastic signs plaster the sides of buildings. Pundits and others harp on lack of security, but shopkeepers pile electrical appliances, clothes, bicycles, and other goods on the street. New cars crowd the street, as well as older models long forbidden (Saddam used to forbid cars of a certain year from entering Baghdad). Car dealerships continue to open around the city. Traffic police go through the motions, but remain too fearful to enforce regulations.

Street lights function irregularly and traffic lights not at all, but private investors have brought in generators so that shops can function after dark. Electricity in Baghdad is fluctuating between three hours on and off, in rotation, and four hours on and off. There is no consistency. Despite assurances to the contrary, neither the CPA nor the Ministry of Electricity publishes a schedule of power cuts and rotations. It is now starting to get hot. I hope that the Ministry of Electricity will be ready for the summer. You canít run an air conditioning unit on a household generator, and the demand this year will be greater than ever before because of the influx of new appliances. If we are basing our goal on last yearís figures, we are going to come out flat.

Despite the progress evident in the streets of Baghdad, much of which happens despite us rather than because of us, Baghdadis have an uneasy sense that they are heading toward civil war. Sunnis, Shiía, and Kurds professionals have say that they themselves, friends, and associates are buying weapons fearing for the future. CPA is ironically driving the weapons market: Iraqi police sell their " lost " U.S.-supplied weapons on the black market; they are promptly re-supplied. Interior ministry weapons buy-backs keep the price of arms high.

The frequent explosions, many of which are not reported in the mainstream media, are a constant reminder of uncertainty. When a blast occurs, residents check their watch. If itís on the hour, chances are that itís a controlled explosion destroyed confiscated ordinance. The explosions are frequent. Twice in recent days, nearby explosions woke me up. I was staying with friends on the opposite side of the Mansour district when a loud explosion rattled the windows ó apparently when rockets hit the nearby phone exchange. Given that I had gone to sleep at around 3 a.m., it had to be big to wake me. (As an aside, most Iraqi politicking occurs between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., and so if CPA bases its cables on Governing Council meetings and an occasional dinner with primary actors, it is missing a great deal). This morning, I heard a loud blast at 8:40 a.m. My guards told me I slept through an explosion a bit earlier.

We have made the most progress in Baghdad; the south may be calm, but it seems the calm before the storm. Iranian money is pouring in. British policy is to not rock the boat, and so they do nothing that may result in confrontation. This is a mistake. We are faced with an Iranian challenge. Whether Iranian activities are sanctioned or not by the Iranian actors with which the State Department likes to do business should be moot, since those Iranians who offer engagement lack the power to deliver on their promises. In Bosnia and Afghanistan, we were likewise challenged by the Iranians. In both cases, the Iranians promised their intentions were benign. In Bosnia, we rolled up the Qods Force anyway, and Bosnia has remained pro-Western in its orientation. In Afghanistan, we wrung our hands and did little, worried that the Iranians might respond to confrontation as if we did anything to enforce our word. This projected weakness. Today, Iran holds as much influence over Western Afghanistan than at any time since after the Anglo-Persian War of 1857. That said, I do not think that a deliberate bombing such as we saw in Karbala or Khadimiya will be the trigger for a civil war. Rather, I worry about deeper conflicts that revolve around patronage and absolutism. Bremer has encouraged re- centralization in Iraq because it is easier to control a Governing Council less than a kilometer away from the Palace rather than 18 different provincial councils who would otherwise have budgetary authority. The net affect, however, has been desperation to dominate Baghdad, and an absolutism borne of regional isolation. The interim constitution moves things in the right direction, but the constitution is meaningless if we are not prepared to confront challenges.

Throughout Iraq, we are handicapped by our security bubble. Few in CPA- Baghdad get out of the Green Zone anymore, at least outside the normal business of going to their respective ministries, etc. Most drivers work during the day, but not in the evening hours when Baghdad is most alive. The U.S. Government has spent millions importing sport utility vehicles which are used exclusively to drive the kilometer and a half between the Convention Center and the Palace. We would have been much better off with a small fleet of used cars, and a bicycle for every Green Zone resident.

CPAís isolation will get worse with the transfer to the State Department. The job of Regional Security Officers [RSOs] is to ensure safety and minimize risk. In the view of most RSOs, the best assurance for the safety is to not leave the Green Zone. This is the same policy which the British now apply for their CPA personnel. The irony is that the Green Zone is less than secure. Despite the success of the Information Collection Program in rolling up Baathist and Salafi cells targeting Americans, large concentrations of Americans and Brits do make tempting artillery targets. While managing the risk from the Baathist remnants, we may leave ourselves vulnerable to other risks. Our screening for Iranian agents and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr is inconstant at best. The isolation is two-sided: Iraqis realize that the entrances to the Green Zone are under surveillance by bad-guys, and they also fear that some of the custodial staff note of who comes and goes. No one prevents people from entering the parking lot outside the checkpoint to note license plate numbers of " collaborators. " Perhaps the paranoia is justified, perhaps it is not. But, the net effect is the same, as a segment of Iraqi society seeks to avoid meeting Americans because they fear the Green Zone.

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Issue Date: April 20, 2004
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