Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The US Oil For Food Scandal

The bigger story today is not anti-war British MP George Galloway's trashing of the US Senate. It is this:

The new report focuses on both the $228m Saddam Hussein's regime is estimated to have made through illegal surcharges on the oil-for-food programme, and on the $8bn it made through sanctions-busting oil sales to Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

US oversight was weak on both fronts, the report says - and sometimes amounted to facilitation of the illicit trades.


It takes the example of Bayoil, a US oil firm which was indicted by US authorities in April and was allegedly used by the three Russian politicians as a go-between with the Iraqi authorities.

According to the report, the firm imported more than 200 million barrels to the US between 2000 and 2002, selling it to US companies and in the process paying $37m in illegal kickbacks to Baghdad.

US agencies such as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) failed to examine its activities, the report warns, assuming that UN agencies would do the job - despite UN resolutions which clearly made such oversight the responsibility of national governments.

In all, US buyers paid more than half the $224m in total kickbacks, the report estimates.

USA, invade thyself. And kudos for the BBC for separating kickbacks on the OFFP and oil smuggling - and recognising the latter was magnitudes bigger.

BTW, I wrote about these numbers before - where I note that probably half of the surcharges were legal.

Squatters & Vile Estate Developers

In August 1980, when I was just a small child, my family did a big tour of Western Europe, made easier by relatives in the Netherlands. When we visited Amsterdam, I remember we got in the middle of a big protest or what - I saw water guns holding crowds at bay and riot police hovering on crane platforms beside a house.

Two decades later I tracked down the bit of history I was an underage witness of: it was the 19 August storming of the Prins Henderikkade ("PH-kade") building, one of the last battles between the kraaker (squatters) occupying empty old buildings, and police enforcing the property rights of vile estate developers. Estate developers who'd keep the houses empty and let them go crap, so that they can tear them down and build expensive new buildings. My parents remember talking to a far-leftist on-looker, who upon learning that we are from Hungary, said that such housing problems must be unknown to us in our social security.

Well, now that was a bit ridiclulous: in the "shortage economy" of late 'real existing socialism', one had to wait years for a house, flat or a building permit; if building on their own (like we did) construction took at least half a decade; and the dictature's idea of social housing was Soviet-style ten-story concrete silos where you can hear your neighbours across the wall, where it is always too hot (either due to the Sun or crappy central heating), and where families whose houses were razed for these monsters found flats with maybe half the area. I don't know if there was a silly hidden policy behind this to force-create the egalitarian-minded socialist man, or (more likely) was it just the usual blind technocrat operation ("we can make X tons of concrete & Y meters of pipes, & the five-year plan foresees Z new flats"). At any rate, the result was rather the creation of the anti-social man: the inhabitant who cares shit about neighbours or the common stairway interest, even if he gets back the same treatment.

However, then came our shiny new capitalist world.

Construction of social housing fell almost to zero. Repeating the mistakes of the West, and that in accelerated fashion, middle+upper class suburbanisation and inner-city (+ concrete silo orbit-city) ghettoisation was allowed without limits. (Ironically, in my city Budapest, this process stopped itself about five years ago: while barely maintained commuter trains were too dirty for the suburbanites, radial roads within the city just couldn't swallow their cars each morning - fed up with traffic jams, many started to move back.)

And in place of bulldozer-minded apparatchniks, now we also have the vile estate developers. The vilest of course are those employing the so-called Apartment Mafia: first tricksters pretend to be from some authority, let people sign papers that turn out to be documents stating they sell their house - and after the tricksters come the (sometimes fake, other times real) lawyers and security guys who do the eviction. But let's turn to 'legal' businessmen. Among them, even the smallest estate sharks show a level of recklessness and arrogance outstripping old Party anti-capitalist propaganda. Two examples:

Near where I work, a developer wanted to build an office block. They bought an empty parcel still not built up since WWII, and the neighbouring old house - which was under heritage protection. After much squabble, they got a permit to rebuild the inside of the old house, keeping structural walls and the facade. What they did then was to start construction of the office block's basement in such a way that the empty shell of the old house got destabilised - they had to tear it down before collapse. Then it was revealed that construction started already with the old plans (new office block on both parcels). This created such an outrage that the developer was forced to build a replica of the old facade onto his office block... and now the building stands empty: the whole construction was a speculative scam, there wasn't sufficient market for offices.

A much lesser fish but even more brazen was the guy who ran a small restaurant in a rented state-owned building beside the Citadel (a 19th-century Habsburg fort). One day he decided he needs an extension - and started to build without a building permission, without informing either the owner or the heritage commission, across terrain filled with history from the Celts through Romans and Avars to WWII... When the heritage commission took notice, even when the press took notice, he said fuck y'all - and built on. At the point when the opposition started to blame this on the government, he should have known money into pockets and creating facts won't be enough - yet he (he!) went to court, claiming his building permit took too long...

Yeah these two failed, but these are the exceptis caught up by the media, while hundreds of other cases fall under the radar and hence succeed. (I know some.)

What I can proudly announce now is the appearance of a counter-movement, a latter-day Budapest version of the kraaker, inner city youths who organise protests and even some squatting. I may report more on them in the future via a relative who knows some of them.

Salvadorian Option, Sadr, Privatisation

Three important news from Iraq in a single day - Juan Cole has them.

The first story is that the fifty executed civilians found recently appear to be Sunnis (Cole is not very clear but it seems he refers to two different sources on this), executed by puppet government security forces (or, is the Wolf Brigade one of the pop-up militias?). This seems to be evidence that the 'Salvadorian Option' - subduing a guerilla movement by staffing out local forces that terrorise the population - is at work. Tough, the Badr Brigades are capable of starting this all on their own, with the occupiers only required to look away.

The second story is that Muqtada al-Sadr, whom I predicted and still predict to be the big winner in all this bloody mess (that is, unless he is assassinated before a US pullout), appeared for the first time in public since the Najaf siege last August. True to his nationalist agenda, he preached against sectarian conflicts and against the occupation.

At this point I have to stress one point about the present puppet government again. The general image, one accepted by Juan Cole too, is of Jaafari, al-Hakim et al in the government, and Sistani being forces of restraint who try to hold back a sectarian war pursued by some Sunni terrorists. But I think the facts I read daily at Juan Cole's blog don't support this view. It's not that they pursue sectarian war. It's that they are so eager to vilify the Iraqi resistance that they will grab any chance to paint an attack sectarian, and thereby inflame tensions even more than by their manoveuring all Sunnis out of puppet-governmental power.

Remember the mass hostage taking in Mada'in that never was, and the following lies about the unconnected corpses fished from the river. Remember the macabre (staged) 'confessions show' on Iraqi TV. Remember the anti-Jordanian protests based on false rumours on an alleged suicide bomber and celebrations of him. And of course there are the internal Shi'a (or Kurd) attacks by tribal militias or criminals - recognised as such only if the attackers don't wear masks and some locals identify them.

The third story is a new hint at the US 'advisers' at work behind the scenes (not recognised as such by Cole): the new Industry minister announced plans of partial privatisation of state companies. This contradicts the official campaign programme of some Shiite coalition members (not to mention public opinion).

Monday, May 16, 2005

Dahr Jamail Is Back

...in Amman/Jordan, Iraq is now too dangerous even for him. But he has contacts in Iraq. Two tidbits I thought are worth to highlight:

Another interesting incident which occurred the beginning of the month was when two F-18 Hornet jets crashed in Iraq. The military claimed there was no indication of hostile fire, yet they crashed in different locations. On the day of their crash, Baghdad airport was closed to commercial air traffic for three days with no reason given by authorities.

Landing at different locations can happen easily if one plane was less damaged than the other, but the closing of the airport is more suggestive.

Abu Talat phoned his family today in Baghdad. They’ve had no electricity for four days. They told him (unconfirmed) that all of Iraq has had no electricity for several days. As Abu Talat says, “Baghdad is running on the generator.”

The worsening of everyday life may be even more important than the mass killings by all armed sides.

Jamail's second post from Amman so far deals with truck divers, who curse the Occupiers in unison, be them from Ramadi, Basra or Sadr City. One factoid that caught my eyes is that the Jordan-Iraq border queue now lasts 18 days. Eighteen. Days.

We Will Not Repeat the Mistakes of Other Generations

I have been rather uneasy with the US Left's response to Bush's speech in Latvia. While they rigtly pointed out the sillyness of the present-day political intentions behind Bushie's blurtings, and the blind eye he turned to Baltic participation in Nazi crimes and historical amnesia about those, elevating Roosevelt's and Churchill's decisions into wise statesmanship is too much.

The view of Yalta as a sell-out by the West was not shared only by the US Right, but it is pretty much widespread in a Central-Eastern Europe that for example remembers capitulation attempts not taken up by the Western allies. (Or what about the British abadoning of the Prague uprising.)

But Josh Narins @ Remain Calm has found a better way to lampoon Republoscum historicism:

President George Washington, knowing full well that Canada had been used as a staging ground for attacks against America during the War of American Independence, and also that Canada was a land yearning to breathe the sweet air of freedom, sat idly by and let Canada live [ed:if it can be called that!] under the tyrannic bootheel of monarchic oppression, and, like Presidents J Adams, T Jefferson, and J Madison after him, was an appeaser of tyranny!

Had it not been Thomas Jefferson himself who penned the Declaration of Independence, explaining the depths of the injustice of this "King" George, the undemocratic ruler who still held sway over so many suffering subjects, including the innocent Canadians so close we could touch them?

Was it not only thirty years later, during the War of 1812, that Canada, once again, became a staging ground for enemy troops bent on destroying America's liberty, troops who burned down the White House? [ed: Never Forget The Burning Of the White House!] How could these early American Presidents have stood by and let America be attacked? Why did they not bring the war to the enemy? We pray history obliterates these types from her books!

Don't Mention The War...

DER SPIEGEL's correspondent in Britain has been asked "for a strongly worded polemic about the British obsession with Germany and the war". He delivered a fine piece (tough maybe wording strongly was too much at the expense of making distinctions), here is one quote:

Every German schoolchild knows the tales of German atrocities. But in England, Prince Harry parties with a swastika arm band. Eighty per cent of youngsters don't know what Auschwitz was about, but each one will be familiar enough with heroic films about the "Battle of Britain" to believe they had personally kicked the Hun up the backside.

Where does this giddy pride come from - and the lack of sensitivity toward the victims?

The Russians in the meantime consider us friends, even though they lost 25 million people in the fight against the Nazi horde. They respect us as a hard-working, peace-loving people who have emerged renewed from the devastation.

The British, who only survived thanks to the Russians and Americans, behave as if they had conquered Hitler's hordes single-handedly. And they continue to see us as Nazis, as if they had to refight the battles every evening. They are positively enchanted by this Nazi dimension.

(A less frequent but not milder version of this syndrome exists in the USA too; witness US pro-Democrat, pro-capitalist economist and blogger Brad DeLong's recent mad diatribe against Nobel laureate, onetime standard bearer of the post-war West German anti-fascist and rememberance movement, German novelist Günter Grass: after Grass's attack on capitalism in a piece translated and reprinted by the NYT, DeLong manages to accuse him of being a "crypto-Nazi scum"...)

The author also refers to the silly discussion going on in Britain about the film Downfall, something I covered before.

And then he connects the recent rehabilitation of imperialism (Gordon Brown: "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over") to the present war that shouldn't be mentioned:

I believe the official British triumphalism has to do with the Iraq war. If you continuously inflate your self importance with memories of grandeur in the Second World War, if you endlessly replay your "finest hour", you will have a distorted view of the moral problems of today.

A Britain which assumes itself too much in possession of all virtue has dangerously self-aggrandising features. Through deception and manoeuvrings you can find yourself going into a war that breaks international law and costs thousands of innocent civilian lives - simply because of an uncritical faith in an historic mission. For Tony Blair, it seems to me, "Rule Britannia" applies to the moral sphere as well.

Thoughts On The British Elections

It's now 11 days since Bliar was given a bloody nose, time for some less celebratory thoughts.

One is that while more than 60% of voters voted for leftist ideas, what they got in essence is three conservative parties in Parliament.

Take the LibDems, who were surprisingly fast in proving the truth behind the "Yellow Tories" mockery, by distancing themselves from their social campaign promises:

Charles Kennedy has announced a wholesale review of the Liberal Democrats' policies that could pave the way for them to ditch their tax policies.

The party fears it lost support because of its plans to replace the council tax with a local income tax, worrying people on middle-range incomes, and its call for a 50p top rate of tax on incomes of more than £100,000 a year.

[elsewhere] The policy review will also focus on Europe and energy. The party may drop its opposition to nuclear power amid evidence that it could provide a way to combat climate change.

But Bliar is not to be outdone in pandering to the nonexistent right-wing majority. I was chastised by Dead Men Left for comparing New Labour to US Democrats, yet the following attempt to get BNP votes surprised even me:

Tony Blair says he will "focus relentlessly" on the public's priorities after securing a historic third term in government.

He pledged to tackle immigration issues and re-establish respect in classrooms, town centres and on Britain's streets.

Yeah, the public's priorities. Home Office minister Hazel Blears upped this with a proposal to put yobs to community service work in orange uniforms, in US chain-gang style.

Now, what about the government's priorities? As I predicted [not on this blog], the issue of building nuclear plants is back - that after several studies showing nuclear as a dead option, and just recently more problems with waste disposal. (And after global warming, confronting Peak Oil is the new false argument of lobbyists.) As for public health service, the creeping privatisation is bound to roll on - minister Patricia Hewitt 'promised' to double private services paid for by the NHS.

As a second post-election issue, the minor progressive leftist parties. They grew stronger, but...

When factoring in the number of seats contested, the Greens could accomplish only minimal growth over 2001.

As for Respect, I think the important story is not Galloway's win, but the strong showing of some other candidates - three of them finished second place. While this is much better than what I feared, it is less than desirable - the party hasn't progressed much above what it achieved in the European elections, and the election of at least one other candidate would have been needed to unmake the image of the one-man Galloway Party in too many people's eyes.

The Greens and Respect failed to stand together in this election, and many continue to blame the other side, so it remains to be seen if they can cooperate effectively on the upcoming battles over nuclear power and nukes. On the other hand, the third Bliar government seems to be set to give plenty of opportunities to form a united front of rejection.

Coalition of the Ever Less Willing

Lately the governments of a number of US vassals in Iraq - Poland, Italy, Japan, Ukraine, Bulgaria - tried to bridge the growing gap between public opinion and their obsequiousness with declarations on continued troop deployment that appear to promise a pullout.

But more important is something happening without much media attention. Do you remember the NATO promise of training Iraqi troops? That was the NATO decision even Germany hadn't vetoed, and tough it was derided at the time because most NATO members promised token units, still it represented real support and some countries' promises were of similar troop strength than in the previous phase of occupation.

For example, Hungary. Before parliament forced a pullout on the government, Hungary had 300 truck drivers in Iraq (who, giving the lie to the 'humanitarian' mission, dodged IEDs 95% of the time with military cargo). Our government sought to regain its (apart from red carpets rolled out at the White House, worthless) position in relation to Big Brother by promising 150 soldiers to guard the NATO training base in Baghdad.

Now it was leaked to Hungarian papers that there will be nothing of the sort. Allegedly, the new Iraqi puppet government doesn't want any foreign help in training, but at any rate, there won't be a deployment.

So the newest idea to savage our servitude at least in appearance is to offer the more than 70 stored T-72 tanks (yes, that means three-decades-old technology) to the puppet Iraqi army, if...

...if NATO pays the bill, that is.