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Bad days ahead

In leaked memo, true believer sees seeds of Iraqi civil war

As the situation grows more tenuous, the Bush administration is spinning ominous news from Iraq with matter-of- fact optimism.

According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, uprisings in a half-dozen cities, accompanied by the deaths of 102 Americans in April so far, is "a moment in Iraq's path towards a free and democratic system." The president himself asserts, "Our coalition is standing with responsible Iraqi leaders as they establish growing authority in their country."

But according to a closely held Coalition Provisional Authority memo written in early March, the reality isn't so rosy. Iraq's chances of seeing democracy succeed, according to the memo's author — a U.S. official who wrote the summation of observations he'd made in the field for a senior authority director — have been imperiled by a year's worth of errors on the part of the Pentagon and the CPA, the U.S.-led multinational agency administering Iraq.

Far from facilitating democracy and security, U.S. efforts have created an environment rife with corruption and sectarianism likely to result in civil war, the memo's author fears.

Provided to this reporter by a Western intelligence official, the memo was partially redacted to protect the writer's identity and to "avoid inflaming an already volatile situation." The document is a wide-ranging, often acerbic critique of the authority, notable for its troubling assessment of Iraq's future.

The author supported the invasion and still supports the occupation. "What we have accomplished in Iraq is worth it," he writes.

But the document is gloomy in most other respects, portraying a mire of dysfunction and corruption, overseen by an authority that handles "an issue like six-year-olds play soccer: Someone kicks the ball and one hundred people chase after it hoping to be noticed, without a care as to what happens on the field."

It is particularly pointed on cronyism and corruption within the Governing Council, the provisional Iraqi government subordinate to the CPA. "In retrospect," the memo says, "both for political and organizational reasons, the decision to allow the Governing Council to pick 25 ministers did the greatest damage. Not only did we endorse nepotism, with men choosing their sons and brothers-in-law; but we also failed to use our prerogative to shape a system that would work."

According to the memo, the CPA's bunker-in-Baghdad mentality has contributed to the potential for civil war. "[CPA Administrator Paul] 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 memo also describes the CPA as "handicapped by [its] security bubble," and derides the United States for spending "millions importing sport utility vehicles which are used exclusively to drive the kilometer and a half" between CPA and Governing Council headquarters.

While the memo offers an encouraging picture of thriving businesses on the streets of Baghdad, it notes that "the progress evident happens despite us rather than because of us" and reports that "frequent explosions, many of which are not reported in the mainstream media, are a constant reminder of uncertainty."

"Baghdadis have an uneasy sense that they are heading towards civil war," the memo says. "Sunnis, Shias, and Kurd professionals say that they themselves, friends, and associates are buying weapons fearing for the future." While Iraqi police "remain too fearful to enforce regulations," they are making a pretty penny as small-arms dealers.

Asserting that the United States must "use our prerogative as an occupying power to signal that corruption will not be tolerated," the memo recommends taking action against at least four Iraqi ministers whose names have been redacted from the document. (Though there may be no connection, two weeks ago, Interior Minister Nuri Badran and Governing Council member Iyad Allawi abruptly resigned.) Also redacted is the name of a minister whose acceptance of "alleged kickbacks ... should be especially serious for us, since he was one of two ministers who met the President and had his picture taken with him."

Lord Cromer once described Great Britain's approach to another Middle Eastern country: "We do not rule Egypt; we rule those who rule Egypt." Compare that with the memo considered here. Of one senior Iraqi official, whose name is redacted, it states that "it is better to keep [him] a happy drunk than an angry drunk." And it says two other Iraqi leaders are "much more compliant when their checks are delayed or fail to appear."

The attitudes aren't much different, are they? But sometimes, the most true and heartbreaking view is afforded from the wheel of the mighty ship of state.

A senior correspondent for the American Prospect, Jason Vest wrote this story for Creative Loafing and other members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Go to atlanta.creativeloafing.com to read a longer version.