Friday, March 14, 2008

When narratives collide

Condi Rice made remarks at a Congressional hearing to the effect the Bush administration is interested in reconstruction and nation-building, and lest you dismiss this as mere words, take a look at the multi-national force website and you will see a headline and a photo of soldiers and local people planning the development of agri-business in Karbala. The visual clue is the long conference-table, which conveys that they really do mean "business". The two sides, American and Iraqi, are clearly working together in a peaceful and constructive way.

Another proof of the economic-development renaissance is in the NYT vignette earlier this week about a conference in Basra on port-development. Unfortunately there was no actual photo, but there was very powerful iconography nonetheless. The journalist was able to tour part of the port, where he saw piles of shipping-containers, but he learned they are all empty and the reason is that the union controlling the port makes its people work too slowly. Also, he tells us, there is a "general air of seediness" to the port. The union is "thought to be controlled by the Fadhila Party", to which the Basra governor belongs, if you catch his drift. He is reporting on a "conference" on port-development, that included, in addition to the NYT reporter and a US embassy official showing him around, Iraqi officials from the GreenZone, "businessmen" (none named), and a representative of the Japanese government, which has supposedly "promised" (in that completely unconditional way for which the Japanese are famous) a large sum of money to port-rehabilitation.

It is Development Economics 101 in pictures. International flow of funds, friendly discussions around the long conference-tale, versus reactionary labor-immobility, symbolized by the seedy appearance of the port. How to go at this?

Actually, the decision was taken to go at this from the military angle, with an allocation of an additional 3000 troops under the command of the GreenZone, supported by foreign troops. They would not actually attack the port, but would "provide security", for the development project. Interestingly, what the NYT reporter forgot to mention, was the fact that the British defence minister Dez Brown happened to be in Basra at the time, "inspecting his troops" as the Arab reporters put it, and he also gave a speech at this "conference", thus "showing the flag", you might say [see, for instance the report in AlQabas for Wedesday March 13, here]. The issue for him is that his government has promised a drawdown of over 1000 troops (out of 4500 troops soldiers currently hanging out in the area) in the very near future. This coincided with the "surprise" visit of Fallon to Baghdad, where his issue with Petraeus has been the speed and seriousness of the US troop-drawdown.

So it looks a little as if we have a clash of narratives, with the fledgling "nation-building" story competing with another story: "deteriorating security" and questioning of troop-drawdowns.

But at the same time, how very wrong it would be to think that any of this has to do with opposition to the American occupation. On the contrary. The problem in Basra is the same as the problem all over the world: Entrenched union leadership. In Kut, where "unknown armed groups" have been fighting local security forces (and there too there was a report recently about the need for reinforcements from Baghdad), AlHayat reports today that Sadrists hit a US base near Kut yesterday with eleven Katyusha rockets (according to an Iraqi police source)*, to which the American forces responded with mortar fire. This is not because anyone opposes the continuing American occupation. It was probably a case of mistaken identity.

The exact spin on what is happening in Kut seems to be still in a state of flux, but judging from the guidance provided by Juan and others, it seems pretty certain that the theme here is going to be insubordination and the breakdown of Sadrist discipline: Again, nothing to do, really, with the occupation. Recalcitrant unions. Insubordination. You can find these problems anywhere in the world.

One thing is certain. The additional troops from the GreenZone will be met in Basra with sweets and rose-petals. That's because, according to the NYT, they are going to be led by General Mohan Fahad al-Fraji, a very popular figure locally. For instance, IRIN News reported earlier this week:
Frustrated by the security situation, thousands of Basra residents took to the streets on 8 March, demanding the resignation of provincial police and army chiefs for not improving security.

Their banners read: "We ask the government to chase down and punish those who committed assassinations in Basra," and "No, no to Jalil and Mohan," referring to police chief Maj-Gen Abdul-Jalil Khalaf and army commander Lt-Gen Mohan al-Fireji.

Obviously a case of a few bad apples. You will find that anywhere.

This is according to Al-Hayat, which says, as part of its description of Sadrist activities in Kut, "An Iraqi police source who didn't want to be identified said eleven Katusha rockets landed on an American base near Kut Wednesday evening, and he added that two siblings were killed and four other people were wounded when the American soldiers responded to the rocket attacks with mortar fire." Interestingly, Voices of Iraq later reported, citing another anonymous source, that it was eleven rockets in Kut that caused civilian casualties, without saying where the rockets came from or mentioning any American action at all in that connection. And Juan says the attack on the American base was mortar fire (and not Katyusha rockets at all). But if there seemed to be any doubt about the firing of Katyusha rockets at American bases, a report later in the day (Friday March 14) by VOI was pretty unambiguous. It said five Katyusha rockets landed on a US base in Dora district, southern Baghdad. The reporter added: "No information could be reached on possible casualties, due to the security siege imposed by the Americans around their bases."


Post a Comment

<< Home