Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crocker to world business leaders: I have come to Karbala, you should too. (Updated with a critique: "When pigs can fly")

Ambassador Crocker, in a rare excursion outside the Green Zone, visited Karbala and Najaf on Saturday. In Najaf, his reported remarks were mostly argle-bargle on the proposed bilateral US-Iraq security agreement, but in Karbala, where he helped inaugurate a "joint American-Iraqi coordination office" for development projects, the press-conference remarks as reported by Aswat al Iraq were a mine of useful and interesting information. (The version as it was intended to reach Western readers, with the heroics and the pixie-dust, is here.)

(1) This is a US-Governate joint venture, not US-Baghdad

The center is actually joint venture between the US government and the local government of Karbala, not the government of Iraq (according to the reported remarks by the head of the Karbala Governate Council's development committee).

(2) An ambiguous "message"

Crocker said the his visit to Karbala "sends a message to all of the global corporations, that they should invest here" in Karbala, and also a message to the Arab states that they should open embassies in Baghdad, (although actually, considering that the Karbala project involves the Governate, not the national government, the "message" to the Arab states could be read the other way, as a sign of Shiite go-it-alone ambitions in the Center/South, not of national unity in Baghdad).

(3) Crocker mum on funding

Crocker didn't want to talk about financial allocations for the new center, or for projects. In answer to a question about that, he said: "The important thing is not the financial allocations, because the possibilities exist, rather the important thing is what we can accomplish". He mentioned a sum in Iraqi dinars, which the VOI reporter points out to readers amounts to less that $17,000 US. The governor of Karbala was not sidetracked by that. He said: "America will get involved [using the same term often translated as "meddling" or "intervention"] because it is one of the donor countries, as a party assisting Iraqis in the financial allocations that are assembled for the implementation of projects. And that is what we are hoping for from this joint coordination office."

(4) Because the $8 million pump-priming is not from Baghdad, naturally, but from the US

Nothing was said about particular projects or their financing during the press conference, but the VOI reporter followed up afterwards, and he writes:
[The head of the local-council's developent committee] told VOI after the press-conference that the Americans "have offered $8 million as a first payment for the implementation of a number of projects in the health sector" within the governate. He didn't offer any other details about these projects, but he said: "We're holding meetings right now to define these projects, and what we are hoping for is that this visit [of Crocker's] will hopefully bring global corporations to carry out investment projects in Karbala."
Given the Iraqis-should-pay mood in Congress, it isn't surprising that Crocker didn't want to highlight this $8 million initial American contribution to Karbala development. First of all because it isn't Iraqi money, but also because this is a project that doesn't involve the central government in the first place, the "coordination" office being a joint venture between the US and Karbala, not the US and Baghdad.

So the actual "message to global corporations" could well be not to worry about Baghdad, but rather to hurry up and get in on the ground floor in the Shiite heartland, with American sponsorship and support. And not to worry too much about the contrast between investment-promotion in the Najaf/Karbala Center on the one hand, and military operations against dissident regions like Basra, Sadr City and Mosul on the other.


(5) Moreover, this is a particular red flag to the Sadrists and others in the clerical establishment

The Sadrist news-site Nahrainnet, for its part, wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the project. They write:
The holy city of Karala witnessed on Saturday a visit from Ambassador Ryan Crocker, to open a Consulate, which they have named a "development office", in order to camouflage its real security, intelligence, and military purposes.
The site is in an agricultural area southeast of the city, and a broad expanse of this land has been appropriated to isolate this office for security purposes, the writer says. He adds:
Several religious persons from the clerical Hausa commented that this constitutes an American attack and a contamination of the holy land of Karbala, and calling it a development office is a lie and a falsehood, because the aim is the realization of American security and intelligence control over the city, which is one of the most important of our holy cities.