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A Corrupt Bargain?

(Photo by Paul Richards of
Agence France Presse, via Getty Images.)

Quite a picture, isn’t it? More than four years ago, as Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment was beginning to pressure the Bushites to make good on their promise of bringing democracy, a plan was floated (and eventually implemented) to hand power to an interim appointed government — and kick the can of genuine national elections past November 2004. When I snarked at the time that the scheme was necessary so Dubya could publicly congratulate himself the new Iraqi government without having to shake hands with "someone whose first name is Ayatollah," the picture at the left is what I had in mind.

Ironically, though, the party that Iraq’s grand ayatollahs shepherded into power — the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — has become a far more loyal partner than perhaps anyone intended. When John McCain visited Iraq earlier this week, the New York Times chronicled the grumbling reaction from most local pols… but not all of them:

Jalaladeen Sagheer, a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a leading Shiite party . . . said it showed Mr. McCain’s commitment to staying in Iraq, a policy Mr. Sagheer said he favored. “It suggests that American officials will make good on their promises,” he said.

And VP Dick Cheney’s own trip to Baghdad purportedly helped grease the way for ISCI to reverse its veto of a bill establishing provincial elections. If you’re suspicious enough to wonder if there’s a link between ISCI’s apparent nervousness about new elections and their unlikely affection for the American occupation, well, you might be onto something. Cue Abu Aardvark:

By most reports, ISCI has lost ground with Shia voters, and would likely lose in elections (provincial or national). ISCI’s political leadership therefore depends on US support for its political weight, and despite its strong Iranian ties would likely be loathe to see the US leave.

. . . No Iraqi actor would scream more loudly or offer more dire warnings of impending doom than the current Green Zone elite – and, not coincidentally, these are the voices most often heard in Washington and by politicians on short visits to Baghdad. But their warnings should be understood at least in part as expressions of their own political self-interest.

"Political self-interest" may be a misleading term, though. A NYT op-ed by Glenn Zorpette two weeks ago hasn’t drawn nearly enough attention for what seems like a shocking revelation about why electricity remains abysmally scarce in Iraq:

To run its generating plants, the cash-starved Electricity Ministry must beg for whatever fuel the Oil Ministry can spare, while buying as much as it can from places like Kuwait. But charity isn’t a priority for Iraq’s Oil Ministry — quite the contrary.

Almost all of the Iraqi government’s revenues come from oil exports. They totaled $39.8 billion last year, the government says, accounting for about 95 percent of its income. So it is not surprising that the oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, has been acting as though every barrel not exported is money wasted.

. . . All over Iraq, generating plants sit idle for lack of fuel. The State Department estimates that on a typical day about 1,500 megawatts of power, or one-third of the country’s peak output, are unavailable because the Electricity Ministry cannot get enough fuel. While the Oil Ministry mechanistically swells the government coffers, hospitals, water-pumping stations and sewage systems function sporadically or not at all. The Oil Ministry’s intransigence goes beyond fuel parsimony. It also refuses to pay for any projects that do not help in exporting more crude oil. “The Oil Ministry has done zero projects to benefit electricity,” an American diplomat in Baghdad told me. “They couldn’t care less.”

. . . The oil minister, Mr. Shahristani, was trained as a chemical engineer, worked as a nuclear specialist and spent years in Saddam Hussein’s prisons — but he had no experience in the oil industry before his appointment. He is, however, very well connected with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s dominant Shiite political party.

You’d think the best thing ISCI could do for its political prospects would be to boost the supply of electricity — so why aren’t they falling all over themselves to do it, and claim the credit publicly? Tie this in with reports that Iraq’s oil money is being stashed in foreign banks, rather than invested in government services, and you might start wondering if ISCI has simply given up on winning Iraqi votes; instead, maybe they’ve embarked on a "pump and dump" scheme to bail out on the country as soon as the U.S. stops protecting them with our troops.

Eric Martin wrote yesterday:

We are currently incurring unthinkable costs in order to prop up Iran’s primary ally in Iraq (ISCI). In fact, Iran’s chief proxy is so unpopular that, should we withdraw our support, ISCI would have a difficult time succeeding in free and fair elections. Iran must feel blessed to have such magnanimous adversaries.

But then, maybe Cheney & Co. aren’t being magnanimous. It could be that they’re just recognizing kindred spirits.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (