TIKRIT — The invasion of Iraq began as a gritty, boots-on-the-ground affair. (Karl Zinsmeister’s Boots on the Ground, which chronicled the event, has been read by almost every other soldier I’ve met over here.)
“I remember our first six months after the invasion, we were living in a schoolyard in Baghdad without running water,” recalls Capt. Mark Galloway, now serving his second tour as head of supply at Forward Base Summerall, near Bayji, 40 miles north of Tikrit. “Now the facilities we have are amazing.”
FOB Summerall is indeed a remarkable projection of American force and logistics. Air-conditioned trailers house 1,200 members of the 82nd Airborne. The dining hall serves restaurant-quality meals, while the kitchen bakes a new cake every night. (The one Saturday honored St. Patrick’s Day.) There are several gyms, a recreation hall with two 36-inch TVs, and a huge airplane hangar left over from Saddam’s time that now houses the vehicle maintenance and welding shops.
Meanwhile, high in the sky floats an observation blimp surveying the base perimeter and beyond. Four months ago, in an amazing feat of technology, the blimp’s infrared cameras caught a pair of insurgents planting an improvised explosive device (IED) in the midnight streets of nearby Siniyah, a rebellious town about five miles away. The remarkable high-resolution photographs allowed the Army to disable the bomb and persuaded the town council to impose a nighttime curfew that all but eliminated further incidents. At that point, two Iraqi Army soldiers, an Iraqi Police officer, and two American GIs had died within the space of a month.
There is no question of America’s ability to project force into the region. The real question is whether our armed forces will be able to do much more than simply protect themselves — and whether the American people have the stomach for such an open-ended enterprise.
One of the 82nd Airborne’s latest responsibilities is trying to untangle the mare’s nest of theft and corruption that pervades the nearby Bayji Oil Refinery, one of the three largest in the country. Capable of providing 75 percent of the country’s fuel needs, Bayji is now being robbed blind by its managers, employees, security guards, and just about everyone else in sight, with at least some of the money going to terrorists. The head of distribution was just arrested a few weeks ago after being caught permitting the diversion of huge amounts of fuel. Baghdad is far away and preoccupied with other things at the moment, however. And so the Army has been asked to step in.
“We estimate that 30 percent of the production of the refinery is being resold on the black market,” says Capt. Kwenton Kuhlman, whose Bravo Company now spends almost every day at the refinery checking Arabic purchase orders and billing records. “The real problem is this fuel is being diverted from the Iraqi people.”
In fact, the day I accompanied Bravo Company to the refinery last week the story appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. “[O]il smuggling…is helping to destabilize the fragile Baghdad government and finance insurgents, adding another facet to the Bush administration’s latest pacification plan for Iraq,” said the article. “‘The fuel that is stolen comes back as bombs, mortar shells and Katyusha rockets,’ said Hamad Hamoud al-Shakti, governor of the Salahaddin province, home to the Bayji refinery.”
ON CLOSER INSPECTION, HOWEVER, the real problem does not seem to be theft but the archaic system of price controls and government fuel allotments left over from the Saddam era.
Hardly anybody in Iraq buys and sells fuel through normal commercial channels. Instead it is parceled out in “allotments,” to be sold at a government-fixed price that is now one-third the black market price.
The means of distribution are “gas stations,” one of the strangest manifestations of contemporary Iraq. Permission to build a gas station in large cities and along major highways is handed out by the national and provincial governments. Naturally, favoritism reigns. There are as many gas stations in the Tikrit and Bayji areas — Saddam’s home territory — as in all of Baghdad.
Like everything in Iraq, these structures are surrounded by high walls. Theoretically, they are spaced evenly along the highway at least every five miles, although approaching Bayji along Route 1, the main national highway, they appear every 1,000 yards. Often a Bedouin tent surrounded by a herd of sheep sits right next door.
All these gas stations sit completely unattended and almost never open. When they do, the gas lines often extend for more than a mile.
The reason for this anomaly is that owning a gas station has nothing to do with selling gas. Their sole purpose is to be issued a permit that allows the owner to go to the refinery and collect a designated allotment. The owners then funnel these allotments into the black market. “We went to a station with the Wall Street Journal reporter and there was an owner who had drilled a hole in his back wall siphoning gas to trucks outside,” say Capt. Kuhlman. “We arrested him on the spot.”
After fuel leaves the refinery, it can pop up just about anywhere — except at the gas stations. In Tikrit, we saw children selling one-gallon jugs from the sidewalk. Much of the pirated profits, however, undoubtedly end up in the hands of terrorists.
SO THE OBVIOUS QUESTION emerges: Why have we sent thousands of American soldiers 7,000 miles across the ocean in order to enforce a Soviet-style system? If gas station owners were simply buying gas at a market price, they wouldn’t have any opportunity to fence it onto the black market. In fact, there would be no black market. Competition might eliminate half the gas stations but those that survived would thrive. The government would collect its proceeds from the refinery and might have enough money to pay its soldiers and police officers, who are often deserting for lack of pay. Of course the oil industry would remain a state monopoly — but that is the choice we have faced all along. (Last week, at the urging of the World Bank, the government did raise the price of oil to about 60 percent of the market price.)
It is important to recognize how primitive conditions are in Iraqi society and how much of a task we have before us. Edward Banfield described an almost identical situation in the southern Italy of the 1960s in his classic book, The Moral Basis for a Backward Society. Banfield found there was no “public sector.” People were loyal only to their immediate and extended families. Neighbors were regarded with a great deal of suspicion and strangers were beyond the pale. Consequently there was no cooperative enterprise.
Iraqi society functions much the same way. In the smaller towns, houses are often surprisingly comfortable and well built. Interior spaces are clean with walls made of plaster and rugs covering stone or dirt floors. The fieldstone-and-cement exteriors can be surprisingly artistic. Yet each home is surrounded by a wall and concern for the outside world ends there.
There is no municipal garbage collection, even in the more prosperous towns. Instead, people dump their trash “over the wall.” The result is that a handsome villa that looks like it could inhabit a Florida suburb will be surrounded by a vacant lot filled with broken bottles and discarded plastic containers a foot deep. Households flush “gray water” from sinks and baths through a small pipe and into the street. In the cities, toilet water is treated the same way and the streets have become open sewers.
Although there are “city councils” — usually run by tribal leaders — there is no effective municipal government. Local taxes do not exist and whatever funds are collected go to Baghdad, where they are distributed with enormous inequality and favoritism. By the time these funds reach the municipal level there is literally nothing left. In Tikrit we saw road crews spreading fresh tar on a section of Highway 1 that was already adequately surfaced. Meanwhile, whole neighborhoods and villages remain unpaved.
Even if the violence is quelled — and that remains a big enough question mark — the task of making Iraq anything close to a functioning society remains immense. Enthusiasts keep talking about how “the Iraqi people must stand up,” but the Iraqi people are essentially inert. The rudiments of self-government have yet to appear.
“History shows that the successful suppression of an armed insurgency takes at least a decade,” says Major General Benjamin Mixon, commander of the Coalition effort in the northern provinces as he sits in his offices at FOB Speicher in Tikrit. “The question is whether the American people will have the patience to sustain that kind of effort.”
Indeed, even if the violence is quelled, the task has only begun.