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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Baghdad, Tourist Destination?

Have you ever heard of the "friday dump?" That's the practice of putting out embarrassing press releases on friday, guaranteeing that the story is underreported. The friday news broadcasts have the lowest viewership and saturday newspapers have the lowest readership. If you want to bury a press release or an announcement, you do it on friday.

But sometimes, the news you want to bury is so stupid and crazy that not even friday is safe enough. What you need for these sorts of stories is some sort of prescheduled news event that will suck up every square inch of oxygen in every newsroom in the nation. Something really big, like -- say -- the Superbowl or Christmas or primaries in two states that have been pushed as "do or die" for the Democratic candidates for weeks on end.

So it is with plans for Baghdad's "Green Zone" -- the heavily fortified area that's the target of rocket and mortar attacks.

The Guardian:

Picture, if you will, a tree-lined plaza in Baghdad's International Village, flanked by fashion boutiques, swanky cafes, and shiny glass office towers. Nearby a golf course nestles agreeably, where a chip over the water to the final green is but a prelude to cocktails in the club house and a soothing massage in a luxury hotel, which would not look out of place in Sydney harbour. Then, as twilight falls, a pre-prandial stroll, perhaps, amid the cool of the Tigris Riverfront Park, where the peace is broken only by the soulful cries of egrets fishing.

Improbable though it all may seem, this is how some imaginative types in the US military are envisaging the future of Baghdad's Green Zone, the much-pummelled redoubt of the Iraqi capital where a bunker shot has until now had very different connotations.

How much coverage do you think that's going to get today?

The idea is to create a "zone of influence" around the $700 million US Embassy. An Embassy the size of Vatican City. When you dump that kind of money into a compound, you want to make sure it's in a nice neighborhood.

And it's not. The Associated Press lists the dominant features in the zone as "rocket attacks, concrete blast walls and no sewer system." Amazingly, Marriott International Inc. is said to have agreed to a deal to build a hotel. I can't imagine that they'll be breaking ground anytime soon.

USA Today:

Raed Falah Hasan has lost count of how many times rockets or mortar shells aimed at the nearby international Green Zone have fallen short and landed in his high-rise apartment complex.

Three neighbors have been killed and eight injured by the missiles. One rocket severed his building's gas line. His daughter Suror, 4, has been sick with fear.

Hasan's biggest worry is his wife, Nahla, who works in the Green Zone as a security screener for a U.S. contractor. Whenever a rocket or mortar round explodes there -- sometimes five or six times a day -- she calls home to say she is all right.

No word on whether this is anywhere near the planned golf course.

This is the admission of a long term presence -- Baghdad John McCain's one hundred years in Iraq. You have to wonder about the investors; are they completely insane? An L.A.-based holding company for equity firms, C3, has confirmed it's starting "a $500 million project to build an amusement park on the outskirts of the Green Zone in an area encompassing the Baghdad Zoo. The first phase, a skateboard park, is scheduled to open this summer."

A skateboard park? Here's an interesting question, in all the coverage of Iraq you've seen over the years, have you ever seen even one kid on a skateboard? I guess it doesn't really matter, since it'll last a week before a rocket lands in the middle of it.

And this shining new example of capitalism and freedom -- assuming there's any hope in hell of it ever actually happening -- will just underscore how bad life is in Iraq. Most Iraqis aren't allowed in the Green Zone. Either you work there or you don't go. This new Embassy district will be a segregationist haven.

Even Navy Capt. Thomas Karnowski, who led the team that developed the plan, admits they're building from scratch. "There is no sewer system, no working power system. Everything here is done on generators. No road system repair work. There are no city services other than the minimal amount we provide to get by," Karnowski says.

Sounds lovely.

What bothers me most about this is that it's so clearly empire. In his 2000 campaign against Al Gore, George W. Bush ran against the idea of empire or, as it was put then, "nation building."

...I'm worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn't have sent troops to Haiti. I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I'm not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.

Of course, no one ever accused Bush of not being a big fat hypocrite. "Nation building" was bad when Clinton did it, over-extending the military was terrible when Clinton supposedly did it (he didn't), but building a damned city in the Iraqi desert with golf courses, hotels, and coffee shops is just a great idea.

Meanwhile, we can't even rebuild the parts of Iraq we blew up. Bloomberg News reports, "Iraq's Nassriya Water Treatment Plant, the country's largest reconstruction project, is a failure so far because it isn't delivering sufficient water to enough people, a new audit says." That represents $277 million for nothing. It's not the only one -- Agence France-Presse tells us, "Hundreds of contracts to rebuild Iraq have been abandoned short of completion for reasons that range from poor performance to the killing of the contractor, a US audit said Monday."

"Most of the contracts on record -- 743 -- were terminated by the government because it was no longer considered to be in the US interest to continue," AFP says. In one case, the construction of a police station was abandoned because "the building was blown up prior to completion."

We can't build police stations, schools, and water treatment plants, we can't deliver electricity or sewer service, we can't keep militants from shelling the Green Zone, but we can build a freakin' amusement park? Pardon me if I'm a bit skeptical. I don't think anyone's going to be playing a par three in Baghdad anytime soon.

As I said, all of this will be out of reach for ordinary Iraqis. Worse, the whole idea's a big, shining middle finger to them. "That sort of indifference to the suffering of Iraq is provocative," writes Spencer Ackerman. "If I was Moqtada Sadr, I would use it as a rallying cry."

No doubt someone will. If this actually happens, there's no way that Iraqis could see it as anything other than a slap in the face -- a foreign power invades, takes over your country, screws everything up so badly that you don't even have sewers, and builds a big segregated country club in the middle of the capital. How would you feel? Once again, I find myself feeling the need to remind everyone that people actually live in Iraq. Sometimes, it seems like people forget that.

No wonder they put this out yesterday -- there's no way they want anyone talking about it today. There's just no part of this that's anything close to a good idea. One more disaster, one more huge waste of money and time and lives. One more plan that's so bad that the Pentagon and the administration doesn't even want you to know about it.

If you ever needed proof that war backers don't live in the real world, there you go.


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