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Seeing Iraq through the globalization lens

By Mark LeVine / April 5, 2004


If you haven't been in Jordan in several years, Amman's fashionable Mecca Mall is a bit disorienting - especially if you've just come from more than a week in Baghdad. There are luxury shops selling designer clothes made in Syria, ads for "Sex and the City," a chic bowling alley and coffee shops, and a multiplex theater showing first-run movies, including "The Passion" - it's not hard to believe that globalization is taking root in this corner of the Middle East, however troubled its experience elsewhere in the region.

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Only two weeks ago, however, as I had my final breakfast in Baghdad, angry marches were already beginning as news of Israel's assassination of Sheikh Yassin spread. As a friend and I entered the Mecca Mall cinema half a day later and 500 miles west, we couldn't help wondering what Arabs are thinking as they watch a movie that blames Jews for the execution of Jesus (who is revered in Islam) on the same day Israel "martyred" someone Al Jazeera described as an old man in a wheelchair. Indeed, days earlier, on the first anniversary of the US invasion, thousands of Iraqis marching in Baghdad chanted that Jews should remember the Battle of Khaibar, as "Muhammad's army is returning."

The focus on Jews and Israel reflects a wider belief among Arab Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite alike, that the US and Israeli occupations are twin Golems of a globalization that they can not resist or control, one that is causing the disintegration of the very fabric of their cultures and economies even as it offers prosperity and freedom to a fortunate few.

It may be hard for Americans to understand the occupation of Iraq in the context of globalization. But Iraq today is clearly the epicenter of that trend. Here, military force was used to seize control of the world's most important commodity - oil. And corporations allied with the occupying power literally scrounge the country for profits, privatizing everything from health care to prisons, while Iraqi engineers, contractors, doctors, and educators are shunted aside.

Like economic globalization in so many other countries of the developing world, this model in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. My visits to hospitals, schools, think tanks, political party headquarters, art galleries, and refugee camps reveal conditions clearly as bad, and often worse, than on the eve of the US invasion. So outside the Kurdish north, there is almost universal antipathy for the occupation, for what Iraqis refer to derisively as the "Governed Council" (whose members are dismissed as paid employees of the occupiers), and for a draft constitution that analysts here feel has enough holes to ensure continued repression and corruption, however appealing the veneer of democracy.

But most Iraqis aren't even interested in high politics; they're worried about the same things as Americans - jobs, healthcare, and education. And the story is grim.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and USAID officials refuse to publish vital health statistics and rarely visit hospitals, but hospital officials continue to collect data that reveal woeful rates of mortality and sickness, as well as acute shortages of drugs and equipment.