Seeing Iraq through the globalization lens

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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.

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.

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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.

The CPA budgets only $10,000 to "rehabilitate" schools that then receive little more than a paint job by CPA-hired contractors; Iraqi principals complain that they could do the job for $1,000, and wonder where the other $9,000 is going.

While security in daily life is improving around Baghdad, political violence and suicide bombings are escalating.

The social rights granted to women by an otherwise oppressive Baathist system, are being eroded in the new Iraq. And the plight of women is being compounded by a growing religious conservatism, massive unemployment, and lack of education and healthcare.

Iraq is sliding toward chaos; a state that many Iraqis increasingly believe is exactly where the US wants them to be. A prominent Iraqi psychiatrist who has worked with the CPA and the US military explained to me that "there is no way the United States can be this incompetent. The chaos here has to be at least partly deliberate." The main question on most people's minds is not if his assertion is true, but why?

For example, many here see last week's carnage of Americans in Fallujah as suspicious. To send foreign contractors into Fallujah in late-model SUVs with armed escorts - down a traffic-clogged street on which they'd be literal sitting ducks - can be interpreted as a deliberate US instigation of violence to be used as a pretext for "punishment" by the US military.

The United Nations seems tragically poised to reenter Iraq under US auspices - cooperation with the occupiers that could cause a repeat of the violence that drove the UN out of Iraq last year.

The Kurdish drive for a federal-style political system is uniting Shiite and Sunni Arabs against a seemingly common foe. A senior Sunni cleric argued to me that federalism is the first step toward dividing Iraq, and he and his dozens of machine-gun toting aides left little doubt about their willingness to use force to resist it.

There are, thankfully, glimmers of hope that a truly democratic Iraq can emerge. Groups of Iraqi, European, and American activists have been working courageously together to build real democracy and freedom. A senior Shiite cleric fondly recalled the former head of the Jewish community as among his father's best friends and described how Jews and Christians must be respected in Iraq.

The common opposition of conservative clerics and secular artists to the cultural impact of the US occupation (which they equate with globalization), coupled with Iraqi disdain for the rhetoric of both Arab nationalism and sectarian ideologies can, if given time, nurture a vibrant cosmopolitan public sphere. As a young filmmaker- musician put it, "Building bridges between people is the best weapon against occupation and hatred."

As I sat in a Baghdad Internet cafe watching Iraqi teenagers and middle-aged business people check e-mail or research new products, it was clear that Iraqis would like to profit from globalization as much as the wealthy Mecca Mall patrons. As bombs and gunfire echoed blocks away, this dream of a truly human globalization seemed both possible and singularly urgent.

Mark LeVine is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He was co-editor of 'Twilight of the Empire: Responses to Occupation.'

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