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February 21, 2005

Iraqis want freedom on their terms, says journalist Naomi Klein

By Jennifer McNulty

In a blistering critique of Bush administration policies in Iraq, journalist Naomi Klein last week urged antiwar activists to heed the call of Iraqi voters and demand a timetable for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Photo: Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein
Photo: Matt Fitt

“A clear majority of Iraqis want American troops to leave,” Klein said, referring to the results of the January 30 elections. “The Left should be echoing the demands we’re hearing from Iraq.”

Klein, author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, is an award-winning journalist who has won praise for her coverage of the economics of the war. A capacity crowd filled the Colleges Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room to hear her talk, which was presented by the UCSC Alumni Association and College Ten as part of the UCSC Distinguished Visiting Professor Series.

The administration’s pursuit of a “free-market utopia” in Iraq has backfired and its “brutal economic reforms” have fueled resentment and anger, transforming pockets of resistance into a nationwide popular uprising, said Klein.

Klein described the “amazing renaissance of democracy in Iraq” that followed the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Hundreds of independent newspapers and journalists provided incredible coverage of the occupation, and Iraqis immediately began holding elections to establish local governing councils. “They didn’t wait for anyone to tell them to do it, they just did it,” said Klein. “They couldn’t wait to have democracy.”

But with the arrival of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer in May, U.S. officials pursued their real agenda in earnest under the guise of bringing democracy to Iraq, said Klein. They began slicing up the economic pie, adopting policies to protect foreign investors, laying off 500,000 Iraqis (including 400,000 soldiers who kept their guns but were stripped of their pensions), and announcing plans to sell off all 200 state-owned Iraqi companies. They negated the results of local elections, established a 15 percent flat tax (a “Republican dream,” quipped Klein), and put 100 new laws on the books, including one that allowed foreign companies to own 100 percent of the assets of businesses in Iraq and take 100 percent of the profits out of the country.

Klein described attending trade shows and hearing gleeful contractors discussing their prospects in Iraq. “They were talking about opening a McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart in downtown Baghdad,” she recalled. “They kept saying, ‘Iraqis are going to be so excited.' Reconstruction was treated as a laboratory for the free market.”

Meanwhile, Iraqis saw U.S. soldiers killing civilians and arresting clerics who expressed anti-occupation views. They watched the U.S. military build permanent installations in Saddam Hussein’s former palaces and read that occupation forces lost $8.8 billion in Iraqi oil money.

Likening the administration’s policies in Iraq to the “Extreme Makeover” craze, Klein said U.S. officials were determined to “start over” and rebuild the country from the ground up. But things didn’t go according to plan, she said.

“In the early months after Baghdad fell, Iraqis used their new-found freedom to stage a protest against the occupation outside the gates of the Green Zone,” said Klein. “It became clear that Iraqis wouldn’t accept their shiny new country like a delighted reality-TV show contestant. National elections started to look like a very bad idea.”

Indeed, increasing violence allowed U.S. administrators to delay national elections that had been scheduled for early November 2003. The delay also gave them time to “systematically lock in” their new economic policies, draft a constitution, and appoint Iraqi government leaders. One agreement hammered out by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi government and the so-called Paris Club requires that Iraq manage its $200 billion international debt in accordance with International Monetary Fund requirements that include the privatization of all state-owned companies and the replacement of the national food aid program--on which 60 percent of Iraqis depend—with a $15 individual monthly stipend, said Klein.

“All of this is totally illegal under international law,” emphasized Klein.

In January 2004, 100,000 Iraqis staged a peaceful protest and called for national elections. As their protests were ignored and their pleas disregarded, Iraqis began to lose hope, and the resistance grew, widening its targets to include all foreigners and reconstruction projects themselves. Even on a “good day,” there are now 40 to 50 attacks, said Klein.

In last month’s election, 51 percent of Iraqi voters endorsed a platform that called for a social security system that would guarantee a job for every fit Iraqi, write off Iraqi national debts, cancel the reparations being paid to Kuwait, Britain, the United States, and other countries, and the use of Iraqi oil money for economic development, said Klein, noting that a large number of Iraqis boycotted the election to protest the occupation. The Association of Muslim Scholars urged Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the population, to stay away from the polls, while Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the elections under occupation “illegitimate” and a public relations ploy. Klein called on activists to support the will of the Iraqi majority.

“You cannot leave the language of democracy to George Bush,” she said. “You need to take all this hot air about freedom and democracy and force them to deliver it. If we can listen to Iraqis, we will stop future wars, because the way to stop future wars is to make war unprofitable. They want the loot--the military bases and the free-market utopia. And they haven’t gotten it yet.”

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