By Chris Kromm, Rania Masri and Tara Purohit (Counterpunch, February 24, 2004)
It's almost a year since the Iraq war began, and now that the "official" reasons for the invasion--Iraq's storied stockpiles of weapons, the imaginary ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden--lie in disrepute, the Bush administration's new tack is to say the war was really about something else all along: democracy.
The trouble is, the Iraqi people seem more interested in democracy than President Bush. Just three weeks ago, 10,000 Iraqis marched on the U.S.-installed governing council in Nasiriyah, just south of Baghdad, demanding that the U.S. appointees resign and that elections be immediately held.
The Bush administration's response? Paul Bremer, U.S. head of the Iraq occupation, categorically declared that there will be no elections before the planned June "handover" of "sovereignty" to Iraqis. Which begs the question: are a people truly "sovereign" if they have no say in their country's future?
Bush's aversion to democracy in Iraq not only makes his latest justification for war questionable; it should also heighten scrutiny of Research Triangle Institute, the North Carolina outfit officially tasked with "democracy building" in war-torn Iraq.
Last March, just before the war began, RTI was invited by the U.S. Agency for International Development to bid on a contract for creating "local governance" out of the post-invasion rubble. Two other bidders dropped out, and RTI was awarded a deal worth $167.9 million in the first year, and totaling up to $466 million.
If that seems like a lot of money, it is. When U.S. AID's inspector general audited the contract last September, he concluded that the deal appeared designed to "justify spending the available money" instead of being based on the needs of the Iraqi people.
RTI has a history of solid domestic research and a generally liberal image; its connections and campaign contributions, unlike Halliburton, Bechtel, and other Bush-connected beneficiaries of Iraq contracts, has favored the Democratic Party.
But that hasn't made their plans any more palatable to occupied Iraqis--plans which bear little resemblance to "democracy." As Christian Arandel of RTI's International Development program described his organization's work at a Chapel Hill forum earlier this month, "Let us be clear. These are not elections. These are all processes of selections."
Arandel's admission reveals that not much has changed since November, when the Washington Post issued this dispatch from Iraq, which is worth quoting at length:
"With the RTI's guidance, the military will execute the plan. It will select neighborhood councils, which in turn will select district councils, which in turn will select county councils, which in turn will select a provincial council, which, finally, will select a governor. Members of the new councils will be appointed rather than elected. Local leaders will be consulted, and some groups will actually cast votes to select neighborhood leaders. But the final decisions will be made by the military and the RTI."
Military planning and decision-making? Five steps of selection? Appointments rather than elections? No wonder that one Iraqi from Taji--where locals had set up their own elected council, only to have it disbanded--told the Post, "We feel we are going backwards."
As a UN report by Secretary General Kofi Annan released on Monday states, "Elections are a necessary step in the process of building democratic governance and reconstruction. The [U.S. sponsored] caucus-style system as it now stands is not practical and is not a substitute for elections."
An appointee government, the child of the caucus-style system, would very likely continue with the US-unilateral, economic changes -- or, at the very least, not oppose changes -- that open control of Iraq's wealth and resources to outside interests.
Which points to another controversial aspect of RTI's activities in Iraq. A July report of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority says that RTI is pushing for privatization of public services such as garbage pickup. This is disturbingly reminiscent of RTI's efforts to turn over water supplies in South Africa to foreign corporations in the mid-1990s--a move which caused water prices to skyrocket to unaffordable levels in poor black townships, sparking riots and, according to human rights groups, a cholera epidemic which killed hundreds.
Both privately and in public, RTI employees are voicing displeasure with their role in Iraq's political landscape, portraying themselves as caught between a Bush-and Pentagon-driven agenda for Iraq on one hand, and the will of the Iraqi people for self-rule on the other. But RTI is still in Iraq, and still taking the money.
But the Iraqi people have grown tired of excuses and platitudes. It's time for real democracy in Iraq.
Chris Kromm, Rania Masri and Tara Purohit work at the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C. and are coordinators of the Institute's Campaign to Stop the War Profiteers. They can be reached at: