Gwynne Dyer: Deaths now part of the scenery

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Iraq is losing around a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. Photo / AP
Iraq is losing around a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. Photo / AP

The media spotlight on the Arab world shifts focus almost every month: counter-revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, an American raid in Libya ... It rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.

Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for 10 years for selling novelty hand-held golf-ball detectors costing US$20 ($24) to the Iraqi Government as bomb detectors (cost US$40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don't even have a power source.

It's not because the Iraqis are unaware of the problem. McCormick allegedly received $75 million from the Iraqi Government for the useless toys, and at least a third of that would have gone as kickbacks to the government officials who signed off on the deal. That much lolly was bound to attract the jealousy of rival government officials, and so there has indeed been an Iraqi investigation.

Three local culprits, including Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Defence Ministry's directorate of combat explosives, went to jail over the crime. But as late as last May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still insisting the "ADE-651" golf-ball detectors were effective - and they are still in widespread use.

This is beyond bizarre, because Iraq is losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism.

The fear is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well. Mr Maliki's Government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls about half the country. The Kurds, who would rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.

Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations - another by-product of the American occupation - were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.

Then in April the Iraqi (ie Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.

This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the US occupation, when 3000 people were being killed each month, and the Government is doing nothing effective to stop it.

The Iraq Government gets US$100 billion ($119.2 billion) a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees, most of whom don't show up for work at all. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the Government's own senior officials.

The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them.

The soldiers and police using them in the streets don't mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost certainly detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn't detect bombs is just fine with them.

- NZ Herald

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