Mark Thomas advises indebted Iraq to do a runner

Iraq has debts of at least $200bn. Its best bet is to promise to pay up and then do a runner, taking

Iraq's debt - the money it owes foreign governments and private companies - is huge. Exactly how big is not certain. Jubilee Iraq says it is up to $200bn; the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says $383bn; some City analysts claim $423bn.

So far, Iraq itself has failed to put forward a figure, but at least it has an excuse. If your old dictator is still running around the place somewhere; if the anger and resentment felt towards occupying forces is growing to the extent that they face daily attacks; if you have lost millions of lives over two decades of wars and sanctions; if you face mass unemployment and still lack clean drinking water in parts of the country - then, fair enough, I can understand you shoving the red final-demand letters in a drawer without bothering to read them.

The simple point is: Iraq is fucked - to such an extent that the exact figures and size of the debt are unimportant. If the amount you owe has that many noughts, it doesn't matter if it is a 1 or a 9 at the front. Frankly, Iraq's best bet is to promise to pay up and then do a runner. The country should wait until the middle of the night, then leg it with all the fixtures and fittings. So that when the bailiffs arrive, there is not a light bulb or socket left, and even the underlay for the carpet has been taken up. Iraq could then change its name and start a new life (I suggest Iram, as Iran has already been taken).

How did the debt get to this level? Well, according to a dossier issued by the British government's Joint Intelligence Committee, the debt began when Saddam Hussein placed Iraq's entire public expenditure budget on a horse at Doncaster, without bothering to cover himself with an each-way bet. OK, that's not true, but if the JIC did issue reports on Iraq's debt, it would be.

The debt actually comes from three areas: failure to pay private companies for contracts; likewise with foreign governments; and reparations from the first Gulf war. The debt is not entirely the west's fault, as both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia lent Saddam billions in the 1980s to finance the war with Iran. However, there will not be many head injuries from people falling off their chairs in shock when I say that it is arms-buying that has bled the country so dry.

But, you may cry, some of the debt is the result of non-payment for civilian goods. That is true, but Iraq might have been able to pay those bills had Saddam not spent so much on stuff that goes bang. In many cases, the non-payment for benign goods was a direct consequence of military spending.

The whole process was exacerbated when, during the oil-for-food programme, Iraq was forbidden to service its debt to private companies and foreign governments because the UN insisted that as much money as possible should go to the Iraqi people for food, medicines and so on. Paradoxically, 25 per cent of the oil-for-food money was deducted to pay war reparations. There will be students reading this and wishing they had a bank account that stopped them from paying back their debts. But there is a downside: in the meantime, the interest kept accruing.

So why should Iraqis be forced to pay Saddam's debts and cover the cost of their own oppression? A legal concept described as "odious debt" is being used by those seeking to write off this debt, and the foremost proponent of this idea is Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economic adviser to Bill Clinton. He has called for a UN commission to assess what part of the debt is "odious" and should therefore be cancelled.

Some oppose cancellation of the debt because it would upset the international banking world too much. But anyone who does business with a dictatorship and doesn't get paid deserves only scorn for doing the deal in the first place. And if the international banking system really were to collapse under the impudence of non-payment, that is just one more good reason to cancel the debt.

Iraq's debt is being traded in the international financial markets. So as long as you can control your gag reflex, you can purchase Iraqi debt. Originally, the buying price was somewhere between two and ten cents in the dollar, but since the invasion in March this year, it has been somewhere around 28 cents in the dollar. Some in the City are already milking Iraq's debt for profit, and it can only continue.

Nearly everyone, including the bankers, expects some cancellation and rescheduling of the debt, but at what price? In the past, debt cancellation for African states has been accompanied by strict economic orders to privatise state assets. Debt cancellation for Iraq looks as if it will follow a similar path and, in the process, aid the rapacious privatisers of America. Welcome to McIraq.

Mark Thomas's programme about Iraq's debt, Mark Thomas: Debt Collector, appears on 22 October, Channel 4, 11.15pm

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