Follow the money

George W Bush undertook to bring prosperity to the Iraqi people. Yet while oil revenue is soaring, p

One morning at the end of January this year, emergency workers in Baghdad converged on al-Rasheed Street, where a major fire had engulfed Iraq's Central Bank. No one had been killed in the still-smouldering ten-storey building, but the bank's records had gone up in smoke. Financial documents concerning billions of dollars had been turned to ash. As a comparison, it would be as if the records of the Bank of England had been accidentally incinerated.

The fire was no accident. "It's still being investigated, but it was arson," said Stuart Bowen, the American special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who examines how the United States spends its billions in Iraq. He has a thorough understanding of the failures of Iraq's reconstruction efforts.

Bowen, who spoke by phone from Baghdad, would not speculate as to the motive for the Central Bank fire, but other sources familiar with the case believe the torch job was intended to remove records of misconduct, theft or malfeasance. Photographs of the destruction show the twisted wreckage of a huge computer server.

Burning evidence is a time-honoured, if crude, way of covering tracks, but it is seldom so audacious in scope. The scale of corruption is equally audacious; it reaches staggering levels throughout the Iraqi government.

Consider: the leading former anti-corruption judge and his top investigator both fled the country in fear for their lives last August and are seeking political asylum in the US. The judge testified to the US Congress that "corruption in Iraqi today is rampant across the government, costing tens of billions of dollars".

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has also called corruption in Iraq "pervasive".

"Follow the money!" advised the legendary source known as Deep Throat in All the President's Men, the book about the Watergate scandal in the White House. Wise advice in general for an investigative journalist, or anyone else, trying to understand motive and patterns. The trouble is, it is virtually impossible to follow the billions of dollars pouring into Iraq.

It has been five years since Paul Wolfowitz, then US deputy defence secretary, famously predicted to Congress that Iraq "could finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon". Wolfowitz and his neocon colleagues had relied on the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi for their information, and his predictions of oil wealth were alluring. Wolfowitz told the US Congress that "the oil revenues of Iraq could bring between $50bn and $100bn over the course of the next two or three years".

It was a wild overestimation. The real expectation for Iraq at that time was that it would sell about $12bn in oil for 2004 and an estimated $15bn in 2005. Nonetheless, in the long run, Wolfowitz may be proved right.

Bowen believes the Iraqi budget could exceed $50bn for 2008. Chiefly, he credits soaring oil prices. Costly oil, devastating to western econo mies, is giving Iraq's shaky government a windfall. "At $102 a barrel," Bowen says, "an extraordinary amount of revenue is going to be flowing into the government of Iraq's coffers."

But once it gets there, how will that $50bn be spent, and who will control it? Bowen, who has investigated American corruption in dealing with Iraqi counterparts, warns that "there are two pathways. One is to put the resources to beneficial use and that would require fighting corruption seriously."

The alternative, Bowen said, is grim. "Corruption could become worse because the opportunity to steal obviously expands with the growth in revenues." More money might simply mean more theft.

There is plenty of cause for concern in the various postwar government departments. In the defence ministry, procurement fraud allegedly topped $1bn in 2004. Investigators claim there have been large-scale diversions of medicines in the health ministry. In the oil ministry, high-level officials have been charged with stealing fuel.

Bribery and embezzlement

There is also concern about the ministry of finance, through which most of the $50bn oil revenue will ultimately be disbursed. Here, according to a draft US report on corruption in Iraq last year, "bribery and embezzlement are the most numerous bases for investigations".

The kidnapping of a British IT consultant, seized from the finance ministry last May, has also raised suspicions that some people may have been attempting to destroy evidence of corruption. A group of British contractors had just arrived on-site. A security team of well-trained veterans escorted Peter Moore, a computer expert contracted to a US company called BearingPoint, into the building. At this point, a platoon-strength posse of Iraqis, "dressed in police uniforms", according to press accounts, roared up in vehicles. They headed straight for their objective - the computer expert and his guards. Outgunned and apparently unclear whom they were dealing with, the British team put up no fight. The computer expert and his four-man detail were snatched away. It looked like an "arrest" but in reality it was a kidnapping.

For some time, US and UK forces launched noisy sweeps through Sadr City and other Shia districts. A source close to the case says the reason the kidnappers were "dressed in police uniforms" was that they were indeed police. It was a branch within the police loyal to the Sadr militia, explains the source.

Now, following the release of a hostage video at the end of last month, it is known that the men are being held by a group calling itself the Shia Islamic Resistance of Iraq. In the video, a man identified as Moore pleads for help. His captors are demanding the release of nine prisoners held by the British, and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has become personally involved, appealing for the release of the British hostages.

However, both Iraqi and American investigators believe the kidnapping, like the Central Bank arson, was not initially an act of terrorism in the usual sense of the word but, more precisely, organised or business crime. The motive was to stop the consultant from installing a computer system which would introduce more accountability into the ministry's accounting systems.

It is hardly unusual in the 21st century to computerise records that deal with billions of dollars, and the project in hand was intended to centralise and automate Iraq's spending. The aim was to ensure accountability and financial transparency. Over the years, however, the Iraqis have objected to automation. As one American working with them explained, some feared that the system "would impose too much transparency".

Before the kidnapping, the project was near completion and due to go online. After the men were snatched, that all stopped. The "Iraq Financial Management Information System" was abandoned. The finance ministry still handles its paperwork the old-fashioned way.

Five years after the invasion, the Iraqi government has designated 2008 the "Year of Reconstruction and Anti-Corruption". By this summer, a windfall of oil money will be pouring into Baghdad. Whether the structures are in place for the beleaguered citizens of Iraq to enjoy the benefit is far less certain.

Aram Roston is the author of "The Man Who Pushed America to War: the Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi", newly published by Nation Books (£15.99)

Clarification

On 13 March 2008 we published an article, "Follow the money", which made allegations about accounting procedures at the Trade Bank of Iraq. We now accept that there is no evidence to suggest that there has been any wrongdoing by the Trade Bank of Iraq or its chairman and we are happy to make that clear.

Killing figures

0 number of Commons votes on Iraq since invasion in 2003

1 number of Commons debates on the war between July 2004 and January 2008

£1bn annual cost of Iraq War to British taxpayer

$5bn cost of ten days' fighting in Iraq

50 percentage of trained Iraqi doctors who have left their country since war began

175 British soldiers killed in Iraq

3,980 US troops killed

7,987 Iraqi Security Force personnel killed

81,874 - 89,353 documented civilian deaths to 10 March

25,000 number of children forced out of their homes every month during 2007

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. Could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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