Dec. 19, 2004 – In a move that took a full step beyond expectations, the US Departments of State and Treasury announced yesterday the dissolution of all outstanding debt they previously claimed Iraq owed Washington.
Consistent with a plan arranged last month at a meeting of top industrialized nations, whereby the countries would eventually relieve approximately 80 percent of the debt Iraq is said to owe them collectively, Fridayâ€™s move was the first among many planned to eventually forgive the bulk of Iraqâ€™s crippling debt burden. In exchange, Iraq will surrender its economic sovereignty to global financial institutions, provide foreign investors greater access to Iraqi natural resources, and increase investment opportunities for multinational corporations.
According to the three-stage agreement reached last month at a meeting of the Paris Club -- an organization seating representatives of nineteen economic powers, including the United States, Japan, Russia and many European countries -- 30 percent of Iraqâ€™s estimated $40 billion (USD) debt to those nations is to be relieved outright, with no strings attached.
The next 30 percent of the debt is scheduled for relief as soon as Iraq approves an arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which will design "structural adjustment" programs intended to "revive" Iraqâ€™s floundering economy by privatizing industries and services currently run by the government as well as opening various investment opportunities up to foreign capitalists.
Some critics believe that nearly the entire foreign debt that creditors claim Iraq owes them is illegitimate because the money was obtained by the previous regime of Saddam Hussein and used against the interests of the Iraqi public.
The Paris Club nations have pledged to relieve another 20 percent of Iraqâ€™s debt to them once Iraq fulfills obligations under the IMF arrangement, some three years down the road; leaving just 20 percent -- still nearly $8 billion -- to actually be paid back.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Treasury Secretary John Snow announced the cancellation of Iraqâ€™s debt to the United States at a Friday afternoon signing ceremony. The total amount relieved was around $4.1 billion, reduced from closer to $4.5 billion by a prior reallocation of taxpayer funds originally intended for Iraqi reconstruction but "reprogrammed" to pay off a portion of Iraqâ€™s debt to the US in September. (previous coverage)
Also in attendance were Iraqi Finance Minister Adil Abdul Al-Mahdi and Sinan Shabibi, governor of the Central Bank of Iraq. The two men have been instrumental in representing Iraq during negotiations with the US, the Paris Club and the IMF.
At Fridayâ€™s ceremony Secretary Snow said the historic debt cancellation demonstrated "our unwavering commitment to the Iraqi people and to their efforts to achieve sustainable reforms and stability for their country."
Those "reforms," however, are at the center of a quiet controversy. In order to hold up its end of the deal just signed in Washington, Iraq will have to become beholden to the instructions of the IMF.
Since its inception more than 50 years ago, the IMF has come under increasing criticism for its policies toward Third World nations. In most heavily indebted countries, the Fundâ€™s structural adjustment programs have become equated with foreign dependence, rising wealth inequality, increased poverty, and uncontrollable debt.
Although the details of the program IMF officials have in store for Iraq are not yet known, arrangements with the Fund typically include numerous economic adjustments, such as "austerity measures" that reduce public services like health care and education; an emphasis on exporting natural resources; adherence to "free market" principles fostering openness to foreign investment and business presence; as well as the privatization of industries currently owned and operated by the state.
The IMF says it plans to reach a specific arrangement with Iraqâ€™s new government sometime after the January 30 elections, but since the relief of a large amount of Iraqâ€™s external debt is dependent on approval by the Fund, it is expected that the IMF will have considerable leverage in its negotiations with Iraqi leaders.
Justin Alexander is the founder of Jubilee Iraq, a donor-funded nongovernmental organization working toward the unconditional relief of most of the debt foreign creditors claim Iraq owes them. Reached in London, Alexander told The NewStandard he predicts that reforms imposed by the IMF will resemble investment and trade rules established unilaterally by US occupation chief Paul Bremer during his tenure prior to the installment of Iraqâ€™s current interim government. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 had given Bremer the power to manage occupied Iraq within the parameters of international law.
Under Order 39 of what quickly became known as "the Bremer Laws," Iraqi industries and markets are laid wide open to foreign investment with few restrictions, in Alexanderâ€™s words, "making it very difficult for the current [Iraqi] interim government or the next interim government to step back from any of these policies." What is more, explains Alexander, is that those US-imposed policies "make it very difficult for Iraqis to choose their own economic system."
Bremer was sure to cement Order 39 and others with Article 26 of Iraqâ€™s interim constitution, which ensured that once sovereignty was handed over to the USâ€™s hand-picked interim government led by Iyad Allawi, that government could not change the Bremer Laws.
Since that transfer of official authority from the occupying powers, Iraqâ€™s interim government has begun accepting debt relief in exchange for the responsibility to demonstrate its openness to IMF-imposed reforms and adjustments. In a memorandum attached to a "letter of intent" sent by Central Bank Governor Shababi and Finance Minister Al-Mahdi to the IMF last September, the men expressed their US-installed governmentâ€™s apparent eagerness to engage with the Fund.
"New financial sector legislation has paved the way for the creation of a modern financial sector," the letter touts, going on to boast that "three foreign banks have already been licensed to begin operations" and that "a number of foreign banks have shown interest in acquiring a minority ownership stake in private Iraqi banks."
The letter also explains that Iraqis are willing to make sacrifices to demonstrate their commitment to turning the Iraqi economy around. "By  the government will increase the domestic prices of oil-derivative products (including gasoline), a measure that is expected to bring US$1 billion in revenue in 2005" and "demonstrate the willingness of Iraqi people to implement fundamental reforms to put Iraq's public finances on a strong footing in the medium term."
In an oil-rich country with a 60 percent unemployment rate reported by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs -- a figure many analysts consider quite conservative -- Iraqis presently wait several hours in gasoline lines that measure kilometers in length, definitely demonstrating a resolve of some form, though saving their government $1 billion annually is probably not foremost on their minds.
There are also potential conflicts of interest in play as many of the government ministers, technocrats and executives who will negotiate final arrangements with the IMF will personally prosper from privatization measures.
There has been no shortage of speculation about the effects of an IMF-imposed economic regimen in Iraq. "After an endless succession of courageous last stands and far too many lost lives," wrote analyst and journalist Naomi Klein in the September issue of Harperâ€™s, "Iraq will become a poor nation like any other, with politicians determined to introduce policies rejected by the vast majority of the population, and all the imperfect compromises that will entail."
But those same Iraqi power brokers have more interest still in similar reforms that nevertheless respect Iraqi sovereignty and give Iraqi investors a local advantage. According to Alexander, Iraqi intellectuals and political players alike are well-informed that IMF involvement has meant disaster in countries such as Argentina, Philippines and former Soviet bloc states, and "are not going to just lie back and let this happen."
In Alexanderâ€™s view, if Iraqâ€™s national industries are to be privatized, "it should happen at a pace and in a way that Iraqis judge to be appropriate, rather than a very quick fire sale."
Some critics believe that nearly the entire foreign debt that creditors claim Iraq owes them is illegitimate, or "odious" in the language of international finance, because the money was obtained by the previous regime of Saddam Hussein and used against the interests of the Iraqi public. As Alexander points out, the bulk of Iraqâ€™s debt was accrued by Hussein in order to finance his most brutal and selfish endeavors. "They are not legitimate state debts, but rather the personal debts of the despotic regime," he wrote earlier this year.
Abbas Alnasrawi, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont and another debt critic, notes that countries like the United States and Western European nations provided loans to the former dictator with full knowledge that he would use the funds to buy weapons for use in illegal wars, or that he would simply enrich himself while the Iraqi people suffered. "After all, most of the proceeds of the loans were spent in the economies of lending countries to purchase war materiel," Alnasrawi wrote in a recent analysis.
But while odious debt rules have been understood in international finance since the fall of Czarist Russia, creditor nations still bear primary discretion on such matters, according to Zaid Al-Ali, an international law arbitrator and editor of the website IraqiEconomy.org.
Even Fridayâ€™s cancellation of 100 percent of Saddam Husseinâ€™s debt owed to the United States does not amount to an admission that the debt was technically odious or otherwise null and void. Each and every creditor nation with a claim to any portion of Saddam Husseinâ€™s estimated $120 billion in external debt can decide how much, if any, to forgive. What remains unforgiven can be held against post-Saddam Iraq and likely used as leverage by countries hoping to gain more direct and specific investment and marketing advantages than the IMF may offer them.
Two of Saddam Husseinâ€™s biggest creditors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have not followed the example of the Paris Club and are holding out until next year before negotiating relief of debt they say Iraq owes them. However, Kuwait is not expected to forgive reparations the UN ruled Iraq must pay the oil-rich monarchy as a result of Husseinâ€™s thwarted attempt to annex that country. Some Kuwaiti politicians have, however, alluded to an interest in exchanging some of the contested monies for the expanded interest of Kuwaiti firms in Iraqi reconstruction and investment opportunities.
Conspicuously absent from international talks so far has been any discussion of reparations some people believe the United Nations member states -- most prominently the US -- should pay to the people of Iraq for imposing more than twelve years of extremely harsh sanctions that the UN itself found had caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis.