BAGHDAD - Even if the occupation were
working perfectly well, it would still be wrong. This
has become trite commentary among Iraqis who bitterly
want the occupation of their country to fail but, at the
same time, also earnestly hope that the reconstruction
of their country succeeds. Still, no matter how hard the
occupiers try to make the reconstruction go right, the
US and its corporations still have no right staying
lights, no gas, no paychecks
At night, most
of downtown Baghdad is still in darkness, with only
the blue and red police sirens lighting the streets and
the only sound that of intermittent gunfire puncturing
the silence - definitely not a picture of a festive,
newly liberated capital. With most of Iraq suffering
from power interruptions lasting an average of 16 hours
daily, it's a little hard to party in the dark. How many
US soldiers does it take to change a light bulb? About
130,000 so far, but don't hold your breath.
South of the city, a double-columned queue of
cars up to three kilometers in length snakes around
street blocks and crosses a bridge over the Tigris,
before finally terminating at a barbed wired gasoline
station protected by a Humvee and an armored tank.
Come closing time, so as not to abandon the queue and
line up all over again the following day, most of the
car owners decide to leave their vehicles parked overnight,
in a nightly vigil for gasoline in a country
with the world's second-largest reserves of oil.
During the day, some of Iraq's 12 million
unemployed hang out in front of Checkpoint 3 of the
Green Zone, the heavily fortified headquarters of the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The chances of an
American accepting their resumes is next to nil, but
they come every day anyway. Others try their luck
loitering in the hotel lobbies, besieging journalists or
non-government workers in need of drivers and
unemployed former university professors, engineers and
civil servants choosing to become cab drivers instead,
Baghdad probably has the most educated taxi drivers per
square kilometer in the world. Strike up a conversation
and the cabbies will most likely tell you what seems to
have become the conventional wisdom today: not even
Saddam Hussein could have screwed up this badly.
Not that they want him back,
but neither could they have expected the occupation
forces to completely bungle such simple tasks as switching
the lights back on. The lack of power is most Iraqis'
number one gripe, but the list is long: uninstalled
phone lines, shoddily repaired schools, clogged
roads, uncollected garbage, defective sewerage, a
nonexistent bureaucracy, mass unemployment and widespread poverty -
the general chaos that Iraq is still in today.
Iraqis are in broad agreement that life is
deteriorating rather than improving. The prevailing
sentiment is a complex mix of resentment and
resignation, frustration and incredulity. On the one
hand, Iraqis feel bitter about being occupied, and yet
many are resigned to entrusting their day-to-day
survival to the hands of the Americans. On the other
hand, they could not quite believe how despite all the
time and money, the world's sole superpower can't make
the reconstruction process go right.
part, the US says the Iraqis are expecting too much too
soon. "The bottleneck is sheer time," explained Ted
Morse, the CPA's coordinator for the Baghdad region.
"Wherever you have had a true conflict situation, there
is an impatience in that people think it can be done
immediately. It cannot."
But Iraqis themselves
have showed that it can. In 1991, after the first Gulf
War and despite the United Nations-imposed sanctions, it
took Iraq's bureaucrats and engineers only three months
to restore electricity back to pre-war capacity, boasted
Janan Behman, manager of Baghdad's Daura power station.
Now after almost nine months and despite the involvement
of US giant Bechtel, builders of the Hoover Dam and some
of the world's biggest engineering works, Iraq's power
sector is still only producing less than 20 percent or
3,600 MW out of the 20,000 MW required. A daily power
interruption of two to three hours would be acceptable
after nine months, but 16 hours?
The occupation forces would not
admit this, of course, but much of the problem could be
attributed to the successful efforts of the resistance
to ensure that nothing works as long as an illegal
occupation stays in place. The resistance has kept the
authorities too busy dodging bombs to spare time for
such trifling matters as providing Iraqis with jobs.
With the resistance targeting not just combatants but
also those profiting from the occupation, it's a little
too much to expect contractors to go out of their
tightly guarded bubbles and move around.
employees, for example, only travel in military
helicopters or armed convoys with at least one
designated "shooter" in every vehicle. (1) Now unless
they find a way of transporting the power plants to the
trailer camps where Bechtel employees live - averse as
they are from going to the plants themselves - nothing
much would really get done.
A lot of the mess
could also be attributed to the sheer incompetence and
lack of experience of the people running Iraq. Much has
been said about how the administrators housed in the
Green Zone have little or no experience whatsoever in
public administration. There have also been various
reports about the confusion and lack of coordination
among the different agencies involved. Moreover, as in
previous colonial administrations, it is often difficult
to entice the best and the brightest to pack up, leave
everything behind, relocate to some far-flung hardship
post, only to be welcomed with guns.
But insecurity and incompetence, while
part of the complete and complex picture, do not go far
enough in explaining why the reconstruction effort has
so far been an evident failure.
First, while only 1 percent of those surveyed in a recent
Gallup poll buy the line that the US came to
establish democracy, the majority of the Iraqis are not actively
fighting the occupation. While the resistance is growing, this
is not an intifada yet. While a mere 6 percent
of those surveyed believe the US is here to help (2),
Iraqis who are in a position to assist in the reconstruction
effort actually want to make it work, not so much to
prop up the occupying forces, they say, but to ensure
that oil and electricity are kept available. Iraqis may
not necessarily like the Americans, but they would sure
like some hot water in the morning this winter.
"If this is the system, then I have to follow,"
said Dathar al-Khshab, general director of the Daura oil
refinery. It's the only way to keep things moving, then
so be it, he said, echoing other utilities managers.
Rank and file oil industry workers are likewise hesitant
to shut down the refineries as a bargaining chip for
negotiations and as a tactic to undermine the
occupation. On the one hand, they know that this could
paralyze the Americans. On the other, they are afraid of
its effect on the Iraqi people. But asked whether they
support the coalition forces, Hassan Jum'a, leader of
the Southern Oil Company union, was firm: "You can't
hide the moon. Every honest Iraqi should refuse the
Keeping a dog hungry
charge of incompetence is not completely convincing
either because, for all the allegations of unfair
competition and shadowy connections, it would be
difficult to accuse Bechtel or Halliburton of not
knowing what they are doing.
scattered all over the globe, Bechtel is one of the
world's biggest construction firms and it has achieved
some of history's most awesome engineering feats.
Halliburton, on the other hand, has been repairing oil
wells and refineries around the world for decades. Even
Iraqi officials readily acknowledge that, technically
speaking, they should be in good hands with these
American contractors. As the grudging respect gradually
gives way to disappointment, Iraqis are even more
baffled as to how these corporations could fail their
Another popular explanation making
the rounds alleges that sabotaging the reconstruction is
a conscious and deliberate effort on the part of the
occupation forces to make the Iraqis completely
dependent and subservient. Keeping a dog hungry not only
keeps it from barking, it also makes the dog follow its
The problem with this theory is
that due to the relatively decentralized reconstruction
process involving dozens of contractors and
sub-contractors, an explicit order for deliberate
failure would have been almost impossible to secretly
enforce. Moreover, faced with a mounting resistance,
this tactic could be extremely risky because it
undermines the effort to "win hearts and minds". Keeping
a dog hungry could also turn it desperate and rabid.
to the mystery of why the reconstruction has so far been
botched could be less sinister.
Made in the USA
A clue lies at the
Najibiya power station in Basra, Iraq's second largest
city located south of Baghdad. Sitting uninstalled
between two decrepit turbines were massive brand
new air-conditioning units shipped all the way from
York Corporation in Oklahoma. Pasted on one side of each
unit was a glittering sticker proudly displaying the
"Made in USA" sign, complete with the Stars and Stripes.
It's just what the Iraqis don't need at this
time. Since May, Yaarub Jasim, general director for the
southern region of Iraq's electricity ministry, has been
pleading with Bechtel to deliver urgently needed spare
parts for their antiquated turbines. "We asked Bechtel
many times to please help us because the demand for
power is very high and we should cover this demand,"
Jasim said. "We asked many times, many times."
Two weeks ago, Bechtel finally came through.
Before it could deliver any of Jasim's requirements, however,
Bechtel transported the air-conditioners, useless until
the start of summer six months from now.
But even if the air-con units become
eventually useful, emphasized plant manager Hamad Salem, other
spare parts were much more important. The
air-conditioners, Salem pointed out, were not even in
the list of the equipment and machine components that
they submitted to Bechtel.
No Stars and
Ideally, said Jasim, it would be best to
get the spare parts from the companies that originally
built the turbines because they would be more readily
available and more suitable for their technology.
Unfortunately, Jasim pointed out, Iraq's generators
happened to have been provided by companies from France,
Russia and Germany, the very countries banned by the
Pentagon from getting contracts in Iraq, as well as
Japan. On inspection, it was clear that the turbines
don't carry the Stars and Stripes logo. The dilapidated
turbines in Najibiya, for example, still bore "Made in
Why then have the required
components not been delivered? Jasim replied
dismissively, as though the answer was self-evident:
"Because no other company has been allowed by the US
government, only Bechtel."
Unlike those among
the other banned corporations, Bechtel carries the
requisite brand. Since its founding, Bechtel's officials
have had a long and very cozy relationship with and
within the state now disbursing the billion-dollar
contracts. For example, Bechtel board member George
Schultz was former treasury secretary to Richard Nixon,
secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, and coincidentally
enough, chairman of the advisory board of the Committee
for the Liberation of Iraq. Also once included on
Bechtel's payroll were former Central Intelligence
Agency chief John McCone, former defense secretary
Casper Weinberger and former North Atlantic Treaty
Organization supreme allied commander Jack Sheehan.
Grand business plans
rehabilitation, Iraq's French, Russian, German and
Japanese-made power infrastructure is slowly
disintegrating. At the station, workers are trying to
make full use of the turbines by cooking pots of rice on
the surface of the rusting hot pipes. If the stations
are not rehabilitated any time soon, repairs will no
longer be enough to keep them running, warned Jasim.
To finally end Iraq's crippling power shortage
and to ensure that the turbines are not completely
degraded, Bechtel should either quickly manufacture the
required spare parts itself, a very long and very costly
process, buy the spare parts from the Russian company
directly, or hire the Russian firm as a sub-contractor.
That, or they just allow the crumbling turbines to turn
completely useless. Then they bid for building new
billion-dollar power generators themselves.
Incidentally, part of Bechtel's
contract includes making "road maps for future longer term
needs and investments". In other words, Bechtel is
currently being paid to determine what the Iraqis will "need"
to buy in the future, using the Iraqi and US
taxpayers' money. According to independent estimates,
Bechtel stands to get up to US$20 billion worth of
reconstruction contracts in the next few years. (3)
If Bechtel has grander plans for Iraq's power
sector, however, their officers are not telling the
Iraqis. The utilities managers interviewed said they are
not being consulted at all regarding Iraq's strategic
energy plans. Bechtel officials don't even bother to
explain what's taking them so long to deliver the parts
they need. "They just collect papers," said Jasim, head
of Iraq's southern district oil ministry.
incentive to fail
Iraq's power sector problem is
illustrative of the bigger pattern. Iraqis spend up to
five hours lining up for gasoline not only because of
the sabotage of pipelines but also because there's
limited electricity to run oil refineries that are
crying for quicker action from Kellogg, Brown & Root
(KBR), the Halliburton subsidiary and contractor for
rehabilitating the oil infrastructure. According to
workers from the South Oil Company in Basra, which KBR
is obliged to rehabilitate, they are not aware of any
repairs KBR has actually undertaken.
oil refineries still awaiting rehabilitation, Iraq
cannot refine enough crude oil to meet domestic
consumption. The US is instead exporting Iraq's crude
oil and employing KBR under a no-bid cost-plus-fixed-fee
contract to import gasoline from neighboring Turkey and
Last week, an official Pentagon
investigation revealed that KBR is charging the US
government more than twice what others are paying for
imported gasoline. What was left unsaid, however, is the
conflict of interest inherent in hiring KBR for both the
oil infrastructure reconstruction and the oil
importation. If Iraq's pipelines and refineries were
suddenly fully functional and Iraq was able to produce
all the oil it needed, it would be the end of KBR's
lucrative oil-importing business.
There has been
no evidence that KBR is deliberately delaying the repair
of the refineries, only that there is an obvious
disincentive to speed things up. There is a serious but
overlooked clash of incentives when the same company
tasked to revive the oil industry is simultaneously
making money from a condition in which that industry
stays in tatters.
No money at
Just outside the Coalition Provisional
Authority headquarters, a small unorganized group of
employees of the former regime gathered and unfurled
their banner: "We need our salaries now." They were
demanding 10 months' worth of back wages. "We thank you
because you saved our lives from Saddam. But we want to
live so you should help us," their unofficial
spokesperson Karim Hassin said indignantly, addressing
the unresponsive 10-foot high wall protecting the
compound. "Paul Bremer [CPA head] promised us salaries.
We heard it with our own ears. What happened to these
A day after that the Pentagon's
investigation on KBR was publicized, 300 soldiers walked
out of the US-created 700-member New Iraqi Army,
decrying unreasonably low wages. Most of the deserters
were recruited from Saddam's former army, but for only
US$50 a month they had decided to transfer their
allegiance to the occupation forces.
Trained by the military contractor Vinnell Corporation,
their only demand from their new masters was a raise in pay
to $120 a month. That would have amounted to a
monthly increase in spending of only $49,000, small change
beside the US's $4 billion monthly military spending in
Iraq and a minuscule amount compared to the $61 million
in overcharges by KBR, revealed by the Pentagon
Hearing about all these
developments, it would appear that the occupation forces have
come to liberate Iraq on a really tight budget. The
common refrain of the Iraqis who have chosen to work
with the US-installed bureaucracy is that there is no
quid pro quo. Pressed to explain the failure of
his ministry to significantly increase power, for
example, Iraq's electricity chief, Ayhem al-Samaraie,
grudgingly admitted: "I have no money in my ministry at
Indeed, a quick visual survey of Baghdad
from the dirty streets, the aging machines and the
raging workers to the unbelievably long lines for
gasoline, makes this explanation for Iraq's
reconstruction problems sound almost convincing. That
the reconstruction effort is in shambles because there
is no money almost seems plausible.
Iraq, billions for Bechtel
it isn't. Last November, the US Congress eventually
passed George W Bush's $87 billion request for Iraq with no
fuss. Before that, the US had already spent $79 billion on
both Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of this, the US also
has complete control of the UN-authorized Development
Fund for Iraq (DFI) which contains all of the former
government's assets as well as past and future revenues
from Iraq's oil exports, including leftover funds from
the UN Oil for Food Program.
By the end of the
year, the DFI would have given the occupation forces
access to a total of $10 billion in disposable funds.
(4) Though control would be less direct, the occupation
forces can also tap a few more billions from the
estimated $13 billion grants and loans raised during the
Madrid donors' conference on Iraq last October.
On paper, the amount that will be paid to
contractors like Bechtel will come from US taxpayers'
money. In practice, however, all that is being spent on
Iraq's reconstruction is mixed in a pot containing the
US's and other coalition-member countries' grants, plus
the Iraqis' own funds.
So there's money; it's
just not going around. And here perhaps lies the
solution to the mystery of how the world's superpower
and the world's biggest corporations can't even begin to
put Iraq together again after almost nine months: The
reconstruction is less about reconstruction than about
making the most money possible.
Firms like Raytheon,
Boeing and Northrop Gruman will get their fair share
of the $4 billion that the US is spending monthly on
military expenses in Iraq; but there will not be an extra
dime for the New Iraqi Army recruits. Bechtel's useless
Oklahoma-made air-conditioners will be paid for
under the $680 million no-bid contract; but there will
be no money for the sorely needed Russian-made
components for Najibiya's turbines. Halliburton and its
sub-contractors creamed off $61 million importing oil
from Kuwait; but there will be no pay rise for Iraq's
oil refinery workers.
While the US finds
it increasingly hard to raise funds for the
occupation, there is still enough money for the most
critical aspects of the reconstruction. Those profiting from
it, however, are determined to keep the biggest
share possible to themselves. The bottom-line of
the reconstruction mess is the bottom-line: little gets
done because contractors cannot see beyond the dollar
The business of making money
"The profit motive is what
brings companies to dangerous locations. But that is
what capitalism is all about," Richard Dowling,
spokesperson of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the
agency that contracted Kellogg, Brown & Root,
explained. "If it takes profit to motivate an
organization to take on a tough job, we can live with
that. Yes, there's a profit motive but the result is the
job gets done."
The problem is, as
evidenced most clearly by the case of Bechtel and KBR,
the job is not even getting half-done.
Profit-maximization has not resulted in the most
efficient restoration of power and oil production
possible. On the contrary, it gets in the way of doing
things right. The power plants will eventually be built
and the oil refineries will run again, but not after
unnecessary deprivation of the Iraqis and not after
Bechtel has made the most of the opportunity.
This war to liberate Iraq was never about
liberating the Iraqis. Unsurprisingly then, the
reconstruction effort is also not about reconstruction.
In this occupation, the US and its allies' primary goal
is not to rebuild what they have destroyed; it's to make
a fast buck. Contractors like Bechtel and KBR are
assured of getting paid no matter what; that the power
plants will eventually be constructed is just
incidental. They will be built in order to justify the
pretext for the profit-making: that a war had to be
waged and that everything that was destroyed now has to
As Stephen Bechtel, the company's
founder, once made clear, "We are not in the
construction and engineering business. We are in the
business of making money." Billed as the biggest
rebuilding effort since World War II, the reconstruction
of Iraq is expected to cost $100 billion, some even say
$200 billion. For the post-war contractors, this is not
a reconstruction business; it is a
The US and its contractors are not even
trying, for a simple reason: it's not the point. To
assume that they are striving, but are merely failing
because of factors beyond their control, is to
presuppose that there is an earnest effort to succeed.
There isn't. If there were, there should have been a
coherent plan and process in which the welfare of the
Iraqis - and not of the corporations - actually comes
first. Instead, the Iraqis' need for electricity comes
after Bechtel's need for billion-dollar projects. The
Iraqis' need for decent living wages becomes relevant
only after Halliburton has maximized its profits.
Indeed, if there were a sincere attempt to
succeed, the US, as the responsible occupying power,
should have had no qualms giving Iraqis what many
emphatically say they need to finally make things work:
the authority and the resources. "If only the money and
spare parts were provided," electricity official Jasim
said, "we could do a surgical operation." "If I'm going
to do it without KBR, I can do it," said al-Khshab. "We
have been doing this for the past 30 years without KBR.
Give me the money and give me the proper authority and
I'll do it." But the US won't because who knows what the
Iraqis would do? Ask the Russians to repair their power
plants? Actually succeed in reconstructing their country
without the involvement of Bechtel and Halliburton?
The US taxpayers are not parting with billions
of dollars of their hard-earned pay to give away to some
lucky Russian firm. US and coalition soldiers are not
sacrificing their lives to protect the wussy French. The
US did not liberate Iraq in order to let the long
disempowered Iraqis rebuild their own country.
As the reconstruction process continues to
disillusion Iraqis, the myth that the US is here to help
is also steadily collapsing. With no light, no gasoline
and no paychecks, more and more Iraqis are no longer
just cursing the darkness. "If you want to live in
peace, Americans, give us our salary," warned Hassim,
the Iraqi protesting at the gates of the Coalition
Provisional Authority. "If you do not, next time we'll
come back with weapons."
(1) Steve Schifferes, "The
challenge of rebuilding Iraq", BBC News October 21,
(2) Walter Pincus, "Skepticism about US
deep, Iraq poll shows", Washington Post, November 12,
(3) Elizabeth Becker, "Companies from all
over seek a piece of action rebuilding Iraq", New York
Times, May 21, 2003.
(4) Christian Aid, "Iraq:
The missing billions: Transition and transparency in
post-war Iraq". Briefing paper for the Madrid donors'
conference, October 23-24, 2003.
Docena firstname.lastname@example.org is with Focus on
the Global South. He was in Baghdad for the Iraq
International Occupation Watch Center.
(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. All
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