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The Iraq gold rush

Also in this series:

Bush against Bush (Arp 30, '04)
Kerry, the Yankee muchacho  (May 7, '04)
You have the right to be misinformed (May 8, '04)
An American tragedy  (May 11, '04)
In the heart of the Bushland (May 12, '04)
The war of the snuff videos (May 13, '04)

HOUSTON - They may be shot by a sniper. They may be caught by a roadside bomb. They may be kidnapped. They may be held in captivity in a room in the desert under 55 degrees Celsius in the shade and with no water. They may be beheaded. But they don't care. They keep coming back - up to 500 a week - for more. They want their Iraqi golden job, and they want it now.

As Sunnis in Fallujah and Shi'ites in Najaf keep reminding anyone who bothers to listen, there are no jobs for Iraqis - unemployment is running at 70 percent. But despite the body count - 34 killed, 74 wounded, two missing and counting - there are plenty of jobs for Americans, especially Texans, on the KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root) bandwagon in Iraq. The Halliburton subsidiary, based in downtown Houston like its parent company, is now employing 24,000 people - mostly Americans, but also from 38 other countries - in Iraq and Kuwait.

As many people, and not just the scandal junkies, are aware, KBR was awarded by the administration of President George W Bush a contract worth at least US$5 billion for 10 years in Iraq, for engineering and construction services and the rebuilding of civil infrastructure. If war may be a blessing from heaven for aspiring truck drivers in the heart of Texas, war is certainly a very good business for KBR. A few days ago Halliburton executives confirmed that the oil giant was collecting no less than $1 billion a month for their work in Iraq. This includes US taxpayers being overcharged $61 million for fuel and $24.7 million for meals, apart from a confirmed $6.3 million in bribes. Accusations are still flying: Halliburton has not rebuilt key nodes of Iraq's oil infrastructure and has skimmed Iraqi jobs for away from Iraqis.

The Balkan connection
KBR's - and Halliburton's - success is a key node of the so-called Iron Triangle, the US crossroads connecting business, politics and the military. KBR is the key benefactor of military outsourcing, which means that now the US Army is dependent on KBR in Iraq. KBR started building ships for the US Navy during World War II. It built air strips and prison cells in Vietnam. But the big break came in December 1995. Dick Cheney had been the chief executive officer of parent company Halliburton for only two months. KBR was sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo to build two army camps in the middle of two deserted wheat fields. Instead it built two cities, one in Bosnia and one in Kosovo - complete with mail delivery and 24-hour food and laundry. In other words: without KBR, there would be no operating US Army in Bosnia and Kosovo. And the money was great: from 1995-2000, the KBR bill to the US government was more than $2 billion.

KBR's strategic masterpiece is Camp Bondsteel - the largest and most expensive US Army base since Vietnam, still in use today, complete with roads, its own power generators, houses, satellite dishes, a helicopter airfield and of course a Vietnam-style prison. By a fabulous coincidence, Camp Bondsteel is right on the path of the Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil (AMBO) Trans-Balkan Pipeline. This key piece of Pipelineistan is supposed to connect the oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea with Europe. The feasibility project for AMBO was conducted by none other than KBR.

KBR is now a lightning-fast, ultra-efficient and ultra-effective building machine on the "war on terra", as they say in Texas. The worldwide-infamous Guantanamo "cages" - still another Vietnam-style prison - were built by KBR. Cost: $52 million. The US bases in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan, were built by KBR. Cost: $157 million. If perpetually infamous Abu Ghraib in Baghdad is ever razed to the ground, the new prison will certainly be built by KBR.

None of these operations has been scandalous - unlike the multibillion-dollar, non-competitive contract awarded to KBR to repair and rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure. This has nothing to do with logistics and field support for the army. At Houston's wealthy Rice University - where each neo-Byzantine block oozes more riches than the entire Almustansariya University in Baghdad, the oldest in the world - the talk is about the structure of KBR's contract: the more KBR charges the government - and the US taxpayer - the more money it makes. For a $2 billion contract, even with a small margin, this means at least a $60 million profit.

The gold rush map
The folks lining up at KBR's Houston training center are not worried about these billions or millions. They are happy to get off with a few thousand bucks. In the Iraq gold rush, you sign for a one-year contract - renewable pending your qualifications and endurance. Basic salaries are equivalent for comparable jobs in the US - but become three times as fat because of the bonuses related to the dangers implied. A health plan and a $50,000 life insurance is included. The first $80,000 is tax-free - as long as you remain in Iraq for at least 330 days. And if you get killed, the significant other gets half a salary for life.

Who wants these jobs? The great majority are divorced, have held plenty of jobs before, are used to living near the desert, must pay outstanding debts and, in most cases, want to get a shot at saving and maybe opening their own businesses. There are not many PhD holders in the bunch. Truck drivers, cooks and housing managers are in high demand.

The majority of KBR's workers in Iraq are veterans of the Balkans. But at least 11,000 first-timers have passed through the Houston training center, an abandoned department store not far from Bush International Airport, the last place they see in the United States before landing at Baghdad (former Saddam) International, and the place where they started getting paid.

The gold rush involves passing a first-step screening - which can be on the phone or live with one of dozens of KBR traveling salesmen all across the US. If you have a criminal record, however minor, you're out, says a black man trying to work as a security guard who once got a drunk-driving conviction. Then the successful applicant is flown to Houston, with board and meals paid, and spends a week at the training center being drilled almost as if he were joining the army. He has to pass an Orwellian concoction called Workplace Attitude Behavioral Inventory - which basically means he is able to work in a group in a high-risk situation. John Watson, the head of recruiting, comments that a lot of people actually fail this test.

Then the applicant has to pass a medical exam. He has to become familiar with KBR's rules on, among other things, ethics and sexual harassment. And then he has to go nuclear. This means he has to learn how to put on a gas mask and protective suit in case those absent nuclear, chemical and biological weapons allegedly possessed by Saddam Hussein decide to resurface.

After this low-key odyssey, supposing you get your Iraqi job and you land in Baghdad, you get a mobile phone supplied by KBR and a mini-holiday of 10 days every four months for R&R, which most people, instead of Dubai or Bangkok, prefer to spend back home.

One wonders, had more Iraqis been given similar job opportunities, whether the United States could have avoided a catastrophic war on both the Sunni and Shi'ite fronts.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

May 14, 2004

War: Just whose business is it anyway?
(Mar 10, '04)

Fighting for a job in Iraq
(Jan 16, '04)

Iraq reconstruction's bottom line
(Dec 25, '03)

Halliburton unscathed by overcharge flap
(Dec 20, '03)

Iraq's other looting

(Jul 11, '03)


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