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[casi] Baghdad Burning.. not polls

Dear List,

I apologize because most of you can not read the
Arabic poem posted by Muhammad. I am therefore posting
something more revealing, if less poetic, in a
language you can all read..


Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where
hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

For Sale: Iraq

For Sale: A fertile, wealthy country with a population
of around 25 million… plus around 150,000 foreign
troops, and a handful of puppets. Conditions of sale:
should be either an American or British corporation
(forget it if you’re French)… preferably affiliated
with Halliburton. Please contact one of the members of
the Governing Council in Baghdad, Iraq for more

To hear of the first of the economic reforms announced
by Kamil Al-Gaylani, the new Iraqi Finance Minister,
you’d think Iraq was a Utopia and the economy was
perfect only lacking in… foreign investment. As the
BBC so wonderfully summarized it: the sale of all
state industries except for oil and other natural
resources. Basically, that means the privatization of
water, electricity, communications, transportation,
health… The BBC calls it a ‘surprise’… why were we not

After all, the Puppets have been bought- why not buy
the stage too? Iraq is being sold- piece by piece.
People are outraged. The companies are going to start
buying chunks of Iraq. Or, rather, they’re going to
start buying the chunks the Governing Council and CPA
don’t reward to the ‘Supporters of Freedom’.

The irony of the situation is that the oil industry,
the one industry that is *not* going to be sold out,
is actually being run by foreigners anyway.

The whole neighborhood knows about S. who lives
exactly two streets away. He’s what is called a
‘merchant’ or ‘tajir’. He likes to call himself a
‘businessman’. For the last six years, S. has worked
with the Ministry of Oil, importing spare parts for
oil tankers under the surveillance and guidelines of
the “Food for Oil Program”. In early March, all
contracts were put ‘on hold’ in expectation of the
war. Thousands of contracts with international
companies were either cancelled or postponed.

S. was in a frenzy: he had a shipment of engines
coming in from a certain country and they were
‘waiting on the border’. Everywhere he went, he
chain-smoked one cigarette after another and talked of
‘letters of credit’, ‘comm. numbers’, and nasty truck
drivers who were getting impatient.

After the war, the CPA decided that certain contracts
would be approved. The contracts that had priority
over the rest were the contracts that were going to
get the oil pumping again. S. was lucky- his engines
were going to find their way through… hopefully.

Unfortunately, every time he tried to get the go-ahead
to bring in the engines, he was sent from person to
person until he found himself, and his engines,
tangled up in a bureaucratic mess in-between the CPA,
the Ministry of Oil and the UNOPS. By the time things
were somewhat sorted out, and he was communicating
directly with the Ministry of Oil, he was given a
‘tip’. He was told that he shouldn’t bother doing
anything if he wasn’t known to KBR. If KBR didn’t
approve of him, or recommend him, he needn’t bother
with anything.

For a week, the whole neighborhood was discussing the
KBR. Who were they? What did they do? We all had our
own speculations… E. said it was probably some sort of
committee like the CPA, but in charge of the contracts
or reconstruction of the oil infrastructure. I
expected it was probably another company- but where
was it from? Was it Russian? Was it French? It didn’t
matter so long as it wasn’t Halliburton or Bechtel. It
was a fresh new name or, at least, a fresh new set of
initials. Well, it was ‘fresh’ for a whole half-hour
until curiosity got the better of me and I looked it
up on the internet.

KBR stands for Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary
of… guess who?!... Halliburton. They handle
‘construction and engineering services for the energy
community’, amongst other things. Apparently, KBR is
famous for more than just its reconstruction efforts.
In 1997, KBR was sued $6 million dollars for
overcharging the American army on sheets of plywood!
You can read something about the whole sordid affair

They are currently located in the ‘Conference Palace’.
The Conference Palace is a series of large conference
rooms, located in front of the Rashid Hotel and was
reserved in the past for major international
conferences. It is now the headquarters of KBR, or so
they say. So foreign companies can’t completely own
the oil industry, but they can run it… just like
they’ll never own Iraq, but they can run the Governing

Someone sent me an email a couple of weeks back
praising Halliburton and Bechtel to the skies. The
argument was that we should consider ourselves ‘lucky’
to have such prestigious corporations running the oil
industry and heading the reconstruction efforts
because a. they are efficient, and b. they employ the

Ok. Fine. I’ll pretend I never read that article that
said it would take at least two years to get the
electricity back to pre-war levels. I’ll pretend that
it hasn’t been 5 months since the ‘end of the war’ and
the very efficient companies are terrified of
beginning work because the security situation is so
messed up.

As for employing the locals… things are becoming a
little bit clearer. Major reconstruction contracts are
being given to the huge companies, like Bechtel and
Halliburton, for millions of dollars. These companies,
in turn, employ the Iraqis in the following way: they
first ask for bids on specific projects. The Iraqi
company with the lowest bid is selected to do the
work. The Iraqi company gets *exactly* what it bid
from the huge conglomerate, which is usually only a
fraction of the original contract price. Hence,
projects that should cost $1,000,000 end up costing

Now, call me naïve, or daft, or whatever you want, but
wouldn’t it be a. more economical and b. more
profitable to the Iraqis to hand the work over
directly to experienced Iraqi companies? Why not work
directly with one of the 87 companies and factories
that once worked under the ‘Iraqi Military Council’
and made everything from missiles to electrical
components? Why not work directly with one of the 158
factories and companies under the former Ministry of
Industry and Minerals that produced everything from
candy to steel girders? Why not work with the bridge,
housing and building companies under the Ministry of
Housing that have been heading the reconstruction
efforts ever since 1991?

Some of the best engineers, scientists, architects and
technicians are currently out of work because their
companies have nothing to do and there are no funds to
keep them functioning. The employees get together a
couple of days a week and spend several hours brooding
over ‘istikans’ of lukewarm tea and ‘finjans’ of
Turkish coffee. Instead of spending the endless
billions on multinational companies, why not spend
only millions on importing spare parts and renovating
factories and plants?

My father has a friend with a wife and 3 children who
is currently working for an Italian internet company.
He communicates online with his ‘boss’ who sits
thousands of kilometers away, in Rome, safe and sure
that there are people who need to feed their families
doing the work in Baghdad. This friend, and a crew of
male techies, work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. They
travel all over Baghdad, setting up networks. They
travel in a beat-up SUV armed with cables, wires,
pliers, network cards, installation CDs, and a
Klashnikov for… you know… technical emergencies.

Each of the 20 guys who work with this company get
$100/month. A hundred dollars for 260 hours a month
comes to… $0.38/hour. My 16-year-old babysitter used
to get more. The Italian company, like many other
foreign companies, seems to think that $100 is
appropriate for the present situation. One wonders the
price of the original contract the Italian company
got… how many countless millions are being spent so 20
guys can make $100/month to set up networks?

John Snow, US Treasury Secretary, claimed that the
reforms were the “proposals, ideas, and concepts of
the Governing Council" with no pressure from the
American administration. If that’s true, then Bush can
pull out the troops any time he wants because he’ll be
leaving behind a Governing Council that is obviously
more solicitous of Halliburton and Co. than he and
Cheney can ever hope to be…

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