U.S. companies loot Iraq & U.S. taxpayers

As Americans at home returned to post-holiday routines, the news from Iraq continued a familiar pattern – U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians killed and wounded daily. But sharing the spotlight is the looting of Iraq by corporate war-profiteers, fueling mounting anger among the Iraqi people, with U.S. states and communities footing the $166 billion bill.

A poll two months ago showed only 6 percent of Iraqis believed the U.S. is there to help. Since then, as the occupation drags on, reporters in Iraq say the outrage and frustration have widened.

Bechtel Corp., the engineering and construction giant closely tied to the Bush administration, has just been awarded a new $1.8 billion contract to rebuild Iraq’s electrical and water systems, roads and schools. Bechtel got the deal with two other U.S. firms as subcontractors, in an apparent effort to deflect mounting charges of cronyism and corruption around the Iraq contracts.

Last April, Bechtel was handed a no-bid contract for Iraq worth up to $1.03 billion. That contract included reconstruction of 1,500 Iraqi primary and secondary schools. But Iraqi school principals say they have gotten only superficial repairs, using cheap materials, leaving major problems – like sewage pipes – untouched. Needed supplies were never provided despite repeated requests. An education ministry official responsible for one-fourth of the schools Bechtel is supposed to be fixing said none of the work is checked by Bechtel. One principal told a reporter he had to pay out of his own pocket to weld a broken banister that had caused a child to fall to the floor below – it was not part of Bechtel’s project plan. “Why do we need Bechtel? They have done absolutely nothing,” the principal said.

At a power station in Basra, an electricity ministry official begged Bechtel for months to deliver vital spare parts to repair the turbines. Instead, Bechtel finally delivered giant new air conditioning units, unrequested by the plant manager and useless until next summer. The requested spare parts are available from the Russian, French and Germany companies that built the turbines, but the Pentagon has banned those countries from getting contracts in Iraq.

Bechtel executives gave thousands of dollars to Bush’s 2000 campaign. Bechtel board member George Schultz, who was Nixon’s Treasury Secretary and Reagan’s Secretary of State, chairs the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a group set up just over a year ago to support Bush’s war drive.

Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) the Halliburton subsidiary and no-bid contractor for rebuilding Iraq’s oil infrastructure, is also angering Iraqis for its failure to get oil refineries operational. With its refineries unrepaired, Iraq has been unable to meet domestic needs. So the Pentagon has paid KBR to import gasoline from Turkey and Kuwait.

In December, Pentagon auditors found that KBR overcharged the government by $61 million for fuel it imported from Kuwait. But immediately after that was reported, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers okayed allowing KBR to continue to buy fuel from Kuwait without submitting cost and price information required by federal contracting rules. “The Defense Department is ignoring their own audit that showed Halliburton had bilked taxpayers out of $61 million,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said this week.

Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton’s CEO from 1995 to 2000, and continues to have financial ties to the oil giant. Halliburton received a multi-billion-dollar no-bid contract for Iraq last March.

Meanwhile, attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq continue unabated.

Debbie C., mother of a soldier serving in southern Iraq, says her son told her Dec. 27 his unit is being shot at and shelled almost daily. But his biweekly military paycheck has decreased by $200 – his unit was told that combat or hazard pay (he was not sure which) was being discontinued. They were also told there would be no more R&R after early January. “That means that he will have been in that country without any rest from mid March until they finally agree to send their unit home, but who knows when that will happen,” Debbie wrote to Military Families Speak Out, hoping her letter “might wake people up to how unimportant our soldiers really are to our government.” She continued, “Not only have they been put in to a country that does not want us there but they were put there for no apparent reason.”

U.S. and British officials say occupation troops will stay in Iraq for years.

Pentagon officials said this week they will be telling soldiers due to return from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several months that they will not be allowed to retire or otherwise leave the service for three months after they return to their home base.

The order, known as “stop loss,” adds on to a similar order imposed last November on the thousands of soldiers to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan this year.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.