Sunday, April 10, 2005

REMEMBER RIGHT AFTER the Iraq invasion, when the newspapers were full of reports that Halliburton and Bechtel had snagged no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure? There was an uproar about it at the time, with critics saying that local Iraqi contractors had been passed over in favor of companies with stronger political connections to the Bush administration. Government officials like Dick Cheney, former head of Halliburton, and top management at the companies involved, struck back, saying Halliburton, Bechtel, and other companies were hand-picked because they were the only ones who could do the job. Iraqi companies with years of engineering and construction experience were not even considered.

[Dick] Cheney said last September [2003] on “Meet the Press,” “Halliburton is a unique kind of company. There are very few companies out there that have the combination of very large engineering construction capability and significant oil-field services.”

Well, now it turns out that water purification, sewage treatment, and electrical facilities that cost the U.S. government millions of dollars to rebuild and get running again are falling to ruin because Iraqi officials can't maintain them.

Of course, the coalition authorities blame the Iraqis, saying they are lazy, irresponsible, lack a work ethic, and on and on.

"This is their country. This is their water-treatment plant," said Bill Taylor, head of the reconstruction effort for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. "They need to take responsibility. We're not going to be responsible for it. If they run it into the ground, we'll be disappointed. But this is their country."

Okay, so now it's their country. Funny, it wasn't their country when the U.S. made the decision to invade Iraq, or when the military awarded multibillion-dollar no-bid contracts to a handful of politically well-connected firms.

Some Iraqis say that this is what happens when you don't involve local people from the start.

"The main problem we suffer is our budget. There's simply not enough for our needs," said Mahmoud Ali Ahmed, the head of Iraq's water distribution system. "The money does not exist for the maintenance and rehabilitation of existing projects."

But the Iraqis also attacked the failure of the U.S. to work with them in rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, especially in the early days of the reconstruction effort.

They said the U.S. should have allowed the Iraqis more control over what projects were built and how money was spent.

Baghdad Mayor Alaa Tamimi said the U.S. should have channeled money through the Iraqi government, allowing them control over the selection of the scope, equipment and locations for new projects.

U.S. officials "made a lot of decisions themselves, and the decisions were wrong," said Tamimi, an engineer who returned to Iraq after years of exile to help rebuild the country. "This is our country. It's our city. They didn't accept that."

But it sure as hell makes a good excuse now for why millions of American taxpayers' dollars have been flushed down the toilet.

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