Month: January 2004

W’s Election Avoidance Syndrome

In his state of the union address, George W. Bush pledged to “finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.” That’s a promise which differs markedly from the reality on the ground.

This past week, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, and other cities to demand democracy in Iraq. Their main target: a proposal by the Bush administration to select a new interim legislature to take over from the US military in July. “Selections” instead of “elections” are what US viceroy Paul Bremer is touting, a process whereby local caucuses–most of them selected by officials put in place by the US military on the recommendations of Iraqi exile groups–will select the delegates for the new interim legislature.

Iraqis object to this process for many reasons, and not only because it’s less democratic than a popular election. They’ve had nine months to experience life under US occupation and a corrupt and incompetent US-appointed Governing Council. During that time, they’ve experienced food shortages, blackouts, lack of fuel to heat their homes and cook their food, long lines at the gas pump, high unemployment, even higher inflation, an unending string of car bombings punctuated by nighttime searches of their homes by US troops, and the indignity of having to deal with a government staffed by returning exiles who have little or no knowledge of life in Iraq. One can forgive them for wanting change.

The demonstrations were an effort to put pressure on the US and the UN, whose representatives, Paul Bremer and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, met in New York this week to discuss involving the United Nations, not in organizing elections (its specialty), but in persuading the Iraqi people that a selection process is in their best interest. Kofi Annan is, understandably, somewhat less than enthusiastic for this prospect.

For one thing, in spite of Bush administration statements to the contrary, elections are a real and viable possibility in Iraq. All of the Bush administration objections to elections can be easily addressed and dismissed. There are three stated reasons for depriving Iraqis of the right to vote for their own leaders: 1) the security situation won’t allow free and fair elections, 2) there is no census or voter registration roll, and 3) a hasty election will produce “bad” results.

After weeks of assuring the US press and public that the security situation in Iraq is improving after the capture of Saddam Hussein, it’s a little suspicious to argue now that the security situation is so bad that elections can’t be held. The US government has historically made few or no objections to elections held under the cloud of violence. One example would be the East Timorese independence referendum, which saw outrageous acts of violence perpetrated by the Indonesian military and its proxies in East Timor–and the election results (independence for East Timor) were not invalidated but upheld by the United Nations and the United States. A similar example would be the current violence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regained control of portions of southeastern provinces and driven out UN voter registration workers and fighting between rival warlords has brought a halt to voter registration in other areas of the countryside. But the US has not called a halt to the election process in Afghanistan or provided additional troops for security, in spite of warnings by the UN’s representative Lakhdar Brahimi that a free and fair election is in jeopardy.

One could go on to argue that announcing democratic elections in Iraq within the coming year might actually improve the security situation by giving Iraqis something to hope for, for a change. It would have the additional benefit of undermining the Iraqi guerrilla movement, especially those elements fighting for Iraqi self-determination. Hold an election and many of these folks will put down their guns.

As for voter rolls and census information, two detailed and accurate databases exist of Iraqis who received food rations under the UN’s Oil For Food Program. These databases were updated on a monthly basis, providing more current information than even the census data used in the United States to draw up legislative districts. There are, of course, two groups of people not represented on these databases: political enemies of Saddam Hussein who were dropped off the roles as a form of punishment, and Iraqi exiles. Those two groups, however, are relatively small and can be registered through a voter registration program–one that has a much better chance of succeeding than the one that’s limping along in Afghanistan.

The final objection of the Bush administration–that “hasty” elections will bring a “bad” result–are based on fears that Shiite Muslim fundamentalists will take power in Iraq and ally themselves with the Shiite fundamentalist rulers of neighboring Iran. Shiites make up about 60% of the Iraqi population, and their main community organizations center around the Hawza, a religious foundation that provides everything from security for local Shiite communities to funding for education and social welfare projects throughout southern Iraq. The Hawza is a primarily religious group run by Shiite clerics, and the very thought that the Hawza may become politicized and take control of Iraqi government gives Paul Bremer and George W. Bush night sweats.

Yet the leader of the Hawza, Grand Ayatollah ali-Sistani, has remained ardently anti-political throughout his whole life, preferring to take a stance that opposes the rule of clerics in Iran. He has refused to meet with Paul Bremer or any other US citizen, speaking instead with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and limiting his “political” pronouncements to a general call for democracy and elections in Iraq. He has, numerous times, refused to condone violence or any Shiite uprising against the US military occupation–and there have been many younger and more radical Shiite clerics who have urged him to do so.

Ali-Sistani has, in short, proven himself to be a moderate element in Iraq, the very kind of group that the Bush administration supposedly wants to encourage. Yet Paul Bremer continues to promote the selection process and scorn elections, while the Bush administration remains adamant that the new interim legislature must be in place by June 30th. Ali-Sistani has commented that this arbitrary deadline seems to have been set by George Bush’s reelection campaign committee in order to provide a political victory for Bush going into the November elections, and he’s correct.

So it comes down to this: what the Bush administration fears is that an election will bring to power a legislature that truly represents the people of Iraq and is responsive to their needs and desires. Such a body would foreclose attempts by the US, the World Bank, the IMF, and developed nations–including Japan, Russia, Germany, and France–to privatize Iraq’s state industries and extract its resources for the benefit of foreign corporations. The “bad” result is a democratic one, and the Bush administration will resist democracy in any way it can.

Of course, elections remain the best way for the US to scramble out of the quagmire in Iraq, but George W. Bush Inc. is intent on digging us in deeper.

Iraq: Money for Nothing

One of the most important news stories in 2004 is where the $18.6 billion in US taxpayer money that Congress voted to spend on Iraqi reconstruction is to be spent and how. Already some of the details are available, and the trend is disturbing.

The Bush administration opened up bidding on January 7 for $5 billion worth of major construction contracts, after delaying the process twice. The work will include everything from restoring electricity and water supplies to rebuilding hospitals to fixing roads and bridges.

The rest of the $18.6 billion will be parceled out later. Another $6 billion will be bid out for “non-construction work,” most of which will go to train a new Iraqi army and supply the desperately under-supplied, ill-trained, and trigger-happy Iraqi police forces, which recently made headlines by fatally shooting Iraqi demonstrators. Another $2 billion will fund more repairs for Iraqi oil infrastructure, which is currently being repaired by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root on a no-bid contract awarded by the Pentagon early last year.

Of the remaining funds, the Bush administration decided last month to defer spending $4 billion in reconstruction funds until after June 2004, when a new Iraqi government is scheduled to take over the reins from the US. US officials claim the delay is necessary to help the US government maintain leverage over the new Iraqi government, a form of benevolence that the Iraqis will certainly resent, but which fits nicely with how the US government conducts business and doles out aid money throughout the rest of world.

In the meantime, the Bush administration has announced a new $1.8 billion contract with Bechtel Corp. to continue its work fixing power plants and water infrastructure in Iraq. This comes on top of a contract the US government awarded to Bechtel last year to begin repair on electrical and water plants. In the selection process for the first contract, the US Agency for International Development secretly solicited bids from four pre-selected companies and awarded the contract to Bechtel, over the objections of smaller companies that were not even invited to bid. This gave the company a distinct advantage in competing for the second contract. USAID even used a Bechtel infrastructure study to put together the second contract; as expected, even though the bid process was “open” this time, only two other companies bothered to submit a bid. When the Bush administration eventually parcels out the $2 billion to replace the current Halliburton contract, we can expect the same result.

A useful question to ask is “How much are the Iraqis getting for all the US taxpayer money being spent?” The answer so far is alarming. Nearly $1.5 billion was paid to Bechtel in 2003, much of it for upgrades to Iraq’s electrical supply system. Yet evidence on the ground suggests that the electricity supply is as bad or worse now than under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In November, Baghdad suffered a two-day blackout and continues to experience daily rolling blackouts of several hours at a stretch. Outside of the cities it is much worse: in many rural towns and villages, the power is off for longer periods than it is on, making it impossible to refrigerate food and heat homes.

Bechtel lays the blame on the Pentagon for poor planning and on Saddam Hussein for not somehow finding a way to import necessary parts in spite of 12 years of US-led sanctions. But the new Iraqi government’s Electricity Ministry knows who is really to blame. Its officials complain that power plant managers gave Bechtel a list of the spare parts last summer and fall, but so far they’ve “gotten absolutely nothing” and have been forced to operate the systems exactly as they did under Saddam Hussein.

Such corporate profiteering and mismanagement has real, drastic effects on the ground, and not just for Iraqi citizens. Col. Kurt Fuller, commander of the Second Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division told the New York Times, regarding an increase in guerrilla attacks near the town of Abu Desheer: “We went to the neighborhood council and said, ‘You were totally peaceful. What happened?’ They said, ‘No power.’ Saddam used to cut off power to punish them. So they thought the coalition was punishing them.”

Another such punishment is the shortage of gasoline and kerosene in Baghdad. While Democratic Congressmen in Washington DC are investigating allegations that Halliburton overcharged the US government to import fuel into Iraq, residents of Baghdad are spending hours and sometimes days in line at the gas pump. And most Baghdad residents heat their homes with kerosene, and that fuel is also in short supply.

Halliburton blames sabotage to Iraq’s northern oil pipelines, which have been bombed at least 85 times since May 1, 2003; however, the southern oil pipelines and infrastructure remain largely secure. A more pressing problem is the shocking state of the oil infrastructure after 12 years of US-led sanctions. This has forced the Bush administration to import gasoline and kerosene into a country with the world’s second largest oil reserves, hence Halliburton’s role in shipping gasoline into Iraq from Kuwait.

Iraqis blame the shortages on smugglers who divert gas as it’s being trucked to gas stations and then sell it back over the border in Kuwait and Jordan. The problem is clearly one of security. Neither the US army nor Halliburton is adequately monitoring the supply system to make sure the gas and kerosene is actually delivered to its specified endpoint. As long as the fuel is purchased, the trucks sent on their way, and the money paid into Halliburton’s pocket, whatever happens to the fuel en route appears to be no one’s business or concern–except the Iraqis who suffer and the US troops on the ground who continue to be bombed and strafed by disgruntled Iraqis.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is scrambling to clear Halliburton’s name on the pricing scandal. The Defense Contract Audit Agency has limited its investigation to reviewing Halliburton’s in-house records and invoices for fuel purchases. They are not conducting a review of average prices charged for fuel by companies in the Gulf region, nor how Halliburton chose its subcontractors, nor the Kuwaiti government’s suspected involvement in limiting Halliburton’s access to only one subcontractor, which effectively jacked up the price of fuel. And they certainly aren’t looking at why the fuel isn’t reaching its intended destination.

So far, the audit has turned up the shocking revelation that Pentagon officials signed an emergency waiver allowing Halliburton to overcharge for fuel imports. Instead of screaming for blood and seeking some kind of accountability for this egregious theft of taxpayer funds, US legislators and the media have merely accepted the Pentagon’s explanation as a valid excuse for highway robbery.

The picture is clear: US taxpayer funds spent on Iraqi reconstruction are lining the pockets of George Bush’s corporate associates, while US taxpayers, who should expect that money to be spent for a good purpose, are being cheated. Meanwhile, Iraqi citizens, who’ve been promised help but not received any, are left to twist in the wind, while US and coalition troops in Iraq are forced to manage an increasingly dangerous situation.

–Maria Tomchick

Sources for this article: “US Opens Up Bidding for New Iraq Contracts,” Sue Pleming, Reuters, 1/7/04; “Bush to Defer Some Iraq Work Until After Transfer of Power,” Neil King Jr. and Yochi Dreazen, Wall Street Journal, 12/31/04, p. A2; “Bechtel’s new Iraq job: Engineering giant adds on $1.8 billion US contract,” David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/7/04; “In an Oil-Rich Land, Power Shortages Defy Solution,” Neela Banerjee, The New York Times, 1/7/04; and “Pentagon Auditors Set to Clear Halliburton,” Sue Pleming, Reuturs, 1/7/04.

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