US position on WMDs and reconstruction contracts runs into local opposition

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As evidence emerges of manipulation of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass-destruction (WMDs) by the governments of the US and Britain, demands for proof that Baghdad did indeed possess such weapons are being replaced by calls for the abandonment of an unsustainable stand. But president Bush and prime minister Blair, although clearly embarrassed by the continuing revelations, stick to their line that Saddam Hussein either destroyed or hid his WMDs, and that the intensive search for them will yield reliable evidence in due course. Bush and co. also remain adamant that the UN will not have any role in the search, or in any part of the reconstruction of Iraq. Bush has also come under strong censure even from local critics for excluding foreign companies from bidding for contracts, and for confining them to a handful of US firms with close ties to senior government officials. The combined effect of the criticism and the revelations is sufficient for the conclusion that the current US government is too dishonest and too corrupt to be fit to undertake any reconstruction or disarmament work in Iraq.

In their public statements and the dossiers they handed to the UN security council long before the war began (March 20), the US and British rulers insisted that they had no doubt that Saddam possessed WMDs that he could deploy within minutes. In September, for instance, Blair wrote in his government’s dossier on Iraq: “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that he [Saddam] had made progress on WMD, and that he has to be stopped.” Not only did the arms pose a “threat to UK national interest”, but they also gave Saddam “the ability to inflict real damage upon the region and the stability of the world,” he warned, adding for good measure that “some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” Bush was even more emphatic, and in the same month dispatched secretary of state Colin Powell to the UN security council with a large dossier on WMDs that Saddam was alleged to possess. Powell informed the council of huge amounts of anthrax, nerve-gas agent and many other toxins in Iraq, while the dossier described mobile chemical laboratories, drones filled with poison-sprays, and Scud-missile launching-pads in the Western desert.

But, to the embarrassment of Washington and London, their dossiers have turned out to be based on forged documents. For instance, it transpired last December that a vital section of the British dossier was based on forged documents claiming that Iraq had ordered uranium from the West African state of Niger. And in February the intelligence on which the US dossier was based turned out to have been copied from a postgraduate student’s thesis, written several years ago. Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said then that he had been passed forged documents meant to show that Iraq had imported uranium from Niger. In an article in the International Herald Tribune on May 7, Nicholas D. Kristof says that “a person involved in the Niger caper” told him that the US government knew a year ago that the document was forged.

In his article Kristof also cites former and current intelligence officers as saying that the US government ordered that any report not agreeing with its preconceived conclusions on Iraq’s WMDs be rewritten. He also quotes Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, as having said: “The intelligence that our officials were given regarding weapons of mass destruction was either defective or manipulated.”

But intelligence about WMDs is not the only things to have been manipulated by the US government: the procedure for awarding reconstruction contracts has also been tampered with in order to favour “Bush’s cronies”. Instead of holding an open competition, as US and World Trade Organisation rules require, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which was given the task of awarding the initial contracts, invited only six well-connected American companies to a secret bid. So far Bechtel, an American construction group, has been the main beneficiary, winning the hotly-contested $680 million-contract to rebuild Iraq’s vital infrastructure. Kellog Brown & Root, subsidiary of the well-connected Halliburton Co., has been granted a non-bid emergency contract to extinguish Iraqi oil-fires, which has since been found to be far more lucrative than it had been allowed to appear at the time. On May 7 it became clear that the contract was not confined to extinguishing oil-fires but also covered the “operation of facilities and distribution of products”, and might be worth as much as $7 billion. Vice-president Dick Cheney served as Halliburton chief executive from 1995 to 2000.

Cheney’s links with Halliburton must be embarrassing for Bush, yet he was clearly not fazed: Cheney announced on May 8 that Bush has asked him to be his running-mate in the presidential elections of 2004. And the issue of concealment of the extent of the contract and Halliburton’s ability to secure it without any bidding, was left to Jennifer Millerwise, a spokeswoman for Cheney, who said simply that “he has nothing at all to do with awarding the contracts, the bidding process or the current work orders.”

Bechtel, the winner of the main contract, is also closely linked to senior US government officials. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, was as long ago as 1983 in Baghdad to discuss with president Saddam Hussein a bid by Bechtel to build an oil-pipeline from Iraq to Jordan. He was a special envoy to the Middle East at the time, but Saddam was not tempted. Riley Bechtel, chairman and chief executive of Bechtel, was chosen by Bush on February 25 to join his Export Council, the trade advisory body. And Andrew Natsios, Bush’s appointee to run USAID, the agency that awarded the contract, was in charge of the road authority overseeing the “Big Dig”, one of Bechtel’s most important projects, in 2000 and 2001.

It is not surprising that American companies without links in the US government, and European companies that have been excluded from the bidding, have all protested vigorously. Their protests have led to the US chamber of commerce writing to president Bush, urging him not to compromise his commitment to “open government procurement” when awarding contracts in post-war Iraq. Thomas Donahue, the chamber’s president and chief executive, said in a letter dated April 22: “Open competition government procurement rules apply to the governments of those countries that comprised the ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as those who did not join the coalition.” He added: “we respectfully request that you continue to apply these principles of non-discrimination as you lead us forward in the quest to rebuild and remake Iraq into a free and prosperous nation.” Donahue also pointed out that the German, French and Russian companies that conservative US law-makers were trying to exclude from the entire process of construction “often have American subsidiaries with hundreds of thousands of American employees”, adding that “even if they don’t, we are obligated under the WTO’s government procurement code” to allow them to compete for contracts.

But, judging from the lying and maneuvering that the US government has engaged in over the Iraqi WMDs, and from the corrupt manner in which it has awarded construction contracts to its cronies, Donahue’s letter to Bush is clearly wasted, as the president does not really intend to “rebuild and remake Iraq into a free and prosperous nation”. As the resolution submitted to the UN by the US and Britain shows, Bush wants exclusive authority to control Iraq’s wealth. Experience tells us what to expect will happen to wealth and resources that are controlled by Bush and co., even when those are America’s own, never mind any one else’s.

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