Hostile Takeover: US Corporations Carve up Iraq
by Pratap Chatterjee

Monday, December 1, 2003:
Three Humvees with soldiers in camouflage from head to toe crawl along the highway behind a tank. They have their fingers on the triggers of their guns; we can almost see them scowl as we fly past in our GMC Suburban. We are in Fallujah, one of the deadliest places in Iraq to be an American soldier.

When we get to Baghdad, past the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country, we are pleasantly surprised at how normal life seems. There are traffic jams in central Baghdad and long queues for gasoline. Our traveling companion, a Kurd from Sweden, remarks on how different things seem without Saddam's picture everywhere. We have only seen a couple of obvious leftovers from that era: a giant Saddam portrait doused in yellow paint at the border, and a toppled, decapitated statue of him riding a horse. Of course, his picture is still on Iraq's currency, the dinar.

Our final destination today is the Hotel Al-Fanar, quite possibly the ugliest building I've ever seen. A giant generator howls outside. You can't drive right up to the Hotel Al-Fanar, because it is just down the street from the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, where wealthy reporters and Halliburton employees stay. Our buildings are enclosed in a barbed wire mesh fence and concrete blocks to thwart suicide bombers. Two weeks earlier, someone fired rocket launchers at both the Palestine and the Sheraton. The story making the rounds is that Americans take Iraqi women to these hotels for sex… not likely to endear the occupying soldiers to the local population.

Our hotel is surprisingly comfortable. There is no phone, but there is Internet and cable TV downstairs. Electricity 24 hours a day and a fridge! We eagerly stock it with Belgian beer we buy down the street for three Saddam bills apiece. Definitely better digs than in northern Afghanistan, where we had to pour kerosene into a smoky stove to keep the frostbite at bay, and alcohol was a distant dream. Here, we actually have waiters in bow ties and a menu with chicken Kiev. Curiously enough the hotel prices are the same as in Afghanistan ... maybe it's the global rate for war zones.

Tuesday, December 2:
The soaring atrium of the Sheraton has a beautiful white marble statue of a woman at its center, set in a fountain of cascading water. At first we think the fountain is leaking, but then we realize the puddles on the floor are from a leak in the roof. The desk clerk is all smiles and apologies. "A week ago, somebody drove a donkey cart outside and then fired seven rockets into our hotel and the Palestine, hitting the roof," he says. Down the corridor, there is a picture of the hapless donkey awaiting its fate as a menacing US trooper scours the area for evidence of the resistance fighters who fled the scene of the crime.

We leave the hotel zone and venture into the city. All day we see soldiers in Humvees and tanks patrolling the streets. When we start to film the vehicles, a soldier on the top of a tank picks up a walkie-talkie and speaks quickly. Seconds later, another soldier walks over and demands that we rewind the tape. "We can't allow you to film us--it makes it dangerous for us," she says. When we play the tape back, it's obvious that the only thing we've recorded is a little boy with a tray trying to sell a single banana. The boy, who has been peering over our shoulder, lets out a whoop of delight to see himself on the tiny screen. The soldier, a little embarrassed, smiles at him, but refuses to tell us who she is and backs away to rejoin her convoy.

Once night falls, a burst of automatic weapons fire punctuates the darkness. "That's a Kalashnikov," says David Enders, the founder of the Baghdad Bulletin. "You learn to tell the difference. They are set to fire three clips at a time, while the Americans carry M-16s that sound softer, more hollow, and chatter longer." Down the road, thick black smoke pours out of a building as we drive past. David says he has yet to see combat on the streets, although he has often arrived at the scene just after a battle.

Others have seen more. Our translator-to-be, Walid, worked for the International Telecommunications Agency, a United Nations agency, and was inking an agreement with the International Monetary Fund when the building he was in was blown up. "Thank God, I was not harmed," he said. Yesterday we met Bernd Stange, the German coach of the Iraqi soccer team, who was traveling in a white GMC just like ours. He had been fired upon just last week. His driver took two bullets in the leg while bullets whizzed past Stange's head. It was the only time they had been attacked, he assured us. But he had been robbed three times in the twelve trips he made from Jordan to Baghdad and back. "They took my satellite phone and my camera. A 17-year-old boy held a gun to my head and demanded that I give him my camera. So I said, I am the coach of your football team and you steal my camera? Now the only thing I have is a watch," he laughed good-naturedly. He's writing a book about his experiences.

A grimmer and sadder tale: two blocks from our hotel, a man was shot in the head and lay bleeding. Ghazwan al Mukhtar found him and took him to the police station. The police refused to investigate. Al Mukhtar, a regular guest on the independent radio program "Democracy Now," asked, "What has happened to us? We are in a state of chaos. The other day I was called in to have my passport stamped by the occupation authorities. Me, an Iraqi citizen, I have to have my existence verified by these Americans. And I have to bribe the man to get an interview. When I told the Americans that I had to pay a bribe, they told me I shouldn't have and I said, 'Well, if you paid him a decent salary, maybe he wouldn't have to ask for a bribe.' But no, they pay people the same as under Saddam."

Our little dinner group--US veterans and families of the military who are here for a whistlestop tour of the country--eats up his every word. Medea Benjamin from Global Exchange, the leader of the group, is pouring beer into her glass under the table. Her military-issued MCI phone rings and she walks out of the building to do an interview. "That's another thing," says Ghazwan. "No phones. They bombed our exchange nine months ago and never repaired it."

Tomorrow we plan to hook up with David Enders again--he's been here since May. He's trying to sneak into the Halliburton-run prison for "enemy combatants" as a water carrier, but has had no luck so far. Bechtel keeps blowing him off, while the mine-clearing companies offer him work. "Should I take it?" he muses out aloud: "It pays $7,500 a month. I could pay off my student loan, refuse to work for them, get fired, and then write about my experiences. But I'm not sure that's ethical." The twenty-something journalist just graduated from college in May. I try to persuade him that he would get a great story and should do it, but somehow it seems unlikely that he will.

Wednesday, December 3:
Maniram Gurung waits outside the US consul's office, deep in the bowels of the convention center that houses the main press apparatus of the occupation forces. Standing in front of three photographs of Bush, Cheney, and Powell, he watches the American soldiers, the Iraqi government officials, and myriad other contractors hurry by, absorbed in the business of nation building. For the retired Gurkha rifleman from Katmandu, this guard duty is yet another boring but well-paid job, allowing him to send $1,300 a month home to his family. It's a small fortune in his country, but not as much as the $2,500 a month he earned from the British Army in 1990. There are some advantages--this job is only for six months, whereas in the British Army he could go home just once every three years.

Gurung is not a member of the "coalition"--his red badge identifies him as an employee of a private security company called Global Risks. Some 500 Gurkhas and Fijians make up the bulk of this British company's armed staff, and as foreigners in a strange land, they face just as much danger and resentment as the soldiers. In early August, a bomb in Basra killed a Gurkha. Today they are confined to their barracks at night, eight men to a trailer home, and food is strictly "English" (i.e. Western), provided by Halliburton cooks from India who make three dollars a day.

Global Risks is just one of the dozens of private security companies in Iraq. Some employ former South African soldiers to train Iraqi guards, while others have beefy American civilians packing nine-millimeter guns. Down the corridor from Gurung, at the newly established oil-for-food program (a US military operation that replaced the UN program phased out a few weeks earlier) Kato, an Asian-American, waits for instructions to do a delivery run for a convoy. Kato wears wraparound shades, a baseball cap that reads "Retired US Army," and a white badge that says "Weapons Permit."

Kato looks angry when I ask him who he works for, and won't answer. His boss, Peter Lennon, is more polite but firm. "Speak to Karen Triggs, our public relations liaison in Virginia. I'm not authorized to say anything," he says. Three times he refuses to say if he is military, private, or even a US employee. Later that evening, a Google search reveals a Web site at the Jordanian American Business Association that tells me that he is in fact a colonel at Central Command in the US military, contracting with private firms over "industry and minerals."

We return to our hotel, stopping to chat with Mohammed al-Husany, the ever-cheerful head of security at the Palestine Hotel's outer barricade. He makes just 100 dollars a month, not enough to support his wife and two kids. "I want a job with the American companies. I have a second-degree black belt in karate and I know how to fire every kind of weapon. AK-47s, M-16s, all of them. My friends who work for Halliburton's security make 400 dollars a month and the American security guards even more," he confides to us.

He asks if we saw the bombing of the hotel last week. "The rockets went just one meter over my head," he says, imitating the sound of the missile. "They fired it from a donkey cart. Now no more animals allowed around here."

"Did they arrest the donkey?" I ask.

"The donkey? What do you mean?" he says. When he realizes I am joking, he slaps his leg with laughter. "No, the donkey was on fire, the poor donkey. He was crying."

Thursday, December 4:
We pass yet another line for gasoline; it stretches around the block and all the way across the bridge over the river. We decide to chat with the men waiting in line. Angry people immediately surround us. "We were a rich country, now our very wealth has been stolen by the Americans." "Under Saddam we never had to wait in line for benzene (the local word for gasoline), now we must spend half a day and then sometimes they run out." The popular theory is that Americans are re-selling the high-quality Iraqi gasoline outside the country or keeping it for themselves. "They sell us Turkish or Kuwaiti or Saudi oil. This is bad for our engines and creates more pollution." A little boy joins the fray chanting, "George Bush Ali Baba, George Bush Ali Baba." ("Ali Baba" is local slang for "thief.")

Just a block away from the gas station, one can buy black-market gasoline for a dollar a gallon, but those who wait all day can fill a 12-gallon tank for just 50 cents. We decide to buy from the black marketers, and ask the man why he chooses to sell at such a high mark-up. "Listen, I used to be an electrical engineer. Now I have no job. Who will feed my wife and three children?" he asks. Our tank full, we cross the bridge to see an imposing set of buildings surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by a tank. "The oil ministry--the only ministry that the Americans protected from the looters," says Walid.

Sunday, December 7:
I am awakened by the sound of a tank grinding past the hotel. At first I think it is just a cart but then I realize that no cart can be heard six stories above the ground. Are they leaving, I wonder? Is it safe now? "As soon as they leave, we will get hit by a rocket," says David, who is convinced we are next on the hit list. I assure him that we are not a likely target. Later in the day we see the tanks return. It turns out to be just a shift rotation. Soon the novelty of the tanks and military helicopters swooping low over the neighboring Tigris River becomes routine and we start to ignore them.

Our first interview is with Asim Jihad, the spokesperson for the oil ministry. Unlike the suited men in the corridors, he wears no tie, but a midnight blue shirt and black jacket. His hair is held carefully in place with cream and he has a five-o'clock shadow. He tells us that all the oil facilities in the north have been repaired, plus the Daura and Beiji refineries in mid-Iraq and two in the south. No hint of anything amiss, except that they are operating at 700,000 barrels a day, less than a quarter of capacity. He assures us that they will reach 2.8 million barrels by March 31, 2004.

When we ask him about the performance of Halliburton, the Texas company hired to fix the pipelines, he says that we must wait until the job is complete before passing judgment. But what about the allegations that Halliburton is charging 60 percent more than the real price of oil? Or the stories that the best oil is being sold abroad at a premium? Jihad tells us we need to focus on the positive. "We have achieved a lot since the military campaign. Everything has been repaired. And the idea that we would be selling Iraqi oil to anyone else when we have to import 40 percent of our domestic needs--that's out of the question," he protests.

Our next interview, however, on the other side of the ministry, tells a different story. We are ushered in to meet Mohsen Hassan, the technical director for power generation at the ministry of electricity. Hassan is a quiet, unassuming man. His attire--a checked shirt and brown jacket with no tie--would be inconspicuous on any street in this city. He has a small office overlooking the front of the building that contains two phones--one white and one red--a computer, a cell phone, and a CFC-free fridge. He begins the meeting by offering chocolate and then launches into a critique of Bechtel, the San Francisco company in charge of repairing the power system.

"We, the Iraqi engineers, can repair anything. But we need money and spare parts and so far Bechtel has provided us with neither. The only thing that the company has given us is promises. We have brought the power generation up to 400 megawatts without any spare parts but we will need something more than words if we want to provide this city with the 2,800 megawatts that it needs."

"Bechtel has put us in a very difficult position. My minister has said to them, 'If the people get angry, don't blame us.' You know, electricity is the biggest problem in Iraq. They must solve this as soon as possible. Under Saddam, we fixed everything quickly but we didn't worry about quality. We didn't work the standard way, it was very irregular.

"Maybe they follow a system, a procedure and they follow it step by step. But now we do not have enough time. Before, we'd manufacture things even if they were not so good, in order to solve the problem. But now the Provisional Authority needs to organize everything, starting from the financing, management, operation, dispatching, everything. The problem is with time. I have said to my engineers, 'Let's create a dirty system in order to get rid of this big difference between demand and supply!'

"The Americans have very high standards, ours are very low," he says. "We need to meet in between." I ask him why Bechtel, a company that built the Saudi electricity system from scratch, is so slow to restore power to Iraq. "These are unusual circumstances," says Hassan. "No security, there is sabotage, the system is upset."

We return at dusk to meet Mohammed, the happy-go-lucky security guard. "Seen any donkeys lately?" I ask. "No, no, they are banned," he says, and when he realizes I am pulling his leg again, he chuckles appreciatively.

Monday, December 8:
We spend most of the day in the Daura area of Baghdad, visiting the oil refinery. We also secure a meeting with the refinery manager, Dathar Al-Kashab. He is a graduate from the engineering program at Britain's Sheffield University in 1966 and his English is excellent. Kashab is a former classmate of the oil minister, although he rose through the ranks in this country to become the manager of the refinery while the minister made his career abroad. His last promotion took place when the Americans took over the city in April, and he armed his employees to defend the refinery from looters.

"When the US army came in, I went out and talked to the commander and said, 'Now it [the oil refinery] is your baby. You have to protect it.' The commander said, 'It's not my job. I've got other things to do. I'm just checking, inspecting, and searching.' So I said, 'This is a very dangerous area. If you don't protect it, looters will burn the refinery. My God, you have millions of liters of hydrocarbon products and hundreds of thousands of toxic chemicals. If they catch fire, you'll have to evacuate half of Baghdad.'

"Oil in Iraq is life for Iraq," he tells us, adding that the refinery is ready to go back into service right away, just like the oil fields and refineries in the north and south of the country.

Friday, December 12:
We leave Baghdad shortly after dawn in another huge GMC. As the eastern sky turns red, a tape plays "Killing Me Softly With His Song," lulling us back to sleep. We stop on the outskirts of the city at the Diyala bridge, an impossibly narrow strip of road across the river that all traffic to the south must cross. I cannot believe that the monster trucks that serve the military could ever squeeze across this bridge, and I recall the rumors across the Internet just six months ago that an American company offered to repair it for $50 million. Our driver laughs heartily at this suggestion and says that local contractors could easily do the job for $100,000.

On the other side of the bridge, we pass the deserted nuclear facility that was picked over by Hans Blix and the UN inspectors a year ago. The Israelis bombed the French reactor in 1981, but the Russian reactor was not destroyed. Today we can see only a high wall topped by barbed wire that runs along the road for miles. The sun comes up over the wall, almost blinding me, and soon we are on our way across Iraq. We pass Kut, take a shortcut to Nassariya, pausing only to fill the gas tank. There we meet curious drivers from around the region, including a pair of friendly young Saudi men in what might be the most beat-up Volkswagen Polo I've ever seen. We pass camels, women in flowing red robes carrying piles of brush on their heads, souks where men trade goats and sheep as they must have done for thousands of years.

Five hours later, our first view of the oil fields appears as a thick deep cloud lying low on the horizon with a bright spark of orange at the end. Soon the flat brown sand of the desert replaces the sparse green we had seen alongside the highway. A tiny speck on the horizon becomes a Humvee and then a convoy and then there are 20 white trailer homes passing us with their British military escort. We guess these are new temporary homes for soldiers who prefer prefabricated Western houses to living with the "natives."

Today, South Oil is pumping oil, ostensibly for the Iraqi people. In reality, the US-led Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority manages the money. The coalition is called CPA for short, but one Baghdad correspondent wryly noted, "The correct acronym should be OCPA, as in 'We oc'pa your goddamn country.'"

Critics like the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina say that the war has not benefited local people, who are still waiting for the CPA to restore basic electricity, telephones, and sewage services. Instead, the anti-war activists say the US corporations are profiting from the multi-million dollar reconstruction contracts. The biggest chunk of the money (over two billion dollars so far) that the US is spending in Iraq is going to Halliburton, the company that Vice-President Dick Cheney ran as CEO before he went to work for George W. Bush. In early January, the company was fined for overcharging the government for imported gasoline, but it retained the contracts to repair the oil fields and run the military bases.

Half an hour past the oil fields in the desert, we are in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, just 60 miles from Kuwait. There's no way to tell that this is one of the most productive oil fields in the region--the city is dirt poor, but bustling with life. Shepherds herd sheep and goats through the main streets of the city, while ramshackle boats line the Shatt al Arab waterway separating us from Iran.

Sunday, December 14:
We head over to the children's and maternity hospital, a low green building near the center of town. The woman in charge of the depleted-uranium-casualty facility is in Jordan, so we meet with the director of the Basra Maternity and Pediatric Hospital. He has been a pediatrician since 1985 and has worked in this hospital since 1991. For many years it was the only place for treatment of depleted-uranium victims. Today there is a second ward at Sadr Hospital in Baghdad. He says the number of depleted-uranium victims has skyrocketed; his estimate is based on the explosion in reports of leukemia, which has risen from one a month to up to ten a week. Children are particularly hard hit. It is difficult to assess the precise numbers because diagnosis of DU toxicity involves cremating the body--a practice frowned upon in Islamic society--and testing the ashes.

Today the oncology unit has sufficient funding from Australia. The problem is that nobody will give them money for simpler illnesses like malnutrition, gastroenteritis, and infectious diseases. "It is a political issue but it is a minor problem for us: we need IV fluid more than we needed money to treat depleted-uranium victims. Two weeks ago I told the funders 'I don't need help for cancer, I need help repairing the roof.' We know what to do, we have the technology, we just need basic supplies. Abt Associates (the American contractor commissioned to support the healthcare system) came here 12 days ago, but we told them and the CPA in our last meeting, 'If you can't give us any more supplies, we will close the hospital and stand out in front. We will diagnose illnesses but if you need treatment, go to the CPA. Providing drugs and equipment is the responsibility of the CPA, not us.'" Previously the Kuwaiti Red Crescent would bring them supplies, but after the security situation deteriorated six months ago, they stopped coming.

The doctor's television is on and he glances at the scrolling text at the bottom of the Al Jazeera screen every few minutes. He tells us that an Iranian station is reporting that the Kurds have captured Saddam. This seems somewhat implausible, but we soon start to hear the familiar "crack-crack-crack" of AK-47s. The gunshots become more and more frequent and it is obvious that whether or not the news is true, there is a major celebration happening. As we wind down the interview, David cannot stand it anymore: "If we're done, I'm going outside." I follow him minutes later. People are dancing in the streets. We are in Shia territory, where Saddam was not very popular, and it is clear that there may be some wild parties happening soon.

We convince our reluctant driver to drive us to the old Indian spice market in Ashar, one of the busiest parts of town. No wild parties, but lots of people ready to give their opinion. "Today a new Iraq is born," says one. An impromptu march begins and every now and then we jump as kids toss firecrackers in the air.

Pratap Chatterjee is managing editor of Corpwatch. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a program sponsored by the Independent Press Association.

© Earth Island Journal, Summer 2004