Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Oh what a lovely war! (for some)

BBC PANORAMA this evening went looking for an estimated S23 billion (£11.75bn) that had somehow been lost, stolen or just not properly accounted for in Iraq. What it showed was how well some private contractors have done from the war and occupation. They range from vice president Dick Cheney's old firm KBR Halliburton through to an obscure former kitchen-fitting company that somehow got itself an accounting contract on billion dollar deals.

The enterprising methods used were such that Sergeant Ernie Bilko might have gasped at them. One company helped itself to Iraqi government fork-lift trucks, resprayed them, then hired them out at suitably inflated prices. Another allegedly sent unprotected civilian drivers out risking ambushes, even with empty trucks, so it could bump up its charges for supplying the army.

Open contracts on a costs plus basis encouraged firms to charge what they liked. Halliburton was awarded contracts without anyone else being invited to bid. The US military - i.e. the taxpayer - paid for meals that were never delivered.

The darker side of this tale is of Iraqi prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib by contractors not even subject to military law, and civilians shot by trigger-happy mercenaries.

A US gagging order, preventing discussion of the allegations, applies to 70 court cases against some of the top US companies. While George Bush remains in the White House, it is unlikely the gagging orders will be lifted. To date, no major US contractor faces trial for fraud or mismanagement in Iraq.

In fact it is those responsible officials who objected to wrongdoing or raised too many questions who seem to have lost their jobs, or in one case, had their life endangered in Iraq.

Not all the profiteers are Americans, of course. With world oil prices soaring we noticed that the oil concessions which Kurdish regional ministers are granting companies like Hunt Petroleum are not just upsetting the Iraqi government which says they are illegal, but kept under wraps from the Kurdish people and their representatives too.

Panorama's search for missing billions also led to a house in Acton, West London where Hazem Shalaan lived until he was appointed to the new Iraqi government as minister of defence in 2004.

Shalaan and his associates were supposed to be buying the latest military equipment, but went for a load of cheap second-hand gear from Poland. With the difference they were able to siphon an estimated $1.2 billion out of the ministry, and divert it to their overseas accounts. Shalaan was investigated and sentenced to two jail terms, but he fled the country, claiming the accusations against him were all a plot by pro-Iranian MPs . There is an Interpol warrant out, but the runaway minister, who still owns the Acton house and property in the Marble Arch area, is still zooming around by private jet.

After recent programmes looking at targets such as illegal immigrants, I'm glad to see Panorama plucking up the courage to investigaate more serious offenders, with their power and wealth. Some of what the programme had to say, such as private contractors outnumbering US soldiers in Iraq, we have already heard from less established communicators such as Naomi Klein. But hopefully, this programme will get more people thinking, and wondering what we have yet to be told. The BBC reporter did note that KBR Halliburton has been awarded the contract to supply British forces in Iraq. After that trip to look at a disgraced minister's former modest home in Acton (where incidentally another Halliburton subsidiary does the bins and street cleaning for Ealing council) , I've suggested the Panourama team take a look at KBR Halliburton's place up the road at Greenford, or Bechtel in Hammersmith, and find out about how much these companies are making from their operations in Britain.

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