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Iraq a bottomless cash pit

Linda Heard,


Tuesday 8 July 2008 (04 Rajab 1429)


THE UAE has generously written off Iraq's debts to the tune of just under $7 billion to assist Baghdad's reconstruction efforts. President of the UAE Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan has described the gesture as an expression of brotherly solidarity and as leader of the only Gulf state to step forward in this way he should be congratulated. However, in case other countries are reluctant to follow suit they shouldn't be negatively judged as, in the past, pumping money into Iraq has been akin to tossing it into a bottomless pit.

A recent BBC "Panorama" documentary presented by Jane Corbin illustrates how a whopping $23 billion, equivalent to the GDP of a small country like Lebanon, disappeared from Iraq's coffers.

The program interviews witnesses, lawyers and whistleblowers who describe the missing billions as the greatest heist of our time. Unfortunately many of the prominent foreign companies involved in such fraud and mismanagement on a massive scale cannot be named because US government lawyers have placed a media gag order relating to 70 cases, said to involve some of the biggest names in corporate America. Instead, the program focuses on Scott Custer and Mike Battles, a pair of fortune hunters who arrived practically penniless in Baghdad where they were allowed to knock on Green Zone doors and walked off with a $100 million contract to protect civilian aircraft flying in and out of the capital.

We learn how the shady partners came across abandoned Iraqi Airways forklifts in the airline's colors, which they repainted and leased to the Coalition Provisional Authority for $20,000 per month each. And to ferry pallets of Iraqi currency around they picked up old trucks on the local market that had the habit of breaking down leaving up to $15 million's worth of Iraqi notes vulnerable to thieves. Eventually, they were caught out and charged with setting up Cayman Island shell companies for the fraudulent purpose of grossly overcharging the CPA.


NOTHER dodgy duo highlighted by the show was Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Howell, kitchen designers who set up a company called Northstar, which was awarded a no-bid contract to oversee the circulation of Iraqi currency and they weren't even certified accountants!!

It also exposes how one well-known catering contractor overcharged millions of dollars for meals served to troops by exaggerating the head count at one particular military base. Then there was the US construction company that was contracted to build 150 clinics all over Iraq for $186 million and ended up delivering the keys to only six.

An Iraqi exile, handpicked by the US for a Cabinet post in the new government is accused of embezzling U$1.2 billion and is said to be wanted by Interpol. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, this individual was a small businessman, who lived in a nondescript home in Acton, London and sometimes on the dole.

Once plucked from London and handed his lofty appointment, he gathered his cronies around him and together they diverted Iraq's money that was slated to rebuild the Ministry of Defense into a company called appropriately the Ever-flowing Spring. Naturally, the stuff flowing into their private bank accounts wasn't water. The ex-minister, who today flies around in a private jet and owns a portfolio of central London properties, claims he's a victim of a plot by pro-Iranian members of Parliament.

Frank Willis, a former CPA official who assisted Iraq's Ministry of Transport told NBC that there was "pervasive leakage in assets in Iraq, and to some extent, those assets were squandered". He admits that a lot of money got into the wrong hands remembering when it was time for payment "we told them to come in and bring a bag. It reminded me of the Wild West". You could say all these dastardly deeds were done some years ago. But how do we know that foreign contractors operating in Iraq or ministers are any cleaner today? Worryingly, Judge Radhi Al-Radhi who used to head Iraq's Commission for Public Integrity had to resign in September 2007 because of threats to his life by corrupt officials who objected to his role as anti-corruption czar. The last straw came when a missile landed precariously close to his house.

Once in the US, Radhi told NBC that corruption had "made our economy stale" and said "militias are smuggling the oil and using that money to buy weapons". He says his investigations revealed fraud and graft by high-ranking officials throughout the ministries and that government officials often tried to thwart his investigatory efforts. He did say that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki wasn't involved but he blames him for not being more proactive in the fight against corruption.

This year, senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and John Warner (R-Virginia) asked Congress to investigate Iraq's oil revenues to see if the country can now pay for its own reconstruction. They quoted the then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as predicting in 2003 that Iraq's oil revenue could reach between $50 billion and $100 billion within two or three years.

The senators say they want clarity on Iraq's total oil revenues from the invasion to date as well as the total spent on security, reconstruction, governance and economic development. They also want to know how much Iraq's government has earned from oil sales and not spent, and how much has been deposited in overseas banks? Until these questions are satisfactorily answered, we should not expect Iraq's neighbors to rush to its financial aid.

Worse, we learn from the British newspaper Independent that Washington is holding $50 billion of Iraq's money hostage in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as leverage against Iraq's government which has been asked to agree to 51 permanent US bases and an oil law that would hand control of Iraq's oil to foreign giants.

Mismanagement, theft, embezzlement, corruption and bribery and all while ordinary Iraqis still wait for reliable water and electricity while American taxpayers, who have forked out $534 billion to Iraq, struggle to pay their mortgages and fill their tanks.

The BBC documentary asserts that no major US contractor faces trial for fraud or mismanagement to date. On the other hand, whistleblowers have been sacked. Whoever said crime doesn't pay had never been to Iraq after the war, where pickings had never been so rich or so easy.

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