Sunday, July 01, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 1st edition

July 1, 2003: Soldiers remove the body of an Iraqi man they killed at a traffic checkpoint in Baghdad. The shots were fired by US troops on a second vehicle approaching the check point, killing its sole occupant and another person travelling in a car behind him. Altogether, 4 people were slain at the same check point, set up to provide security for a visiting Congressional delegation. No weapons or bombs were found afterward.

July 1, 2002:

'88 gassing still killing Iraqi Kurds

Omar Ali Mohammed has terminal skin cancer. His wife has a chronic eye problem, and their young nephew has a nasty growth jutting out of his neck.

Doctors believe all three suffer from the aftereffects of the largest chemical attack on a civilian population in history -- the assault on this Kurdish town 14 years ago ordered by Saddam Hussein.

As President Bush continues his campaign to topple the Iraqi strongman, he often refers to the 1988 poison gas attack here as an example of Hussein's willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. Bush has said, "He even gassed his own people."

In 1987, Hussein intensified his fight against ethnic Kurds for their support of Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, bulldozing some 4,000 villages and using a combination of nerve agents, mustard gas and possibly biological weapons on several towns. The 4 million Kurds living in northern Iraq have a different culture and language from Iraqi Arabs and have fought for independence for decades.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 500,000 to 100,000 people died during the campaign. But the assault on Halabja and other Iraqi repression received little attention from the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan, which backed Iraq over Iran.

"The Western countries in 1988 didn't do anything against the Iraqi regime, " said Dr. Adil Karem, director of the Halabja Martyrs Hospital.

"Now they use the Halabja issue for their own benefit," he added, referring to Bush's citing of the incident.

Indeed, the international community has long ignored the plight of victims of the chemical attack.

On March 16, 1988, Mohammed was walking to a small plot of land just outside town to tend to his fruit trees and beehives when Iraqi jets dropped a variety of chemical weapons, which experts believe included mustard gas, sarin, VX nerve gas and aflatoxin dissolved in tear gas. Fortunately, nobody from Mohammed's family perished, but he saw "people die from the chemical weapons, and we knew it would hurt us too."

Experts estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 residents were killed immediately while tens of thousands more were exposed over the years by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. A photograph of a man shielding an infant with his body -- both were killed by the gas -- has become an icon of Kurdish suffering and a monument here.

Halabja, a city some 150 miles northeast of Baghdad in the southern part of so-called Iraqi Kurdistan, is situated at the foot of mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. It is below the 36th parallel and thus outside the protected area of the American and British fighter-patrolled U.N. "no-fly" zone established after the Gulf War. Hussein, however, has not attacked any Kurdish- controlled areas since the war.

Halabja was once a vibrant market town of 80,000. Today, the population has dwindled to about 43,000. Doctors say residents suffer from a range of cancers, respiratory disorders such as asthma and pulmonary fibrosis, skin rashes, birth defects, Down syndrome, infertility and mental health problems.

Christine Gosden, head of Medical Genetics at Liverpool University in northwest England, is one of the few scientists to research the aftermath of the 1988 attack. She estimates that more than half the population suffers from respiratory problems and that major chromosomal disorders such as cleft palates and spina bifida appear in three times the number of people than in the nearby city of Sulaymaniyah, 10 times the size of Halabja.

Karem complains that Halabja's remote location and political instability have thwarted research projects. Aside from individuals such as Gosden, he says there has never been a systematic testing of the lasting effects on the water table, air, food chain and animals.

He says that Halabja hasn't even had its soil measured for chemical residue.

In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the levels of congenital malformations, sterility, cancer and mutations were comparable, some 3 feet of soil was removed after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.

Karem adds that most laboratories that specialize in such research belong to government defense departments. Since many of the chemicals were manufactured in the West -- including the United States -- companies there could face legal claims if the results were well documented.

Read the rest at the San Francisco Chronicle

July 1, 2003:

US sees wide range of investment potential in Iraq

Looking to make a buck in Iraq? Food processing, financial services, farming, construction, hotels and tourist facilities all have potential, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Speaking to a group of business executives, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs John Taylor said there are plenty of opportunities to make a profit.

Citing $1.7 billion of seized Iraqi assets being channeled back to the country, potential oil revenues of $15 billion a year, remittances of $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year, and potential aid flows, he said cash is starting to flow.

One of the top priorities for the U.S. Treasury is to set up trade credits to help imports.

"We'd like to make progress on that as quickly as possible," Taylor told a gathering of potential investors organized by Equity International.

He said he also wanted to see foreign banks with offices on main streets around Iraq. These could help get a payment system running and be used to channel money sent to Iraqi people by their friends and relatives abroad.

Retail food opportunities also exist as the country comes to rely less on the oil-for-food program. Production and processing of agricultural goods also has potential, Taylor said.

Construction and development of tourist facilities and hotels offer another possible investment, with nongovernmental groups and aid organizations already looking for places to stay in the country.

Read the rest at Forbes

July 1, 2004:

Underclass of Workers Created in Iraq

KOLLAM, India -- The war in Iraq has been a windfall for Kellogg Brown & Root Inc., the company that has a multibillion-dollar contract to provide support services for U.S. troops. Its profits have come thanks to the hard work of people like Dharmapalan Ajayakumar, who until last month served as a kitchen helper at a military base.

But Ajayakumar, 29, a former carpenter's assistant from this coastal town, was not there by choice.

He said he was tricked into going to Iraq by a recruiting agent who told him the job was in Kuwait. Moreover, he said, the company skimped on expenses by not providing him and other workers with adequate drinking water, food, health care or security for part of their time in the war zone.

"I cursed my fate -- not having a feeling my life was secure, knowing I could not go back, and being treated like a kind of animal," said Ajayakumar, who worked for less than $7 a day.

Working alongside Americans trying to rebuild Iraq are an estimated tens of thousands of foreign contractors without whom the reconstruction could not function. Many toil for wages that are one-tenth -- or less -- of what U.S. workers might demand, saving millions of taxpayer dollars.

The employees were hired through a maze of recruiters and subcontractors on several continents, making oversight and accountability of the workforce difficult.

Pakistan is looking into reports that recruiters were illegally trying to hire security personnel to go to Iraq. The Philippines is assessing protection measures for its nationals after attacks killed two military support workers. And India is conducting an investigation into the dining service workers' allegations.

The State Department said it received a request from India for assistance and has passed it along to the Defense Department. A spokeswoman for the Army, which manages the KBR contract, said the responsibility for the investigation rests with the company.

KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., came to employ Ajayakumar and other Indian workers through five levels of subcontractors and employment agents. The company, which employs 30,000 workers from 38 countries in support of the U.S. military, said it had been unaware of the workers' concerns until recently.

KBR spokeswoman Patrice Mingo said the company met with representatives of the Indian government to discuss the complaints. For now, there is "no substantiated proof on which to take action," Mingo said, but the company is open to discussing the matter further with current or former employees.

"KBR does not condone and will not tolerate any practice that unlawfully compels subcontract employees to perform work or remain in place against their will," Mingo said.

The reconstruction of Iraq has provided workers from developing countries with job opportunities they might otherwise never have had. But the vast difference in the recruiting, compensation, accommodations and protection of some foreigners versus their American counterparts is raising uncomfortable questions about how companies calculate the value of a life in Iraq.

South Korean engineers working on Iraq's power grid have complained they did not get the flak jackets and helmets issued to U.S. co-workers. Some Filipino cleaners and other support workers have said they were given others' spoiled food to eat. And some of the Indian workers said they were brought in on buses with only gauze curtains to hide them from insurgents while many other contractors come into the country on chartered planes or in convoys with military escorts.

"They were working under threat and fear of death," said S. Sreejith, superintendent of police for Kollam, where the workers' complaints were first filed. American companies "are making money off of cheating our people"...

Ajayakumar was thrilled when a recruiting agent came to him in June 2003 and offered to "sell" him a two-year work visa in Kuwait for a catering company job that would pay $200 a month -- five times what he was making at the carpenter's shop. He gladly paid the agent's $1,800 fee, borrowing from local loan sharks, calculating that he would still make out with significant profits.

In late July, Ajayakumar boarded a train for Mumbai along with several dozen other Indian workers who were recruited for contract work: Abdul Jaleel Shani, 24, who had worked at a wedding store; brothers Abdul Aziz Hamid, 30, and Abdul Aziz Shahjahan, 28, who were butchers; and Manzoor Haneefa Kunju, 29, and Aliyaru Kunju Faisil, 34, who had worked at local hotels.

There, at an employment agency called Subhash Vijay Associates, they signed some papers and were handed tickets to Kuwait.

In Kuwait City, the workers were put on a bus and told they were going to "the border."

It didn't stop until they arrived at Q-West, a camp occupied by the 101st Airborne Division near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. There, the men became part of the largest civilian workforce supporting the U.S. military in history. Subhash Vijay had hired them to work for Gulf Catering Co. of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was subcontracted to Alargan Group of Kuwait City, which was subcontracted to the Event Source of Salt Lake City, which in turn was subcontracted to KBR of Houston.

They were issued ID cards that said "Brown & Root"...

At Q-West, Ajayakumar and Shani worked the day shift scrubbing the floors, carrying boxes and doing other odd jobs for the dining facility. Hamid and Shahjahan worked nights chopping food and helping the cooks. They said they were terrified by the frequent gunfire and mortar and rocket attacks, but what really upset them was the way they were treated by others on the base.

"The attitude of the people was not friendly at all. We were doing a service for these people but they shouted at us and talked down to us," Hamid said.

While their Western managers slept in air-conditioned trailers, they were crammed into tents in 100-degree-plus temperatures. The cooks set aside some rice and curry for them but it was not enough and they had to supplement their food with whatever was left over from the soldiers' meals -- which was often nothing. They were told they could not take the filtered bottled water but instead must drink the Iraqi tap water that was poured into aluminum buckets with tablets of chlorine and chunks of ice. The workers would pick through the soldiers' trash and retrieve the empty water bottles that they would use as cups.

Ajayakumar said he threw up for weeks from the contaminated water. He was allowed to see an Iraqi doctor who gave him one pill -- without explaining what it was for and which did nothing to alleviate his symptoms.

His co-workers had other complaints: that they were assigned to do construction work they weren't hired for, that they weren't adequately compensated for their 12- to 16-hour days, that Hindus were served beef, that Muslims were instructed to handle pork.

The workers said they felt trapped. They didn't want to be in Iraq, but returning home meant no more jobs, paying their own travel expenses and forfeiting the agent's fees. Plus, their bosses were holding their passports.

Three months into the men's stay in Iraq, there were explosions near the base and people ran out of the tents. While other contractors came out in full protective gear and jumped into their cars, the kitchen workers were told to stand outside near a tent in their pajamas.

"At that moment we realized that they are privileged people and we are nothing," Shani said.

One evening soon afterward, when they were handed a dinner of beef curry that hadn't been fully cooked, several dozen of them went to their manager, who worked for Gulf Catering, to complain. According to the workers, the man told them they would not get any more food. "We bought you," he reportedly said. Some Indian workers were so furious they packed their bags and began walking to the gates of the base. Another manager, who worked for the Event Source, raced over to them and urged them to stay, promising changes.

Things improved somewhat after that conversation, the workers said, and they got their own food, both vegetarian and meat curry each night, bottled water and -- by January -- many had air-conditioned trailers. Still, many felt defeated by the first few difficult months. And so in May when they were offered a bus ride out of Iraq, nearly everyone accepted...

The local employment agents, Subhash Vijay, Gulf Catering and Alargan did not respond to requests for comment.

Paul Morrell, president of the Event Source, whose representative was in charge of the dining facilities at Q-West, said he was surprised by the workers' allegations.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 1, 2005:

Iraq Hits a Flashing Red Light

Looks as though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not quite gotten full control of goings-on at the State Department.

Just a few hours after President Bush 's speech Tuesday night on "significant progress" in Iraq -- notwithstanding that more work is to be done -- the department issued a new warning for folks thinking of traveling to Iraq. Bottom line: DON'T GO.

Listening to Bush, you might have thought it was time to invest in Iraqi tourism opportunities. But the State Department "continues to strongly warn U.S. citizens against travel to Iraq, which remains very dangerous," said the advisory, which was virtually identical to one issued eight months ago.

"Remnants of the former Baath regime, transnational terrorists and criminal elements remain active," we were told. "Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or 'Green') Zone."

Hmmmm. Last year that zone was considered fairly safe. Government officials recall being able to jog in the Green Zone a while back. Recently, they were strongly advised that this would not be such a great idea.

This does not sound promising for tour groups. Well, if they just stayed on the charter buses?

No, "all vehicular travel in Iraq is extremely dangerous. There have been numerous attacks on civilian vehicles, as well as military convoys. Attacks occur throughout the day, but travel at night is exceptionally dangerous."

"Travel in or through Ramadi and Fallujah, travel between al-Hillah and Baghdad, and travel between the International Zone and Baghdad International Airport is particularly dangerous," we're told.

Okay. Maybe a nifty tour by air then? No, the warning says "there is credible information that terrorists are targeting civil aviation," and planes using Baghdad International "have been subjected to small arms and missiles." Civilian aircraft do not have systems "capable of defeating man-portable, surface-to-air missiles," the advisory says, so use military or government planes or, if you go commercially, Royal Jordanian Airlines.

Well, remember, Bush specifically said progress was "uneven."

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 1, 2006:

Financial Dispute May Disrupt Iraq Airport Security

BAGHDAD, June 30 -- In a standoff threatening to again disrupt security at Iraq's main airport, the multinational firm guarding the facility has not been paid since December, and Iraqi officials say they intend to replace it with a local force.

The dispute between the Global Strategies Group and Iraq's Transportation Ministry over Baghdad International Airport, which abuts a major U.S. military base, has hardened over nearly two years. The company won a security contract from the U.S.-led administration that governed Iraq after the 2003 invasion. But when Iraq regained sovereignty, the contract was never formally renewed and the company has struggled to collect outstanding fees, now estimated at $25 million, or roughly $3 million a month.

Twice since last summer, Global has withdrawn its employees and threatened to abandon the project because it was not being paid. Its actions halted civilian air traffic for several days. During the first work stoppage, in September, U.S. soldiers were deployed to secure the airport. The company returned to work only after it was paid more than $20 million -- not by the Iraqi government, according to U.S. officials and company executives, but by the U.S.-controlled Development Fund for Iraq, a pool of cash seized when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Read the rest at the Washington Post