By Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily 11/10/06

BAGHDAD – The decision of the giant engineering company Bechtel to withdraw from Iraq has left many Iraqis feeling betrayed. In the company’s departure, they see the end of remaining hopes for the reconstruction of Iraq.

“It is much worse than in the time of Saddam Hussein,”Communist Party member Nayif Jassim said. “Most Iraqis wish Saddam would be back in power now that they lived out the hardships of the occupation. The Americans did nothing but loot our oil and kill our people.”

Bechtel, whose board members have close ties to the administration of US President George W Bush, announced last week that it was done with trying to operate in the war-torn country. The company has received US$2.3 billion of Iraqi reconstruction funds and US taxpayer money, but is leaving without completing most of the tasks it set out to do.

On every level of infrastructure measurable, the situation in Iraq is worse now than under the rule of Saddam. That includes the 12 years of economic sanctions since the first Gulf War in 1991, a period that Dennis Halliday, former United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, described as “genocidal” for Iraqis.

The average household in Iraq now gets two hours of electricity a day. There is 70% unemployment, 68% of Iraqis have no access to safe drinking water, and only 19% have sewage access. Not even oil production has matched pre-invasion levels.

The security situation is hellish, with a recent study published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet estimating 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq as a result of the invasion and occupation.

The group Medact recently said that easily treatable conditions such as diarrhea and respiratory illness are causing 70% of all child deaths, and that “of the 180 health clinics the US hoped to build by the end of 2005, only four have been completed – and none opened”.

A proposed $200 million project to build 142 primary-care centers ran out of cash after building just 20 clinics, a performance the World Health Organization described as “shocking”.

Iraqis are complaining more loudly now than under the sanctions. Lack of electricity has led to increasing demand for gasoline to run generators. And gasoline is among the scarcest commodities in this oil-rich country.

“We inherited an exhausted electricity system in generating stations and distributing nets, but we were able to supply 50% of consumer demand during heavy load periods, and more than that during ordinary days,” an engineer with the Ministry of Electricity said.

“The situation now is much worse, and it seems not to be improving despite the huge contracts signed with American companies. It is strange how billions of dollars spent on electricity brought no improvement whatsoever, but in fact worsened the situation.”

The engineer said, “We in the ministry have not received any real equipment for our senior stations, and the small transformers for the distributing nets were of very low standard.”

Bechtel’s contract included reconstruction of water-treatment systems, electricity plants, sewage systems, airports and roads.

Two former Iraqi electricity ministers were charged with corruption by the Iraqi Commission of Integrity set up under the occupation. One of them, Ayham al-Samarraii, was sentenced to jail but was taken away by his US security guards. He insisted it was not he who looted the ministry’s money.

Managers at water departments all over Iraq say the only repairs they managed were through UN offices and humanitarian-aid organizations. The ministry provided them with very little chlorine for water treatment. New projects were no more than simple maintenance moves that did little to halt collapsing infrastructure.

Bechtel was among the first companies, along with Halliburton, which US Vice President Dick Cheney once headed, to have received fixed-fee contracts drawn to guarantee profit.

Ahmed al-Ani, who works with a major Iraqi construction contracting company, says the model Bechtel adopted was certain to fail.

“They charged huge sums of money for the contracts they signed, then they sold them to smaller companies who resold them again to small, inexperienced Iraqi contractors,” Ani said. “These inexperienced contractors then had to execute the works badly because of the very low prices they got and the lack of experience.”

Some Iraqi political analysts, rather optimistically, look at Bechtel’s departure from a different angle.

“I see the beginning of a US withdrawal from Iraq,” Maki al-Nazzal said. “It started with Bechtel and Halliburton’s propaganda, and might end with their fleeing from the field. They came with Bremer and introduced themselves as heroes and saviors who would bring prosperity to Iraq, but all they did was market US propaganda.” L Paul Bremer was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq after US forces toppled Saddam’s government.

President Bush told reporters on a visit to Iraq in June: “You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered. You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people.”

By his standards, the position in Iraq is now much worse.

(Inter Press Service)