Vol. 4 Num 19 Mon. June 16, 2003  

What's being planned in Iraq isn't reconstruction

On April 6 US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: there will be no role for the UN in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The US-run regime will last at least six months. And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. Wolfowitz further said that the people needed food and medicine from the day one of the interim administration and that the sewerage and electricity had to work with immediate effect and thus everything relating to them was also the coalition's responsibility.

Obviously, it had to be like this. Even if unpalatable these were all expected. After all it was not for nothing that the coalition did the war's all the dirty work. So it is a time for windfall. People do understand that the process of how they will get all these infrastructures to work is usually called reconstruction. But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather than rebuilding, the country is treated as a blank slate on which the Washington's neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned and open for business. The United States' Agency for International Development has already invited US multi-nationals to bid on anything from rebuilding roads and bridges to distributing textbooks. The length of time these contracts will last remains unspecified. So pervasive is its scope. There is a real chance that the reconstruction turn into privatisation in disguise.

Then there's oil. The Bush administration knows it can't talk openly about selling Iraq's oil resources to Exxon-Mobil and Shell -- the owner of Iraqi oil before its nationalisation. The administration leaves it to people like Fadhil Chalabi, a former Iraqi petroleum minister. "We need to have a huge amount of money coming into the country -- the only way to partially privatise the industry", Chalabi says.

Chalabi is a part of the group of Iraqi exiles that has been advising the State Department on how to implement privatisation in such a way that it isn't seen to be coming from the US. The group held a conference in London on April 6 and called on Iraq to open itself up to oil multinationals shortly after the war. Needless to say, the Bush Administration has shown its gratitude by promising that there will be plenty of posts for Iraqi exiles in the interim government. There are arguments that it's too simplistic to say that the Iraq war is about oil. As a matter of facts it's about oil, water, roads, trains, phones, ports and drugs and what not. And if this process of prolonging the list is not halted "free Iraq" will be the most sold country on earth.

It's not surprising that so many multinationals are longing for Iraq's untapped market. It's not just the reconstruction will be worth as much as $100 bn; it's also that "free trade" by less violent means hasn't been going that well lately when more and more developing countries are rejecting privatisation these days while Free Trade Areas of the Americas is wildly unpopular across Latin America. So what will a recessionary, growth addicted superpower do? How about upgrading from Free Trade Lite which wrestles market access through the backroom bullying at the WTO to Free Trade Super Charged, which seizes new markets on the battlefields of pre-emptive wars? After all, negotiation with sovereign countries is always a bit hard. It's far easier to tear up the country, occupy it, then rebuild the way you want.

The investors are already openly predicting that once privatisation takes root in Iraq -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait will all be forced to compete by privatising their oil. Pretty soon US may have bombed its way in a whole new free trade zone. However, so far, the press-debate over the reconstruction of Iraq has focussed on the fair-play: it is "exceptionally mal-adroit" in the words of European Union's Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, for the US to keep all the juicy contracts for itself. It has to lean to share: Exxon should invite France's Total Finaelf to the most lucrative oilfields; Bechtel should give Britain's Thameswater a shot at the sewer contracts.

But while Patten may find US unilateralism a bit galling it's off the moot point. After all, who cares which multinational gets the best deals in Iraq's pre-democracy, post-Saddam liquidation sale? What does it matter if the privatising in Iraq is done unilaterally or multilaterally by the US Russia, Europe and China? Entirely absent from the debate are the Iraqi people who might want to hold on to a few of their assets. Ordinarily they owe massive reparations after the stoppage of bombing. But in the absence of any kind of democratic process what is being planned is not reparation, re-construction or rehabilitation. It's theft disguised as charity; privatisation without representation.

A people starved and sickened by sanction, then pulverised by war is going to emerge from the trauma to find that their country had been sold out from under them. They will also discover that their new-found "freedom" -- for which so many of their loved ones perished -- comes pre-shackled by irreversible economic decision that were made in board rooms while the bombs were still falling.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.