Contractors of war

April 06, 2003

EVEN AS U.S. troops face a tough task in attempting to end the war in Iraq, that nation's immediate postwar leadership - an American team largely picked by the Pentagon - meets at a beachfront villa in Kuwait. There's a retired general to lead the march into a pacified Iraq, and a former diplomat already referred to as Baghdad's mayor, and a phalanx of technocrats recruited to assist them.

In Brussels on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told European leaders clamoring to get in on the action - including those who vehemently opposed the war itself - that there would be a role for them as part of the United Nations, but postwar Iraq's transition to Iraqi control would be American-run.

This may seem right or at least logical - as in, to the victor go the spoils. But presumed peace in Iraq may prove an even tougher unilateral job than this gulf war.

Iraq in 2003 is not Japan in 1945. As tempting as it may be for America to take on a MacArthur-style command of postwar Iraq, peace and reconstruction there are more apt to progress with international involvement. And at this point, at least, the United Nations still controls Iraq's oil revenues - the main source of money to fund its reconstruction - and that alone demands the United States not try to go it alone.

Politically, a transition to Iraqi control would also be smoother if the Bush administration's corporate cronies were kept at arm's length. More than $20 billion a year may be spent on reconstruction there over the next few years, and the biggest American contractors, all big-time political contributors, are angling for big shares. Insider deals would only complicate the complex road ahead.

In the case of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, that's already happened. Mr. Cheney still gets $180,000 a year in deferred compensation payments from the contractor, and guess to which company the Pentagon secretly awarded last month a no-bid contract to put out Iraq's oil fires - a deal that could total $1 billion?

The stench from that deal perhaps caused Halliburton to back out of the running for the first big Iraq reconstruction contract - worth $1.9 billion - but it's still teamed with one of the front-runners in that bidding as a subcontractor. No wonder: There's a huge amount of money at stake here beyond the Marshall Plan-scale of rebuilding - starting with involvement in tending the world's second-biggest pool of proven oil reserves.

This war is far from over, but the battle for the peace is already joined in capitals and corporate headquarters all over the world. American unilateralism may seem to be working militarily, and surely the initial stage of any peace would inevitably be dominated by the United States. But America will need all the help it can get, if it truly wants to carry out the long-term job of remaking Iraq for Iraqis - and not just from the Bush administration's pals.

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