Khalid’s story is not the only bad tidings originating from the Land of Ur this Yuletide season. On December 22, Contrack International announced it was terminating a $325 million agreement it had reached with the U.S. to repair Iraq’s roads, bridges, railways and ports. According to military officials, the Arlington, Virginia-based firm based its decision, in part, on security problems. As a officer with the Iraq Project and Contracting Office told the WaPo:
The security environment is such that the insurgents threaten the workforce. They are pretty good at leaving death threats on the homes of workers’ doors .
In October, paramilitaries attacked Contrack’s Baghdad headquarters. Earlier this year, they kidnapped a Turkish driver employed by the firm, shot him five times in the head, then dumped him beside a Contrack construction site. Pinned to the man’s chest was a sign reading “Collaborator.” (Ted Rall, take note.)
Contrack is the first major U.S. firm to pull out of Iraq. But don’t worry about it’s prospects. On December 26, the company reportedly won a $64 million deal with the U.S. military to build bridges in Afghanistan.
More gloomy news came on December 23 when Iraqna, which provides Baghdad’s mobile phone service, announced it was thinking of withdrawing from Iraq as well. According to theFT, Naguib Sawiris, the chairman of Egypt’s Orascom Telecom –and a man estimated to be worth $800 million–declared “I’m not into the business of putting the lives of my people in danger.” It’s interesting to note that Orascom owns forty-five percent of Contrack International.
Safety for his employees may not be the only reason Sawiris is threatening to pull out of Iraq. Relations between Orascom, the U.S. and the Iraqi Interim Government have steadily deteriorated. One issue has been Orascom’s spotty service in Baghdad–a problem Sawiris blames on the American army’s use of jamming equipment to hamper the ability of cellphones to detonate IEDs.
Then, on December 17, Iraqi security forces raided Orascom’s Baghdad headquarters, seizing equipment, records and two Egyptian employees accused of aiding the paramilitaries. Although the men were released two days later, their detention added fuel to the suspicion that Orascom workers have provided the Islamofascists with communications information. These allegations have dogged Orascom ever since the press revealed last year that the man with a controlling interest in the firm–London-based Iraqi tycoon Nadhmi Auchi–made a fortune selling arms to Saddam and enjoyed close contacts with the regime. (Incidentally, Auchi is a major investor in BNP Paribas, the French bank which administered proceeds from the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program.)
On December 22, Sawiris further charged that the U.S. and the Iraqis were carrying out a campaign to harass its workers and impede its service on behalf of a competitor–believed to be Kuwait-based Atheer Telecommunications–and a “political figure around whom a lot of controversy has been raised in Iraq” who has heavy investments in the company. Sawiris would not, however, elaborate on this politician’s identity.
I remember last spring, when Iraqna first began erecting its jazzy purple logo across Baghdad, it seemed as if a new kind of flower was blooming around the city. Advertising is generally synonomous with visual clutter in the U.S., but Iraqna’s signs seemed to herald new growth and hope for the Iraqis. Better yet, the company began hiring local people: at least one of my friends in the country is–was?–counting on Iraqna to provide her with the economic means to escape the oppressive sexism of her society. (Foes of globalization, take note.)
But now, where do these developments leave the Iraqi people? Baghdad blogger Zeyad at Healing Iraq gives an idea with his Christmas Day post. Along with describing the unusually cold weather and lack of electricity and fuel for heaters (I was in Baghdad during last winter, and can assure you, without heat, life is even more uncomfortable) Zeyad notes that the land lines in his neighborhood go on and off–and not even bribes can coax repairman out to fix them.
As for mobile phones, “Horrible doesn’t even start to describe it.” He notes, however, that while Orascom’s service has been bad, the “Atheer network in southern Iraq is more reliable.” The real problem, of course, is that without phone communcation Iraqis can’t contact one another in case of emergency, or simply check on the safety of friends and loved ones after a terrorist attack. Zeyad relates an incident when he was held up at an American checkpoint for hours and couldn’t get through on his phone to inform his family. “When I returned home,” he writes, “I found them crazy with fright.”
And this is what this war comes down to, isn’t it? The plutocrats wrangle over turf and profits, the Islamofascists continue to wreak havoc on the country’s infrastructure, while Iraqis shiver in the cold and dark, wondering about the fate of their loved ones, unable to make even a phone call to assure themselves that, this day at least, catastrophe has not befallen them.
Posted by Steven Vincent