Arming Iraq: Military contractors getting ready for big kill
NEW YORK - After a comprehensive review of the events leading to the September 11 attacks on the US, a bipartisan panel in Washington DC has absolved Iraq of any operational role in the devastating acts of terrorism on American soil.

But the panel did not rule out any possible remote links to Iran because some of the hijackers who participated in the attacks had apparently passed through Tehran, perhaps on the way to the US.

If the Iranian connection is true, one comedian joked last week, the Bush administration may have really invaded the wrong country. Should it have been Iraq or Iran? And if it did make a mistake, was it due to a typographical error at the White House?

Since the Bush administration has continued from one political blunder to another in its decision to wage war on Iraq, nothing seems improbable in one of the world's most miscalculated wars.

The tragedy of errors that led the US to invade Iraq keeps getting comical every other day. In fact, the US rationale for invading Iraq-including the hunt for weapons of mass destruction never found-has turned out to be a farce.

And most US politicians who are still gung-ho about the war think their enemy at war is a country called Iraq (with the accent on the letter "i"), not E-raq.

As one newspaper columnist said last week, the US should perhaps vow never to invade a country if politicians are unable to correctly pronounce the name of that country.

For starters, that's perhaps a good yardstick to go by. Meanwhile, even as the insurgency continues to grow, American civilian contractors in Iraq have made billions of dollars on the so-called "reconstruction" of Iraq that has failed to get off the ground because of the escalating violence.

Some of these civilian contractors have not only jacked up prices ten-fold but also benefited from contracts without competitive bidding. And now, US military contractors are getting ready for the big kill.

When the 15-member UN Security Council legitimised the American-imposed interim government in Baghdad last month, the five-page resolution adopted unanimously carried a provision least publicised in the media: the lifting of a 14-year-old arms embargo on Iraq.

Last week the Bush administration gave the green light for US defence contractors to join the mad scramble by the world's weapons dealers to make a grab for a potentially new multi-million dollar arms market in Iraq.

The former US-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which handed over power to the new Iraqi government last month, finalised plans for the purchase of six C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, 16 Iroquois helicopters and a squadron of 16 low-flying, light reconnaissance aircraft-- all for delivery by April 2005.

The proposed purchases were part of an attempt to rebuild and revitalize Iraq's sanctions-hit, weapons-starved military. Currently, the US, Britain and Jordan are providing assistance and military training for the creation of a new 40,000 strong Iraqi army.

With blessings from the US Congress, the former CPA also earmarked about $2.1 billion for national security, including $2.0 billion for a new Iraqi army and $76 million for a civil defense corps.

Since late last year, Iraq has purchased 50,000 handguns from Austria, 421 UAZ Hunter jeeps from Russia, and millions of dollars worth of armoured cars from Brazil and Ukraine, along with AK-47 assault rifles, nine millimetre pistols, military vehicles, fire control equipment and night vision devices.

The biggest single deal, however, was a $327 million contract with a US firm to outfit Iraqi troops with body armour, radios and other communications equipment. But the contract has been challenged by two non-US firms which lost out on the bidding process.

The decision by the CPA to purchase the handguns from the Austrian gun-maker Glock late last year evoked a strong protest to the Pentagon. "There are a number of US companies that could easily provide these weapons," Representative Jeb Bradley (Republican-New Hampshire) said in a letter to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "Why were other firearm companies, namely American companies, passed over?" he asked.

The Iraqi market is ripe for picking. And US military contractors are seeking to corner the market for themselves -- again without the risk of competition. The US Army Corps of Engineers awarded two contracts to American companies in March this year for transmission, distribution, communications and controls for the Iraqi infrastructure. The two contracts totaled $2.7 million. A third contract valued at $7.8 million-- for a modern, digital cellular, command and control system to link the various sites of the Iraqi armed forces and the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team-- was also awarded to a US based company.

The US has also awarded a $150 million contract for the renovation of four military bases located at Umm Qasr, Al-Kasik, Tadji and Numaniyah in various parts of Iraq. The Pentagon also has plans to expand existing military bases near Mosul, Baghdad and Kut, specifically for the US army. This contract is estimated at about $600 million.

"It does not seem wise to introduce new weaponry and military capability into Iraq's volatile mix of ongoing war and occupation, civil strife, and political transition," says Frida Berrigan, senior research associate with the New York-based Arms Trade Resource Centre.

On average, more than two US soldiers are killed each day, she said, and inter-Iraqi violence is taking a deadly toll on civilians and government officials alike. "Before Iraq is outfitted with high tech weaponry, it seems that the low-tech needs of clean water and reliable electricity should be met," Berrigan said.

In addition, if the experience with the Iraqi police force is any indication of what is to come from a US-armed and US-trained Iraqi security force, this is not the right time for the interim government to embark on an arms spending spree.

Instead of aiding the US in putting down the uprisings, thousands from Iraq's newly trained police force deserted, and many reportedly turned over their US-issued weapons to street fighters.

"How many of the 135 Americans killed during that month faced American guns and ammunition?," Berrigan asked. The pattern in Iraq so far is that it is being seen as a financial bonanza -- and where civilian contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel have gone, military contractors such as Lockheed and Raytheon can be expected to follow soon.

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