Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Guess the blogger
Today's fun for the rare visitor...
A small paypal donation or at least a plaudit for the first person to guess the person who blogged this:

I'm afraid most Iraqis fail to see what will be brought about by an american "invasion" correctly. It should be seen as a catalyst for change. We have to do the hard work ourselves, change has to come from within, it is no use to sit and wait for others to solve our problems, and iraq will be ruled by foreigners if iraqis don't take an active part in whatever will happen. The problem is that years of being told what to do has turned us into a bunch fatalists who see whatever happens to us as "maktub" - written by the hand of god, and submit to it, like all good faithfull people should.

[little giveaway hint edited out].......when was the last time the iraqi "man-in-the-street" had the right to express an honest and free opinion about the government's policies?
Answer: 1962 - that is forty years ago

Maybe next week (at risk of sounding even more boring) I'll get to the great unmentionable reason for the fuel queues in Iraq ... a few zillion articles and blog mentions and I don't think I've seen it discussed more than twice in passing.
In the meantime click here if for some reason you feel the need for a new 'blame it all on..' (for a change not US gov) conspiracy theory
Well I've been neglecting this diary and should have at least marked off a few welcome events.
Its good to see Saddam arrested.
Equally good to see something approximating a consensus from Iraqis on wanting an open Iraqi trial for the man.
And its nice to see a few more Iraqi bloggers coming forward.... (even if there's a bit of hysteria when some aren't very sympathetic to the occupation)

Friday, December 12, 2003

Why the Petrol Fiasco spells trouble
The fuel situation being reported in Iraq is now deeply reminiscent of the disastrous mess that has existed in Nigeria for some years. The day to day impact on ordinary people of fuel shortages and spiralling black market prices is hard to understate and the government of the day inevitably takes massive flak for failing what is seen as a basic test of competence.

The origins of the mess are old government decisions to compensate for lack of progress in other areas by keeping official fuel prices artificially low and then failing to maintain the refineries. The costs of subsidisation are serious if you're refining your own oil but the losses to the government once you start importing and selling at the same prices are enormous. Unfortunately once you've started down this path massive corrective price increases in fuel in the midst of corrupt practices tends to be monumentally unpopular with the general population.

In Iraq Halliburton appears to have just made this situation considerably worse by delivering fuel at an average of $2.65 a gallon - a figure which Haliburton appear not to be contesting. In an oil producing region its an extraordinary figure but in Iraq's circumstances its simply amazing.

With official petrol prices left in place at a few cents every single gallon is sold at a breathtaking loss. It begs the question as to how this could come about without truly desperate inquiries being made as to alternatvies.

The simple answer is that the 'Iraq Decelopment Fund', formerly the oil for food program, is the piggy bank being raided for hundreds of millions of dollars. Its Iraq's money that is being used for this blunder/rip off and if there was ever going to be an easy political stick for Iraqi opponenents of the occupation to weild it was just handed over by haliburton.

The best defense Haliburton seems to have been able to come up with so far is that this is the price their sub-contractor could manage after taking into account security, truck availability etc. While thrashing around in the media Haliburton have also indicated at time that the nature of the contracts they and Army Engineers Corps were offering was part of the problem.

Its premature from afar to say that Halliburton's people or its sub-contrators have acted corruptly but at these prices they should be the least surprised at the outrage over the inflation from normal prices which has indisputably taken place.

Unless there's missing evidence of them vigourously blowing the whistle on an economically disastrous use of 'oil for food' money they share a massive responsibility with Corps of engineers to show they really cared about these prices when on a 'cost plus' contract and spending another country's money.

As at yesterday Halliburton was still saying they were the only ones able to deliver the goods...that's a mighty brave line to defend.

The overlooked issue is that the $2.65 price should constitute an emergency for CPA, Halliburton, and even the Pentagon. It's Iraq development money which is quite literally being poured away.

If they really want to defend their actions then the most vigourous public appeal to ALL companies and countries able to assist in bringing these costs down would demonstrate that they are not merely defending their right to prime contracts at all costs.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

It's cold and crisp outside.. hasn't rained in weeks and I'm no longer sure that I'm really stranded in the land that I renamed swampshire during one of the more British winters.

There are supposed to be 500,000 heavily dressed people converging on London today to celebrate winning the Rugby World Cup. Now in Sydney you could be wearing T shirt and shorts....

Even Christmas doesn't feel right....... the snowy picture postcard scenes felt so much better when they were just on a card.

Maybe I'll need to upgrade my HTML skills if I'm going to wander between political and conflict musings and the real world outside the door.

Been wondering about how to understand the 'gut' level of resentment in Iraq and other Arab countries over the occupation........ I'm thinking it puzzles more than we would care to admit when there is such easy access in the West to the horror stories of Saddam.

Try this scenario....

In a parallel universe..... a much more powerful Egypt finally decides that they've had enough of Israel busting UN resolutions on Palestine, Sharon has been a good deal nastier to opponents than he manages now, and for Egypt the Israeli possession of Nukes constitutes a threat to the region.

Invasion follows with the help of France, as does occupation.....
[miraculously' the Egyptians neutralise the Israeli WMD but make a bit of a mess on the road to Jerusalem with some thousands of deaths]

Egypt pledges to restore normality to two very secular states- Israel and Palestine -with borders along UN sanctioned lines, allowing about 24 months or so to get this all up and running [maybe demobilise both their armed forces/militias for good measure as a guard against the Palestinians trying to destabilise things again].
For good measure the French get the big reconstruction contracts as reward for their assistance.

Somehow it feels easier to picture how even the most left wing Israeli might view the presence of Egyptians and equally its not too hard to guess how the international sympathisers of Israel and more radical elements might feel [Imagining the reaction of some Palestinian forces to having their aspirations contained also doesn't feel like such a stretch].

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Time to give thanks that I'm temporarily in a country where the light switches work, water flows, and there's petrol at the pump. Chocolate and roses if you can name three 'oil rich' countries where this doesn't happen.
Took a quick look around for something plausible about samarra and found this . There's also some pics out there which make a certain dhl pilot look like very very good .
Fill in the blanks
Here's a website from the CPA which could address a number of concerns about transparency and a decent deal for the Iraqi people and US taxpayer.
Niec structure - hope they haven't had second thoughts.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Ok so what tipped off this morning's rant?

Well last week I got drawn into checking on an anecdote from riverbend which can be found here . Basicly its the story of a engineering relative who is asked to provide quote for repairing a bridge - the New Diayala Bridge apparently. He estimates $300,000 and then shortly later learns its been given out to some US firm at $50,000,000.

Bit of drama then ensues - the post gets zapped all over the internet by zealous bloggers and some others get mighty upset - hence the headline on the site riverSbend . Now this site isn't exactly a bastion of balanced views as it had earlier tried to fake being a young iraqi girl- see the early parts of bending truth for a mildly amusing deconstruction of all this.

Not bored to death yet ?

So after a little checking I drop a hint to the elusive owner of this riverSbend site that it's not too hard to find some sign of the New Diyala Bridge in docs that have come on to the internet. Would he please also get in touch .?......Unfortunately this morning he/she goes ballistic on this poor bridge again while being a bit stingy with the facts...(or being a truly appalling researcher)

A little background
When Riverbend first raised her anecdote there was bugger all chance of anyone execpt Bechtel and USAID being able to verify anything about it except that it wasn't at the front of any public list of things to be fixed by US construction firms.

A charitible interpretation on the lack of transparency could be that its a pretty busy and difficult environment over there and to their credit you can see more now about contracts and budgets on the CPA site than was there before but crucially NOT any $ amounts when it comes to things like sub contracts or individual jobs which are being given out by US AID/CPA.

If you're looking for a more critical appraisal of the situation then probably the best place to start is probably this letter to the General Accounting Office from Rep Henry Waxman which summarises concerns rather well citing:
The CPA itself apparently acknowledging that general construction costs for Iraqi contractors are as low as 10% of US costs [lower labour costs, production, regulation etc]
The Commander of the US 101st Airborne relating an example where he was able to employ Iraqi engineers to restore a concrete plant for just $80,000 after initial US estimates of $15million [Note well that he was citing the benefits of avoiding 'Rolls Royce' repairs and upgrades not corruption- Bechtel seem to have been provoked into saying this had nothing to do with them]
A general lack of transparency about contracting and sub-contracting

Now on another tack a rather persistent crowd -International Consortium Investigative Journalists - have had a crack at links between political interests and the firms winning contracts in Iraq and Afganistan. And this is where the United States system for pubic disclosure-even if its klunky in function- deserves some praise because they forced the release of a couple of Bechtel documents which might help all round .Its documents like these - particularly the costed implementation plan- which still don't seem to be available elsewhere- which might just help put a little pressure on Bechtel and others to walk a straight path as well as avoid unnecessary waste of US taxpayers dollars

The New Diyala Bridge
A brief check through Bechtel's implementation plan ( its a bulky 2MB pdf doc that you can download from this page of resources) and hey presto - an estimate for repair of the New Diyala bridge of $6.9 Million.

Now that's not an individual contract nor is it a $50 million 'smoking gun' but its an estimate in a very active workplan by the company made at the time cited by Riverbend which is 23 times her engineering uncle's reported estimate of around $300,000.

Unfortunately we can only guess if there was ever an estimate for replacing the whole bridge- which at these prices might well fall in the region of $50m.

Equally $ 7 M for repairs doesn't automatically spell rampant corruption but it does seem to back back the fundamentals of Riverbend's anecdote and that of the US Airborne commander and ol' Rep Waxman concerns about massive disparities in costings .

It might turn out that Bechtel have plans for repair that really do run up to $7m especially if you're applying US construction standards and techniques but it'd seem all to easy to get inflated sub contracts given out for jobs like this on the basis of these initial estimates (incidentally the jobs with order numbers all seem to be progressing at time of bechtels June doc on initial estimate prices).

In fact it'd be a pleasant surprise to find this all interest has actually helped. This is where more openness and public disclosure of costs might help avoid trouble and boost the confidence of the Iraqi people that they're not getting ripped off again.

Give thanks for the New Diyala obsessionists like 'riverSbend' ?
One positive thing that may come from all of this fuss is that we might shortly see an Iraqi engineer or two take an interest in this Bechtel implementation plan which had till now perhaps been a slightly neglected by-product of ICIJ's research.
They're the ones who can probably throw light on the rather frequent $3.8 million estimates for various jobs (Al Muthana Bridge is conveniently located in Baghdad and has actually been given a job no. at this price) and if we're very lucky they may even be able to relate that all this extra attention has brought some sanity to the game

But isn't it all subcontracted to Iraqis anyway ?
Politicly its not too hard to guess why George W felt it was necessary to give the impression at home that benefits from $20 Billion of U.S taxpayers money for reconstruction (remember the rest of that $87 billion is going elsewhere) was going to go to US firms as well as the Iraqi people.
Unfortunately now that you've named the US firms as contractors it makes it rather easier for the process of sub-contracting to become more and more obscure.
Its only when firms like Bechtel choose /are forced to open up more that we will see whether the margin between contractors and sub-contractors is fair, whether their approach is causing rampant inflation in construction costs, and whether the US taxpayer and Iraqi people are being served well by this whole process

Who can help?
Well it might be mostly down to US citizens.. Its their money that is being spent and they're the ones in a position to ask that their representatives demand decent levels of transparency. Maybe some of you might want to drop a line to your rep asking that the nature and cost of any contracts in Iraq (sub or otherwise) over $1 m or so wouldn't be a bad thing to routinely disclose.
Incidentally for this to really work the details need to be readily avilable to qualified people in Iraq (a 2mb doc buried on a US website really doesn't cut it) and they need to be encouraged to challenge anything they see as wrong - critically important if you want to promote better goevrnance but no easy task.
Worth remembering also that not all things from accountabilty lead us forward.. Anyone who has ever seen the paperwork that US AID and EU people now have to fill in the name of accountability and process will know that anyone on the ground with good intentions also has their work cut out for them so asking for audit trails down to the last paperclip actually can hurt rather than help the cause....

By the way remember this is a blog.. there's bound to be some clangers and comments are welcome although I make no promises that I have time or energy to respond. If you're that irritated then take your concerns out of bloggosphere and put them to someone who is supposed to be your elected/chosen representative.">

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Ok so i suppose an introduction is in order... I'm an Australasian, in the UK who is due to head back to Africa where i spend a good deal of my time in quite troubled countries
Not sure this will amount to a real blog as the first thing that's drawn me into writing is an interminable series of rants which seem to have been sparked by a blogger known as riverbend
Hmmm testing .....Maybe I should go off and get another cup of coffee

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