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Myths, Truth And U.S. Re-Construction

Iraqi Girl Blog

09/04/03: The Myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirt roads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats. These schools were larger versions of the home units and for every 100 students, there was one turban-wearing teacher who taught the boys rudimentary math (to count the flock) and reading. Girls and women sat at home, in black burkas, making bread and taking care of 10-12 children. 

The Truth: Iraqis lived in houses with running water and electricity. Thousands of them own computers. Millions own VCRs and VCDs. Iraq has sophisticated bridges, recreational centers, clubs, restaurants, shops, universities, schools, etc. Iraqis love fast cars (especially German cars) and the Tigris is full of little motorboats that are used for everything from fishing to water-skiing. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that most people choose to ignore the little prefix ‘re’ in the words ‘rebuild’ and ‘reconstruct’. For your information, ‘re’ is of Latin origin and generally means ‘again’ or ‘anew’. 

In other words, there was something there in the first place. We have hundreds of bridges. We have one of the most sophisticated network of highways in the region: you can get from Busrah, in the south, to Mosul, in the north, without once having to travel upon those little, dusty, dirt roads they show you on Fox News. We had a communications system so advanced, it took the Coalition of the Willing three rounds of bombing, on three separate nights, to damage the Ma’moun Communications Tower and silence our telephones. 

Yesterday, I read how it was going to take up to $90 billion to rebuild Iraq. Bremer was shooting out numbers about how much it was going to cost to replace buildings and bridges and electricity, etc.

Listen to this little anecdote. One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad – we’ll call the company H. This company is well known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who’ll listen. 

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn’t too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward: $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc. 

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let’s pretend he hasn’t been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let’s pretend he didn’t work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let’s pretend he’s wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated – let’s pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let’s just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around – brace yourselves – $50 million! 

Something you should know about Iraq: we have over 130,000 engineers. More than half of these engineers are structural engineers and architects. Thousands of them were trained outside of Iraq in Germany, Japan, America, Britain and other countries. Thousands of others worked with some of the foreign companies that built various bridges, buildings and highways in Iraq. The majority of them are more than proficient - some of them are brilliant. 

Iraqi engineers had to rebuild Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991 when the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ was composed of over 30 countries actively participating in bombing Baghdad beyond recognition. They had to cope with rebuilding bridges and buildings that were originally built by foreign companies, they had to get around a lack of raw materials that we used to import from abroad, they had to work around a vicious blockade designed to damage whatever infrastructure was left after the war – they truly had to rebuild Iraq. And everything had to be made sturdy, because, well, we were always under the threat of war.

Over a hundred of the 133 bridges were rebuilt, hundreds of buildings and factories were replaced, communications towers were rebuilt, new bridges were added, electrical power grids were replaced… things were functioning. Everything wasn’t perfect – but we were working on it. 

And Iraqis aren’t easy to please. Buildings cannot just be made functionary. They have to have artistic touches - a carved pillar, an intricately designed dome, something unique… not necessarily classy or subtle, but different. You can see it all over Baghdad – fashionable homes with plate glass windows, next to classic old ‘Baghdadi’ buildings, gaudy restaurants standing next to classy little cafes, mosques with domes so colorful and detailed they look like glamorous Faberge eggs – all done by Iraqis.

My favorite reconstruction project was the Mu’alaq Bridge over the Tigris. It is a suspended bridge that was designed and built by a British company. In 1991 it was bombed and everyone just about gave up on ever being able to cross it again. By 1994, it was up again, exactly as it was – without British companies, with Iraqi expertise. One of the art schools decided that although it wasn’t the most sophisticated bridge in the world, it was going to be the most glamorous. On the day it was opened to the public, it was covered with hundreds of painted flowers in the most outrageous colors – all over the pillars, the bridge itself, the walkways along the sides of the bridge. People came from all over Baghdad just to stand upon it and look down into the Tigris. 

So instead of bringing in thousands of foreign companies that are going to want billions of dollars, why aren’t the Iraqi engineers, electricians and laborers being taken advantage of? Thousands of people who have no work would love to be able to rebuild Iraq… no one is being given a chance. 

The reconstruction of Iraq is held above our heads like a promise and a threat. People roll their eyes at reconstruction because they know (Iraqis are wily) that these dubious reconstruction projects are going to plunge the country into a national debt only comparable to that of America. A few already rich contractors are going to get richer, Iraqi workers are going to be given a pittance and the unemployed Iraqi public can stand on the sidelines and look at the glamorous buildings being built by foreign companies. 

I always say this war is about oil. It is. But it is also about huge corporations that are going to make billions off of reconstructing what was damaged during this war. Can you say Halliburton? (Which, by the way, got the very first contracts to replace the damaged oil infrastructure and put out ‘oil fires’ way back in April.)

Well, of course it’s going to take uncountable billions to rebuild Iraq, Mr. Bremer, if the contracts are all given to foreign companies! Or perhaps the numbers are this frightening because Ahmad Al-Chalabi is the one doing the books – he is the math expert, after all.

Former exile and Pentagon favorite Ahmad Al-Chalabi was charged in absentia for embezzling millions from a bank he operated in Jordan. This entry of Girlblog was found at: http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/


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