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Finally, a Contractor Worse Than Halliburton

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Just when it seemed no contractor in Iraq could possibly eclipse (or even equal) the venality and hutzpah of Halliburton, Glenn Kessler over at the Washington Post unearthed First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co.

If these dudes are first, one can but wonder what second might look like. The cause célèbre is the American Embassy in Iraq and the architect for this half-billion dollar luxury resort for American diplomats is Berger Devine Yaeger. I looked up their web site to see what are supposed to be the posted designs.

“Under Construction.” Does that bode well? This (according to Kessler’s brilliant investigative piece) from “a toughly worded cable sent from the embassy to State Department headquarters on May 29.”

“The main builder of the sprawling, 21-building embassy is First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co., a Middle Eastern firm that is already under Justice Department scrutiny over alleged labor abuses . . . The first signs of trouble emerged when the kitchen staff tried to cook the inaugural meal in the new guard base on May 15. Some appliances did not work. Workers began to get electric shocks. Then a burning smell enveloped the kitchen as the wiring began to melt.”

At least it wasn’t Thanksgiving or the end of Ramadan, but damn, I hate when there’s a burning smell in the kitchen.

“. . . the electrical meltdown was just the first problem in a series of construction mistakes that soon left the base uninhabitable, including wiring problems, fuel leaks and noxious fumes in the sleeping trailers.

"Poor quality construction . . . life safety issues . . . left [the embassy] with no recourse but to shut the camp down, in spite of the blistering heat in Baghdad," the May 29 cable informed Washington.”

That’s the same blistering heat our foot patrols deal with on a daily basis, but okay guys, back to the tents, it’s Meals Ready to Eat for a while. Actually, there are a lot of Iraqis who would be delighted with nothing more serious than a few smoking wires in their kitchens and occasional fuel leaks. In those parts of Iraq that are not the Green Zone, there is only periodic and unreliable electric of any kind and fuel is something you risk your life to get. Not to mention American soldiers occasionally kicking in your door.

It’s hard to fault Kuwaiti General. They cut their contracting teeth working for KBR, who owns Halliburton (or is it the other way around?) and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, those wonderful folks who brought you the New Orleans dikes. Who knew that using lower-than-spec materials wasn’t business as usual? The wire is in and billed, if it doesn’t actually light the bulb or run the stove, that’s your worry.

To add to the already confusing finger-pointing, just a couple of American presidents ago, Iraq stuck their military finger in Kuwait’s eye with a surprise invasion. Even though it was Colin Powell who pulled their nuts out of the fire (and this is an American project) it’s dicey working in an invaders own country. Ask any Iraqi in America.

So, rather than actually do any work themselves, the Kuwaitis hired Saudis. Well, maybe not actually hired—kidnapped might be closer to the truth. They’re hard guys, these Arabs.

“First Kuwaiti's labor practices are already under investigation by the Justice Department amid allegations that foreign employees were brought into Iraq under false pretenses -- such as being told that they were to work in Dubai -- and then forbidden to leave because the company had confiscated their passports. First Kuwaiti has called those accusations "ludicrous."”

Undocumented workers? Surely you jest.

Ludicrous or not, when you’re hired for and headed to Dubai, then find yourself in an entirely different Green Zone, who can blame you for wondering where your passport went? Ludicrous is not relevant. The guy with a hammer in his hand and a First Kuwaiti patch on his pocket either has a passport in that pocket or he doesn’t. Fortunately, there is American oversight. Unfortunately, that oversight is not working and the only person who will speak for the record is an administration official who was not authorized to speak for the record.

Was it ever otherwise?

“The "fairly serious problems" noted in the cable indicate that First Kuwaiti's work fails to meet basic safety standards, said an administration official who was not authorized to speak to the news media. But the State Department's Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which oversees construction of the new embassy, has kept a "close hold" on the project, making it difficult for anyone else in the government to gauge progress. "We are suspecting we will find the same issues in the new embassy," resulting in months of delays, the official said.

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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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