Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley / The Progress Report – 2008-01-28 22:04:39
(JULY 27, 2007) — The US embassy in Iraq is set to open this fall. Projected to cost $592 million, the embassy will employ a staff of 4,000 people and assume operating costs totaling $1.2 billion a year. It will be a 104-acre complex — the size of approximately 80 football fields — and the largest US embassy in the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for an additional $50 million in May “to to add more structures” to the embassy.
“It’s all for them [the U.S], all of Iraq’s resources, water, electricity, security,” observed an Iraqi. “It’s as if it’s their country, and we are guests staying here.” In building this lavish symbol of occupation, the United States subsidized the company First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting (FK), a foreign contractor with egregious labor abuses.
In a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday, several former managers and employees of FK reported on the conditions at the embassy, which ranged from “deplorable” living conditions to “kidnapping” of employees. Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) responded, “If what you are telling us is right, something appears to be seriously wrong with the management and oversight of this project.”
Yesterday’s hearing confirmed the serious abuses that have been reported for nearly two years. Because of the US refusal to employ Iraqis inside the Green Zone, “most of the laborers were from such countries as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, the committee was told.”
FK lied to the workers, as “all of our tickets said we were going to Dubai,” testified an embassy technician, “adding that an FK manager instructed him not to tell any of the Filipinos that they were going to Baghdad.”
Rory Mayberry, a former subcontract employee of the FK, told the Committee yesterday: “Let me spell it out clearly: I believe these men were kidnapped by First Kuwaiti to work at the US Embassy.” One worker signed up be a “telephone repair man,” and when workers discovered they were headed to Baghdad en route, an FK manager waved an MP5 gun in the air to “settle down” the employees.
In Baghdad, workers toiled for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and for as little as $10 a day, according to John Owens, former FK manager. If a construction worker needed new shoes or gloves, he was told “No, do with what you have” by FK managers, Owens testified. “When drinking water was scarce in the blistering heat, coolers were filled on the banks of the Tigris, a river rife with waterborne disease, sewage and sometimes floating bodies.”
THE SECRET EMBASSY
The planning for the embassy has been marked by a veil of secrecy by the State Department. In May, architectural firm Bergine Define Yaeger posted pictures of the embassy’s design online, but two days later, the Department ordered the pictures removed, alleging a “security risk” for “our employees overseas.”
In his efforts to obtain information from the Department about the embassy, Waxman “said that for two weeks he was unable to get documents and cables he had requested. Some were delivered only Thursday in response to a subpoena, he said.” But a Nov. 2005 State Department Inspector General (IG) report curiously found no evidence of abuse.
The IG even alleged that employees “sought” overtime work. “No interviewee was aware of any worker who had been mistreated,” the IG reiterated yesterday, dismissing the allegations.
CONTRACTS FOR WAR ALLIES
The United States is largely is responsible for FK’s rise. “The company was a $35 million firm in early 2003 and now holds nearly $2 billion in contracts; largely US funded and related to Iraq,” reports CorpWatch. When originally contracted, FK’s human rights abuses were well-documented, and the company had “little experience in projects on the scale envisioned for the embassy.”
Furthermore, there were several lower bidders than FK, including “one award-winning American company, Framaco, [which] offered to do the job for as much as $70 million less than First Kuwaiti.”
Why a Kuwaiti company? Some of have alleged that its work as a subcontractor under Halliburton may explain its rise in Iraq. Additionally, Kuwait was the only country bordering Iraq that staged US troops before the invasion. President Bush ordered 100,000 troops to Kuwait to be “ready to conduct an operation” in February 2003; subsequently, some have alleged the contract may be a reward for Kuwait’s pre-war support.
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