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IRAQ: Australian Firms Eye Spoils of War in post-Saddam Era

Sonny Inbaraj

PERTH, Australia, Apr 7 2003 (IPS) - Australian companies are already manoeuvring for a piece of the action in the reconstruction of Iraq, now that the United States plans to control Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein and allow only a limited role for the United Nations.

The ‘Australian Financial Review’ has reported that Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, during his visit to Washington last week for talks on plans for a post-war Iraq, lobbied for Australian companies to be included in the initial 1.9 billion U.S. dollar contracts to be put out for tender by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Leading the Australian corporate charge, according to the popular business daily, are engineering groups Worley and Clough, construction groups Multiplex and Grocon, building materials group James Hardie and wheat exporter AWB.

Sydney-based Worley and Perth-based Clough have worked in joint ventures with Kellog Brown and Root, which was awarded a controversial contract by USAID to extinguish oil fires in southern Iraq.

Kellog, Brown and Root is the construction arm of Halliburton – where U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was its chief executive until his decision in 2000 to be U.S. President George W Bush’s running mate.

According to news reports, the U.S. expected to win lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq are all big political donors to the Bush electoral campaign.

But USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios tried to quell controversy by telling reporters U.S. federal procurement laws dictated that government-funded contracts go to U.S. companies. He said he expected the winners to sub-contract at least half the work and foreign companies could win that business.

– We’re not sitting back and waiting for the war to finish. We are developing plans so, once it is over, we can get a delegation there (to Iraq) quickly and have Australian companies represented," said Tony Knight, executive director of the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Perth-based Multiplex Constructions has already set up office in the United Arab Emirates and a spokesperson for managing director Derek Robson said the company was already preparing tenders for work in Iraq.

Downer, however, has downplayed the involvement of Australian companies in order not to appear only preoccupied with the carving up of post-war Iraq while the airwaves continue to deliver grim news of women and children getting bombed.

But observers indicated something sinister could be in the air.

They claim that the United States is rewarding Australia, as an ally in the war against Iraq, with reconstruction contracts provided Canberra pushes for a diminished U.N. role in the country after the removal of Saddam Hussein.

In a matter of 48 hours, Downer vacillated from one extreme to another over the role of the United Nations in post-Saddam Iraq.

Before he left for Washington late last week, Downer told reporters: ôWe believe that the United Nations should have a role in the administration of Iraq and that possibly there should be the appointment of somebody such as a special representative of the (U.N.) secretary-general."

In Washington on Friday, after his talks with U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell, Downer said: ôTo transfer Iraq from immediate United States control at the end of the war to some international body, the UN, the whole of Iraq to be run by the UN, would delay the passage of control of Iraq to Iraqis."

ôThe UN involvement I think, needs to focus primarily on humanitarian assistance," he added.

Later, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters the United States ruled out a leading role for the United Nations in an immediate post-war Iraq and said Washington and its allies had earned top-status having given ôlife and blood" to the war effort.

Commenting on Downer’s flip, the ‘Australian Financial Review’s’ Laura Tingle wrote: ôFor those critics who argue that Canberra has been taking all of its cues on Iraq obediently from Washington, Downer’s gymnastics on a post-war administration in Iraq have added considerable fuel to the fire."

ôDowner has been at pains to reassure Australian companies that they too can share the lucrative booty. But this is a sideshow compared with Downer’s talks on who runs post-war Iraq," added Tingle.

Austrade, a body of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in a statement that major opportunities for Australian companies in post-war Iraq will be in the agribusiness, energy, biotechnology, power, water, automotive, telecommunications, education and health care sectors.

ôThe major avenue to participation by Australian companies with be through subcontracting opportunities," the Austrade statement said.

ôIt is anticipated up to 50 percent of the reconstruction work in Iraq will be done by subcontractors. Australia’s expertise in reconstruction and relief is acknowledged in the United States and Australian companies are encouraged to actively and competitively participate in sub-contracting processes," it pointed out.

Austrade’s Middle East and Indian Ocean regional office manager, Brendan Dyson, said Austrade was monitoring procurement opportunities arising from the conflict in Iraq and would feed this information back to companies in Australia.

While certain companies are unashamedly trying to carve up the spoils of war, the United Nations, however, has issued a warning.

ôAny foreign authority that exercises effective control over all, or parts of, the territory of Iraq, is in no way relieved of its international obligations because of relief activities undertaken by independent humanitarian organizations," said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a statement.

ôUnder the Fourth Geneva Convention, the primary obligations of the occupying powers are to restore and ensure public order and safety in the occupied territory and to ensure that adequate medicine, health supplies, and foodstuffs are provided for the civilian population,” it added.

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