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US-IRAQ: Lucrative KBR Contracts Unaffected by Troop Drawdown

Sananda Sahoo

WASHINGTON, Apr 7 2010 (IPS) - Only one in nine hours billed by a contractor for running the giant military bases that house U.S. soldiers in Iraq in the first half of 2009 was for actual physical labour, according to new testimony by the Pentagon’s auditors.

The company – KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton – is tasked with military logistics such as menial tasks like cleaning toilets, cooking food and driving trucks.

Between January and July 2009 “over 1.1 million hours (including overtime) had been charged to the government, yet only 116,000 hours of documented repair work had been conducted,” Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the director of the Defence Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), told a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Starting in September 2002, tens of thousands of KBR workers – mostly from South and Southeast Asia – were kept busy building bases initially in the Kuwaiti desert and then eventually in Iraq. At its peak, in August 2007, the U.S. military had some 162,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq and an equal number of contractors to support them from KBR as well as from a variety of other companies like Blackwater and Dyncorp.

Over the last year, troops have been slowly leaving Iraq as part of a withdrawal plan created by the Barack Obama administration. The number of troops is now roughly 98,000 but by the time U.S. combat missions in Iraq end in August, the U.S. plans to draw down to between 35,000 to 50,000 troops in that country.

Given the planned drawdown, the Pentagon told KBR to reduce its staffing levels all across Iraq last year. KBR came up with a proposal implemented in August that was ineffective because the positions that the contractor eliminated were vacant.

KBR was “eliminating spaces without faces”, Commissioner Charles Tiefer remarked during a hearing of the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting held in the U.S Senate on Mar. 29. The commission was created early 2008 to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in military contracting services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, the Houston-based company maintained a steady staff level 20 months after the military reduced the number of soldiers on the ground from 160,000 in January 2008 to 130,000 in September 2009, the DCAA audit said.

While the Pentagon allows contractors to have extra staff on hand, it recommends that the “labour utilitisation” rate should be 85 percent.

Altogether KBR has 48,998 employees in Iraq, including direct hires and subcontractors, according to company spokesperson Heather Browne. It reported revenues of 4.8 billion dollars from its Iraq military contracts last year.

All told the company has billed the Pentagon in excess of 30 billion dollars under a global contract called the Logistical Contingency Augmentation Programme that was awarded in December 2001 for work in war zones from Afghanistan in Central Asia to Djibouti in Africa and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

This year, defence auditors said, KBR could save the government 193 million dollars from January through August by aligning its labour drawdown with the military drawdown.

But KBR’s own labour reduction plan during the period will save only about 27 million dollars over the same period, Fitzgerald told the commission.

KBR says it will cut its staff in July of this year. Doug Horn, vice president of operations at KBR, told the lawmakers that the military’s changing needs and requirements make working in war zones difficult. “This lack of predictability of logistical needs in a war zone is simply a fact of life,” he said.

He maintains that the company was forced to keep an idle work force on hand to handle the ongoing process of troop drawdown and in the absence of detailed guidelines from the military.

“There is probably some degree of idleness that they need to handle the fluidity of the situation,” Fitzgerald said. “But clearly, the percentages we are talking about well exceeds that.”

“Taxpayers need assurance that contractors don’t have unnecessary staff hanging around – accidentally or by design – without work, but still drawing pay,” said Christopher Shays, a former Republican Congressman from Connecticut, who is co-chair of the commission.

“The point of the audit is that savings are going, going, gone,” said Commissioner Robert Henke. “Since the Army or Department of Defence hasn’t responded, the savings are effectively gone.”

The hearing revealed just the latest vignette of the contractual work in war zones. Since 2003, there has been a steady stream of reports from agencies like the DCAA questioning billions of dollars in KBR bills for work done in Iraq.

While several KBR officials as well as U.S. military officials and their family members have been charged with bribery and money-laundering in Iraq contracts, the bulk of the allegations have involved wasteful spending, attributed to both bad decision-making by the Pentagon as well an unnecessary work by KBR.

As recently as last year, KBR built a 30-million-dollar dining facility a year before U.S. troops were required to leave Iraq, immediately after it had upgraded a nearby dining facility for 3.36 million dollars.

Despite numerous hearings in Congress, KBR has continued to win contracts in Iraq from the Pentagon. On Mar. 2, KBR was awarded a brand-new contract that is potentially worth 2.8 billion dollars.

*With additional reporting by Pratap Chatterjee.

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