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Candide's Notebooks

An American Plantation in Baghdad

Pierre Tristam

We've known about the Bush administration's Fortress of Folly for a while. It's one of Iraq's endless occupation-bred, American-made scandals: the $600 million American "embassy compound" redrawing Baghdad's skyline along the Tigris River-and American designs on the Middle East. But like every scandal with this administration-from sleeping at the wheel of 9/11 to nonexistent WMDs to Abu Ghraib to the most corrupt Justice Department in history thanks to torture-apologist Alberto Gonzales-the embassy folly continues to evade the din of accountability. A new Congressional Research Service report shows just what the major media are missing, and how illustrative of American imperiousness the compound is becoming.

The embassy project was contracted through First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company, a Kuwaiti company that works in tandem with Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown, and Root on many military contracts. Kuwaiti General hires only non-Iraqis at slave wages, Bangladeshis, Egyptians and Pakistanis especially, paying them $1,000 a month, or $5 an hour (assuming that they work them only 50 hours a week, which is doubtful. The workweek is probably six days, the workday about 10 to 12 hours long). Iraqis allegedly can't be trusted to put up buildings in their own capital city for their "liberators."

First Kuwaiti has been investigated for possibly engaging in human trafficking to fill up its workers' ranks (Iraqis can't be trusted, but kidnapped demi-slaves from the Subcontinent can). The Congressional Research Service (disappointingly, for such a usually thorough investigator) dismisses the allegation in the equivalent of a footnote: "According to a State Department official, a recent Inspector General report determined that reports of improper labor practices by First Kuwaiti are unfounded." The official is not named. Nor is the report documented. CRS only notes that the official works in the Office of Acquisition Management, and that he was interviewed by phone. Here's a more damning report by the State Department's own 2007 "Trafficking in Persons Report," from the section about "Special Cases" such as Iraq:

Iraq is a source and destination country for men and women trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and involuntary servitude. Children are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation; criminal gangs may have targeted young boys and staff of private orphanages and may have trafficked young girls for forced prostitution within Iraq and abroad. Iraqi women are trafficked to Syria, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Iraq is also a destination country for men and women trafficked from South and Southeast Asia for involuntary servitude as construction workers, cleaners, and domestic servants. Some of these workers are offered fraudulent jobs in safe environments in Kuwait or Jordan, but are then forced into involuntary servitude in Iraq instead; others go to Iraq voluntarily, but are subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude after arrival. Although the governments of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines have official bans prohibiting their nationals from working in Iraq, workers from these countries are increasingly coerced into positions in Iraq with threats of abandonment in Kuwait or Jordan, starvation, or force.

The report, of course, doesn't link human trafficking with First Kuwaiti. It is a State Department report: the State Department wouldn't want to indict its own construction firm. Just as the Department of Justice's report, if there is one, isn't going to do more than provide cover, as Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department always doesn't for Bush and his Halliburtonite cronies. Now for the explanation regarding First Kuwaiti's preference for foreign workers. It has nothing to do with security. It has to do with slavery. If First Kuwaiti was to hire locals (and help bring down Baghdad's unemployment rate, which would also bring down the level of violence and the killing of Iraqis and Americans), it would have to contend with Iraqi workers on their own soil, free to come and go, to quit work if they please, to go home, to organize. Iraqis would, in short, have pull. Not so foreign workers. First Kuwaiti can confiscate their passports and essentially threaten them, as the State Department says, at will. The workers are First Kuwaiti's property. And there you have it: The American embassy, alleged symbol of "the face of America" in Iraq, is showing its true colors in its foundations and construction. It is, as America itself is, the work of slaves. And no one is saying word one about it.

The embassy ostensibly will cost $600 million. That's just construction. In 2007, Congress approved $750 million for State Department operations, which means embassy "activities." Included in that funding, the Congressional Research Service reported, was "mission security, logistics support, overhead security (reinforcing roofs and ceilings to protect against bombs), and information technology." That's in existing State Department buildings, not the new embassy. You have to assume that moving into the new compound would not necessitate extra security costs, the compound having been built for security. So State Department costs should go down. Not so. Here's what has never been reported: The Bush administration has requested $2.8 billion for State Department operations in 2008. It has done so for all but $65 million through those "supplemental" appropriations that expertly sideswipe the regular budgeting process).

Why the difference? Because in 2008 the State Department, which will really be the equivalent of American defense contractors' and other business' chamber of commerce operation in Iraq, will have taken possession of the embassy, where it can then roam its ambitions, and American foreign policy designs, freely: Arabs see the embassy "compound" as that alien mother ship in "Independence Day," with its oblong-headed aliens plotting their crawly take-over wherever they could set down their techy grasp. The embassy is already among the largest in staff and budget, if not the largest. (The Congressional Resarch Service doesn't say, but no other embassy comes close to a $1 billion budget, let alone a $3 billion one.) Washington's Baghdadian Rome employs 1,000 Americans " representing various U.S. government agencies and between 200 and 300 direct hires and locally engaged staff." Among all of those, how many actually speak Arabic? All of 33. Here's where it gets creepy:

Americans representing about 12 government agencies are providing the face of America in the embassy and regional offices in Iraq. The agencies include the Departments of State (DOS), Defense (DOD), Agriculture (USDA), Commerce (DoC), Homeland Security (DHS), Health and Human Services (HHS), Justice (DoJ), Labor (DoL), Transportation (DoT), Treasury, and the Agency for International Development (USAID). Agencies that did not recommend staff for an Iraq presence include Departments of Energy, the Interior, and Veterans Affairs, as well as NASA, Peace Corps, Secret Service, and Social Security.

What, may we ask, are the Departments of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security doing in Iraq? It's a wonder that NASA chose to skip out, considering the outlandish membership on the embassy's roster. Since Arabic isn't a requirement to work on behalf of American agencies in Iraq, the message seems clear. It's a one-way deal through and through. The United States is there to exploit, not to share. It's not even about oil anymore. It's about every resource imaginable, as long as it's profitable, and as long as the locals don't get in the way. The embassy has already learned First Kuwaiti's lesson. Pay the locals no heed.

Proof? Just look at the way the occupiers have dealt with the Iraqi government, their supposed ally, regarding existing facilities used by embassy staff: "The State Department has been using three sites for embassy-related needs. The sites are the Chancery, formerly a Baathist residence which was later occupied by the U.S. Army; the Annex (the Republican Palace) previously used by the CPA; and the Ambassador's residence, once occupied by Ambassadors Bremer, Negoponte, and Khalilzad. The U.S. government is not paying Iraq for the use of property and buildings, according to the State Department. The Iraqi government has reportedly requested that these facilities be returned to it, with improvements, which State Department officials say will happen when the New Embassy Compound is completed in 2007." Don't bet on those improvements. Is Iraq being returned to its people "with improvements" after four and a half years' occupation? Nor, by the way, is the U.S. government paying for the 104-acre site on which the embassy folly is situated. Iraq and the United States signed "an agreement on diplomatic consular property" in October 2004. "Among other things," CRS reports, "this agreement transferred to the United States title to a site for the new American Embassy compound and future consulate sites in Basra and Mosul." So much for the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against takings applying to any Americans. Then again, the Fifth Amendment is skull and bones even in the United States.

The final paragraph in the CRS report is all irony: "Oversight includes congressional monitoring of how the embassy represents American foreign policy, cultural and commercial interests." It states the obviously unspoken: The embassy is there to impose American will and purpose. And it states the obviously undone: Oversight? Monitoring? When even Congress is in the bag for furthering "cultural and commercial interests" (keeping in mind the breadth of those interests' definition), how could we expect it to provide oversight? Come late summer, the networks will televise the Big news of the embassy's opening, they'll all report it like it's the State department's version of the Mall of America on the Tigris, the story will spin for 24 hours, and beyond that, the symbol of American neo-imperialism will take its place in the American public's overcrowded den of indifference. In Baghdad, it'll loom so large that they'll be able to see its meaning and intentions from all points of the compass as far off as Casablanca, Aden and Jakarta.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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