Tuesday, March 28, 2006


By William Fisher

Think about contractors in Iraq, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Halliburton, raking in billions and overcharging taxpayers by billing the government for stuff it forgot to deliver, and then getting bonuses for almost all its questionable charges? The Lincoln Group, paying Iraqi journalists to plant “good news” stories in the press? The Pentagon’s private army of outsourced “security specialists”, like Blackwater and Custer Battles, the mercenaries whose greed and shameful tactics make the CIA look like choirboys?

You’d be right. And wrong.

Wrong because what you probably don’t know is that these miscreants are not the only contractors there. There is also a not-nearly-large-enough cadre of contractors who don’t make millions.

Most of them work for USAID – the much-maligned U.S. Agency for International Development. They are both Americans and Iraqis – Shia, Sunni, Kurd. And they work side by side every day, in an environment of chaos, fear and violence, risking their lives trying to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

That they make any progress at all in that kind of environment is truly remarkable. But they do make progress. And that may be the only piece of legitimate “good news” coming out of what can now only be described as “not a country anymore”.

I get a near-free pass today, because the rest of this column has been written by one of those unsung heroes -- a dear friend who heads a sizable economic development team. But I cop out with sadness. Here’s the email he sent me this morning (slightly edited to protect identities):

“I just now talked to my security manager in Baghdad, and am left speechless. He describes a complete breakdown of law and order. We reviewed our staff list to determine each individual's circumstances. One guy, Ahmed, has his brothers stay with him at night. They take turns sleeping in case someone attempts to break into his home. Abdullah is the same. He and his father alternate sleeping at night, three hours on and three hours off. Walid and his family live in Sadr City where violence has once again brought tragedy to large numbers of families.

“On and on, one by one, we discussed all of our people. All are scared. None of these friends is specifically targeted, so there is nothing for us to do except hope that they do not become victims of random and senseless violence. The most common words are death, kidnapping, injury and danger. Iraq, especially Baghdad, is not a country any more. It is hell.

“I am beyond angry, and only feel a deep sadness. The optimism we felt in 2003 and early 2004 has been replaced by despair and wretchedness -- there is no longer even a thread of hope to hang onto.

“In early 2005, after the first election, we thought maybe there was a future. I made several trips to Baghdad, to meet with USAID and one of the government ministers. While my movements were proscribed, I managed to go out to lunch a few times, though mostly I stayed in the minister’s house. Now, even that bit of travel would be out of the question.

“A good portion of my job is to be strong in the face of these risks, to be the rock for others to vent their fears and sadness. There are days when the emotional side of this job overwhelms me, when I feel like I cannot take yet another tragedy. I am not overwhelmed often, but today happens to be one of those days. After writing this I will feel better, and I will go on to the next meeting or conference, or fix the next problem.

“The outrage of the Bush Team blaming the media for imbalanced reporting is unconscionable. They are nothing but a gang of liars, try to spin a civil war and a huge snafu of their creating into progress. And while some in the media are starting to acquire a hit of courage, thank God we have Helen Thomas, who will continue to pound away.

“Exactly why did we go to war? And why did we not fight to win it? I can only shake my head.”

And I can only join him in the head-shaking. Because I don’t know the answers to his questions. Nor does anyone else except perhaps George W. Bush. And he’s not telling.