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Home > World

Iraq: brand new bridges, same old faces

One year on, TFT examines the winners and winners in Britain and America's favourite emerging market.

19 March 2004

Last week it was announced that Bell Pottinger, the PR firm run by Margaret Thatcher’s former spin-guru Lord Bell, had won a contract to “sell” democracy to Iraq – one of the first major contracts awarded to a British company.

But Lord Bell is not the only beknighted Thatcherite to have won business in our newest colony...

A month after Saddam’s fall, several former US government officials set up a consultancy firm called New Bridge Strategies. Its website boasted that “the vents unfolding in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are giving rise to unprecedented opportunities for government and private enterprise”. While the US government allocated $87bn for rebuilding the country it had just bombed, New Bridge Strategies prepared to cut itself a piece of the pie.

The Bush family connection was obvious. The chairman of New Bridge was Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush’s chief of staff when he was governor of Texas and national campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign. Directors Edward M. Rogers Jr and Lanny Griffith came from one of Washington’s best-connected Republican law firms. Both had been assistants to George Bush Sr in the White House.

A bizarre Bush-Thatcher-Bush-Blair continuum was completed when the company invited an unlikely Englishman to join its ranks. Sir Charles Powell was defence and foreign affairs consultant to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, expending much effort advising PMs that the government needed to invest more in military technology and arms sales. He went on to work for the chairmen of arms firms BAe Systems and Thales, advising them, evidently, that the government needed to invest more in military equipment and arms sales.

As luck would have it, Charles’ brother Jonathan, another Foreign Office diplo-wonk, who used to be Britain’s ambassador in Washington, is now Tony Blair’s chief of staff. He is also said to be the man responsible for single-handedly rubbishing Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy on the basis that Britain needed to invest more in military equipment and arms sales. It must run in the family.

Dealing with al-Qaeda

So exactly what deals have Bush’s lobbyist lawyers (and Sir Charles) been cooking up to help build a new Iraq? The firm has become a partner in an American/Iraqi consortium hoping to win a mobile phone licence to enable the poverty-stricken population to cheer itself up with ringtones and text alerts.

According to its first and only press release, published in August 2003, New Bridge “brings the unique skills and experience to provide leadership to the consortium in the United States and on the ground in Iraq. The principals of New Bridge have longstanding relationships in the region.”

All very useful. The press release divulges that: “The Iraqi consortium members are led by the Al-Bunnia family who are a leading commercial group in Iraq with over 80 years’ experience in Iraq developing and owning industries and commercial enterprises employing vast workforces.”

What the press release doesn’t mention is that an al-Bunnia partner is also a founding partner in an organisation identified as helping to fund al-Qaeda. Documents from the Swiss Federal Commercial Registry show Sadoon al-Bunnia to be a founding partner in the Malaysian Swiss Gulf and African Chamber (MIGA), one of 14 businesses controlled by Ahmed Idris Nasreddin and Youssef M. Nada.

In August 2002, US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill announced that businesses in the Nasreddin-Nada network “appeared to be providing a clandestine line of credit to a close associate of Usama bin Laden and as of late September 2001, Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaida organisation received financial assistance from Youssef M. Nada.”

You would think this record might blot the copybook of businessmen hoping to do deals with the US administration in Iraq, but no; US engineering super-giant, Bechtel has just signed them up to help rebuild the Al Mat bridge, bombed by a stray cruise missile during the war.

Astonishingly, the US government and their contractors seem blithely unconcerned about al-Bunnia’s al-Qaeda connection. According to the US Treasury, its undiplomatically-named Office of Foreign Assets Control keeps a list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, prohibiting trade with the listed persons or organisations. MIGA makes the list. Al-Bunnia does not.

When pushed, the US Treasury said that al-Bunnia’s “association with MIGA should raise some due diligence concerns, but it is not necessarily wrong for a US company to do business with him, and it is certainly not illegal.” Senseless and dangerous, perhaps. But not actually illegal.

The real reasons for war?

In the spring of 2002, Pentagon intelligence analyst Karen Kwiatkowski was posted to the Pentagon’s office for Near East South Asia (NESA). Shortly after she joined, part of NESA was hived off and expanded to become the delightfully Avengers-esque Office of Special Plans.

The brainchild of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the OSP was charged with re-sifting the Pentagon’s existing intelligence on Iraq in order to make a stronger case for war. It has since been accused of the politicisation of intelligence analysis (paging John Scarlett). A lifelong conservative herself, Karen Kwiatkowski was appalled to find her superiors embroiled in what she has called a “the hijacking of the Pentagon”.

For a while, Karen aired her dissatisfaction via an anonymous online column but, as war approached, she decided to resign and go public. In an interview posted on the LA Weekly website on 20 February, Kwiatkowski outlined three reasons why the neoconservative lobby was anxious for war at any cost.

Firstly, there was the widespread acknowledgment that sanctions were not working and would soon need to be lifted. Since America and Britain had been bombing Iraq with regularity since 1991, it seemed unlikely their companies would win much business from Saddam Hussein in a post-sanctions Iraq. If you can’t trade with them, bomb them.

Secondly, there was the issue of America’s bases and long-term policy in the region. Saudi Arabia was a restrictive, unpopular and increasingly dangerous place to base American soldiers. According to Kwiatkowski: “We were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter: to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important.”

Kwiatkowski’s last and most interesting reason for war was Saddam Hussein’s decision, in November 2000, to convert payments under the UN Oil For Food programme from dollars to euros. At the same time he also asked for his $10bn held in frozen New York bank accounts to be converted. This meant that when sanctions were lifted, sales from the second largest oil reserves on the planet would move from dollars to the euro. According to Kwiatkowski, this was one of the crucial reasons for war.

“One of the first executive orders that Bush signed in May [2003] switched trading on Iraq’s oil back to the dollar.” America’s fear of the euro threat is a story rapidly gaining evidence and credibility. Watch this space.

“This guy tried to kill my dad”

Speaking of reasons for war, what of that other favourite motive for (mass) murder: revenge? In September 2002, at a Republican fundraising event in Houston, Texas, George W. Bush said of Saddam: “This is a guy who tried to kill my dad.”

Bush was referring to the day, ten years ago, when Saddam Hussein supposedly backed a plot to assassinate his father in Kuwait. But is it actually true?

In April 1993, six months after losing the American election, George Bush Sr flew to Kuwait for a three-day visit. His entourage included the current president’s mother, Barbara Bush, his wife, first lady Laura Bush, his brother, Neil, and Neil’s wife, Sharon. Some accounts put another brother, Marvin, in Kuwait too. Invent your own collective noun.

A week later, the Kuwaiti government announced that it had discovered a massive bomb hidden in a car driven across the border from Iraq to Kuwait and that a suspect had confessed to having been ordered by Iraqi intelligence to assassinate the architect of Gulf War One.

The CIA and FBI were immediately dispatched to investigate. They interviewed the suspects and took samples of explosive from the bomb and from the circuit boards in the detonator. Their report concluded that Iraqi intelligence had indeed tried to kill Bush and his party. The day after publication, a US missile strike destroyed the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, killing eight people, including a well-known Iraqi artist who lived nearby.

And that was that, until some sleuthing by the New Yorker magazine, which found much of the report’s evidence was flawed. For a start, the suspects were not typical intelligence operatives. In fact, all 17 men arrested were involved in whisky smuggling across the Iraq-Kuwait border. At least six had simply been ferried across the border by the smugglers. One was aged 73. The New Yorker found “no evidence that any of the alleged assassins took any overt steps to deploy any bombs”.

Human Rights Watch’s 1994 report on Kuwait suggested several of the men had confessed under torture.

The American report had claimed that the type and assembly of the bomb’s electronic components reflected a “unique signature”. Electronics experts suggested that, in fact, the electronic parts were mass-produced and indistinguishable from components in ordinary walkie-talkies.

Then, in February last year, an article in the Baltimore Sun disclosed that “the former FBI chemist who tested the explosive recovered in Kuwait says he told superiors it did not match known Iraqi explosives. He was astonished to hear [President Bill] Clinton and other officials tell the world the opposite.”

The same article quoted a “former high-level Clinton administration official familiar with the evidence who says he does not believe there was proof that Saddam gave the order to kill Bush”.

So did Saddam really try to kill Dubya’s dad? According to one US Army insider: “It wouldn’t be at all a surprise if evidence emerged one day that it was staged by the Kuwaitis to pump up the Iraqi threat and to ingratiate themselves with the US”. Now that Saddam is safely in US custody, perhaps Bush will have the chance to put the record straight.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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