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15 May 2003 Edition

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US difficulties in post-war Iraq

The scenes of welcome for US troops did not last as long as expected, and only days after the defeat of Saddam Hussein's army, Iraqis took to the streets to claim the right to elect their leaders. Some of them paid with their lives when US soldiers opened fire on civilians. The welcome party was effectively finished.

This week, on Monday 12 May, just a month after their defeat at Americans' hands, 300 Iraqi soldiers marched on the US Army's main base in Baghdad to demand back pay and a future in the new Iraq. "With our souls! With our blood! We sacrifice for you, Iraq!" the civilian-clad protesters, many noncommissioned officers, chanted as they joined a growing chorus of Iraqi civil servants hoping for a quick return to normalcy - including salaries - under the US occupation. The demonstrators assembled outside the Iraqi air force headquarters, severely damaged by US bombing, marched through the heart of east Baghdad and across a Tigris River bridge to rally at a main gate of the Republican Palace complex, where Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) and Army headquarters are situated.

"We don't want American money or anyone else's money," said one air force sergeant, Ali Kadhim Mohammed, 32. "We have the oil wealth of Iraq. That's what we were paid with before, and that's what we want now." He said he was last paid his monthly salary - 115,000 Iraqi dinars, less than ยง60 - in February.

The ORHA, the U.S.-led postwar administration, has been making $20 emergency payments to some civil servants in an effort to restart government operations. The Iraqi military has not yet benefited, although the US Joint Chiefs chairman, Air Force General Richard Myers, said over the weekend that ORHA will look at ways to rebuild a "new and reformed" Iraqi armed forces.

In the international arena, the US administration had to face worldwide uproar after presenting its plan for Iraq, which effectively sidelines the role of the UN in the reconstruction and political future of Iraq, while Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have failed to make an appearance so far. In fact, the Washington Post has reported that the American military unit directing the search for weapons for mass destruction in Iraq is dismantling its operations and will likely leave Iraq in June, as the 75th Exploitation Task Force has so far failed to find any of the suspected biological and chemical weapons that Bush used as the reason to launch the war against Iraq.

These are just some of the problems that the US administration is encountering. To illustrate the case, the beginning of May has seen the dismissal of two top American officials in charge of running post-war Iraq. General Jay Garner and former ambassador Barbara Bodine were relieved of their jobs in what US officials said was part of a broad shake-up of US operations in Iraq. Retired US General Garner, who has overseen the rebuilding of Iraq for the Bush administration over the past three weeks, will depart with some of his top aides, possibly within a week or two, while Barbara Bodine, the American coordinator for central Iraq and the effective post-war mayor of Baghdad, left for Washington on Sunday 11 May. Bodine had been in charge of restoring public services and laying the foundations for a democratic government in Iraq, tasks critics say Washington has failed to tackle effectively. On the other hand, Iraqis say Garner's team has failed to fulfil promises to hand out emergency payments, restore basic services, dismantle criminal networks and involve Iraqis in planning for a new local government.

While the departure of Garner and Bodine came amid concerns that US efforts to restore order to Baghdad following the war have fallen short, some US officials involved in rebuilding Iraq are now concerned the change in personnel could further slow operations in Iraq.

The moves come just a few days after President Bush named former State Department counterterrorism chief L Paul Bremer as the top civil administrator in Iraq. Bremer said upon his arrival in the capital on Monday 12 May that his goal is to help Iraqis "regain control of their own destiny" after decades of rule by Saddam Hussein. "The coalition did not come to colonise Iraq," he said. "We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny."

Bremer, 61, a onetime assistant to former Secretaries of State William P Rogers and Henry Kissinger and ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism from 1986 to 1989 - said career diplomat Barbara Bodine, who was coordinator for central Iraq, including Baghdad, within the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, was being reassigned back to Washington by the State Department "for their own reasons." He did not elaborate.

Garner denied reports that he, too, was departing earlier than planned. He did not answer directly when asked how long he would remain on the job.

He disputed the notion that there was trouble at high levels of the American reconstruction team.

But it is precisely the reconstruction plans for Iraq that are undermining the credibility of the Bush administration at home, as the US government is being accused of favouritism - only six invited corporations are being allowed to apply for the multimillion reconstruction contracts. And in recent weeks, all eyes turned to vice-president Dick Cheney, as the US Army confirmed on Monday 12 May it had awarded a $24 million contract to distribute gasoline and cooking fuel in Iraq to a subsidiary of oil company Halliburton, which once was run by Cheney.

The Army Corps of Engineers said the delivery order was awarded to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root on 4 May as part of a $7 billion umbrella contract awarded to the company in March for fire fighting services in Iraq.

The Army Corps last week said the Halliburton subsidiary had received about $75 million in orders so far, and the total amount would likely reach about $600 million, far less than the worst-case figure of $7 billion estimated before the Iraq war.

Cheney was formerly chief executive for five years of Houston-based Halliburton, the world's second-largest oilfield service company. The US vice-president got a very generous pay-off when decided to run for office and it is still receiving annual payments from the company.

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