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Iraqi insurgents taking cut of U.S. rebuilding money
By Hannah Allam
August 27, 2007

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's deadly insurgent groups have financed their war against U.S. troops in part with hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. rebuilding funds that they've extorted from Iraqi contractors in Anbar province.

The payments, in return for the insurgents' allowing supplies to move and construction work to begin, have taken place since the earliest projects in 2003, according to Iraqi contractors, politicians and interpreters involved with reconstruction efforts.

A fresh round of rebuilding spurred by the U.S. military's recent alliance with some Anbar tribes provides another opportunity for groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq to siphon off more U.S. money, contractors and politicians warn.

"Now, we're back to the same old story in Anbar. The Americans are handing out contracts and jobs to terrorists, bandits and gangsters," said Sheik Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, the deputy leader of the Dulaim, the largest and most powerful tribe in Anbar.

He was involved in several U.S. rebuilding contracts in the early days of the war but is now a harsh critic of the U.S. presence.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to provide anyone to discuss the allegations. A spokesman, Noah Miller, said in an e-mailed statement that, "in terms of contracting practices, we have checks and balances in our contract awarding system to prevent any irregularities from occurring. Each contracted company is responsible for providing security for the project."

Providing that security is the source of the extortion, Iraqi contractors say.

A U.S. company with a reconstruction contract hires an Iraqi subcontractor to haul supplies along insurgent-ridden roads.

The Iraqi contractor sets his price at up to four times the going rate, because he'll be forced to give 50 percent or more to gun-toting insurgents who demand cash payments in exchange for safe passage.

One Iraqi official said the arrangement makes sense for insurgents. By granting safe passage to a truck loaded with $10,000 in goods, they receive a "protection fee" that can buy more weapons and vehicles. Sometimes, the insurgents take the goods, too.

"The violence in Iraq has developed a political economy of its own that sustains it and keeps some of these terrorist groups afloat," said Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, who recently asked the U.S.-led coalition to match the Iraqi government's pledge of $230 million for Anbar projects.

Despite several devastating U.S. military offensives to rout insurgents, the militants — or, in some cases, tribes with insurgent connections — still control the supply routes of the province, making reconstruction all but impossible without their protection.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he was aware of the "insurgent tax" that U.S.-allied contractors are forced to pay in Anbar, though he said it wasn't clear how much money was going to militant groups and how much to opportunistic tribesmen operating on their own.

"It's part of a taxation they put on trucks through all these territories, but it's very difficult to establish if it's going directly to insurgents," he said.

As of July, the U.S. government had completed 3,300 projects in Anbar with a total value of $363 million, the U.S. embassy said. Another 250 projects with a total price tag of $353 million are under way.

Saleh, the deputy prime minister, said that dealing with such huge amounts of money in such a volatile place means corruption is inevitable and that some projects cost far more than they should. But despite qualms, he believes that the effort is worth it.

"I'm a realist," he said. "When I look at my options, will I have a 100 percent clean process? No. But will this force me to hold back? Absolutely not."

Suleiman speaks more bitterly.

Sitting in his Baghdad office, he displayed a stack of photos and status updates for projects that included two schools, a clinic and a water purification center.

The photos showed crumbling, half-finished structures surrounded by overgrown weeds and patchworks of electrical wires. He blamed such failures on "the terrorists" who work under the noses of U.S. and Iraqi officials.

"Those responsible for these projects had to give money to al Qaeda," Suleiman said. "Even now, the thefts are unbelievable, and I have no idea where those millions are going."

None of the Iraqi contractors agreed to speak on the record; they risk losing future U.S. contracts and face retaliation from insurgent groups.

One Iraqi contractor who is working on an American-funded rebuilding project in the provincial capital of Ramadi said he faced two choices when he wanted to bring in a crane, heavy machinery and workers from Baghdad: either hire a private security company to escort the supplies for up to $6,000 a truck, or pay off locals with insurgent connections.

He chose the latter and got $120,000 for a U.S. contract he estimates to be worth no more than $20,000.

"The insurgents always remind us they're there," the contractor said. "Sometimes, they hijack a truck or kidnap a driver, and then we pay, and, if we're lucky, we get our goods returned. It's just to make sure we know how it works."

Fawzi Hariri, a member of the Iraqi Cabinet and head of the government's Anbar Reconstruction Committee, said some U.S. rebuilding funds "absolutely" have gone into insurgents' pockets.

Hariri said the Iraqi government's Anbar committee checks contractors' permits and references, withholds payment until the work is reviewed and only hires workers who are familiar enough with Anbar's deep-rooted tribes to arrange for security.

On the parallel U.S. reconstruction effort, however, contracting officials rarely consult their Iraqi counterparts about how much they spent or who was paid on specific projects.

"The Americans are accountable only to themselves," he said. "It's their money."

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