The postwar reconstruction of Iraq is being entrusted to the hands of one man

Despite predictions by numerous analysts that the war would still be going on in Iraq’s cities, the fact is that reconstruction has already begun. But that reconstruction is in the hands of one state, one company and even one man: the United States, for reasons too obvious to go into, the Bechtel firm, with headquarters in San Francisco, and Andrew Natsios, an American of Greek descent. Now one of the 20 most important people in Washington, Andrew Natsios is the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has overall responsibility for Iraq. On Friday April 18, Kathimerini interviewed the USAID head via a direct link between the State Department and the American embassies in Athens, Moscow and Sofia. Despite technical difficulties, Andrew Natsios was able to clarify numerous reconstruction-related issues. The main contract, that for Bechtel, has already been drawn up. It will be the only firm that the American government will sign a contract with. Any other companies involved in reconstruction – from whatever country – will be subcontracted by Bechtel and will not have direct transactions with the USA. Bechtel will be solely responsible for picking these firms. To a question from Moscow, Sofia and Athens about what the position of Russian, Bulgarian and Greek companies would be in the reconstruction of Iraq, Andrew Natsios was categorical. That would be Bechtel’s decision and nobody else’s, he said. And the criteria to be met by the firms would be set by Bechtel, though he did mention those of efficiency and cost. According to Natsios, this did not preclude non-US companies. He regarded as certain the involvement of firms from many other countries, but, as he said, «Greek and Russian firms will have to prove they are more suitable than Turkish and Bulgarian ones, for one work or another.» (Some might feel the choice of example revealing, given that it excludes EU countries apart from Greece.) Natsios also clarified the funding question, noting that $2.5 billion would be raised in taxes on American citizens. Of course, this sum, which falls well short of the total cost of the works that need to be carried out, will simply be the starting amount, until alternative means of funding are applied. However, the total cost is expected to range between $25-100 billion, depending on who’s doing the math, while the venture could last for just two to two-and-a-half years, at least for the majority of major works. Last week, said Natsios, ministers from Canada and Sweden paid him a visit to discuss how their countries could help with reconstruction. Moreover, besides efforts by the American government at the international level to attract funding, part of Bechtel’s work will be to find other sources of money for the works in Iraq. Other models As for the works themselves, the traditional order is first humanitarian projects, then public infrastructure, then private construction. But in Iraq, the first two will start at the same time. The first project is the harbor of Umm Kasr, which is being rebuilt, while at the same time, water and power are being restored for the whole country. For the team planning the reconstruction of Iraq, it is absolutely clear that the model of former Soviet bloc countries, rather than Asian or African countries, is the one to follow. From this standpoint, Natsios said, Iraq, as once a rich, developed state due to its oil wealth, is closer to the Balkan countries than to Afghanistan. Thus it had created impressive infrastructure, such as the water supply network, which, like Western systems, piped water into each home, or the highways that often have four lanes. It all, Natsios said, needs restoring, modernizing and being put back in operation. And he believes that Iraq could soon show a growth rate of over 5 percent annually. At the same time, Iraqi society had a large, educated middle class, which, now that it is not living in the shadow of the Saddam regime, is in a position to undertake the organization of the country. The success of the plans, to a very large extent, rests on these people. As for the future, especially for the countryside, Natsios regards the modernization of agriculture as the only effective way. For example, the village in Greece where he comes from, Megarchi in Thessaly, did not have even one tractor in 1960. When he visited in the 1990s, he observed, open-mouthed, that each house had two cars. That was the model, he said. During the course of the interview, Natsios exuded a total optimism about the course of the reconstruction works, speaking about them as though they were on a sure schedule. However, he did point to one possible tripwire: corruption. Iraq is a rich country, with huge opportunities as a result of its oil. The sole danger, Natsios said, was posed by corruption. The question was whether the money from oil would end up in the hands of the Finance Ministry or a powerful faction that would milk the state. He pointed out that many countries undergoing reconstruction have a serious problem with elites who rob them. Thus he insists a major investment for Iraq would be a transparent public accounting system.