Friday, January 27, 2006

Of pride and plunder

Well, a day or so behind Fairfax’s coverage, The Australian has got around to reporting the audit by the US Special Inspector-General for Iraq Reconstruction which “has uncovered a spectacular misuse of tens of millions of dollars in cash” from Iraq reconstruction funds.

The Oz’s reportage, sourced from The Times, notes that the audit describes a “wild west atmosphere” in a post-invasion Iraq “awash with US dollars”. Strangely there is no reference in the actual report to a “wild west” atmosphere (see pdf file), however in the circumstances the analogy, whatever its source, is reasonably apt.

The Inspector-General’s report described one case in which a US soldier gambled away more than $US40,000 while accompanying the Iraqi Olympic boxing team to The Philippines.

In others, “one contracting officer kept approximately $2million in cash in a safe in his office bathroom”, the report says, “while a paying agent kept approximately $678,000 in cash in an unlocked footlocker”.

The lack of supervision had tragic consequences. A contract for $US662,800 to refurbish the Hilla General Hospital was paid in full by a US official, even though the work was not finished. Instead of replacing a central lift, as demanded in the contract, workers only tinkered with the existing mechanism. Three months later the lift crashed, killing three Iraqis.

Cash was stolen during insurgent raids but never reported, the audit found. In another case, a contractor was paid $US108,140 to refurbish completely the Hilla Olympic swimming pool. The contractor simply polished some of the pumps and piping to make it look as if new hardware had been installed. The pool has never reopened.

More than 160 vehicles worth about $US3.3 million could not be traced because there was no proper documentation. Another project, a $US473,000 contract to install an internet service in Ramadi, was cancelled because officials could not oversee it. But the contractor had already been paid.

These latest revelations follow similarly appalling disclosures back in December of similarly spectacular mismanagement. It will be recalled that as early as June 2004, the Australian delegation in the Coalition Provisional Authority “objected to or questioned many of the US proposals but were unable to prevent hundreds of millions being spent on questionable projects”.

Australians had to wait until December 2005 before we were told anything about all this, and of course it wasn’t our national government that came clean. Despite the efforts of investigative journalists to inform the Australian public, the government looks like escaping any real scrutiny and accountability for involving our country in the multifarious debacle that was and is the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

For the government, all their aces are on the table. Saddam is deposed and on trial. Iraq is “free” and on an albeit often rocky road to some kind of democracy, maybe. Rational discussion is actively and relentlessly suppressed of the incalculable costs of a murderous, illegal, divisive and astronomically expensive war and occupation.

Instead, squeaky clean and apparently politically unassailable, Prime Minister Howard according to this report on his Australia Day address invited Australians “to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve”.

All well and good – provided one overlooks the aforementioned multifarious debacle – but then Mr Howard went on to exhort “a ‘coalition of the willing’ to promote changes to the teaching of history, which he said was neglected in schools and too often questioned or repudiated the nation’s achievements”.

Evidently no one winced at Mr Howard’s invocation of the politically charged term “coalition of the willing” to promote his domestic ideological agenda. The PM said back in early 2004 that the Australian people have “moved on” from the Iraq war issue. He appears to be dead right.

New kid on the block

Canada’s newly elected conservative government has confirmed its tough credentials by sticking it to the girlie USA over Canada’s plans to deploy military ice breakers in the Arctic.

The US has questioned Canada’s claims to sovereignty over Arctic waters, but Canadian Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper has hit back, saying, “I want to be clear our party is clear, it’s the intention of this government to defend our sovereignty. We have plans for a national defence. We have a mandate from the Canadian people and it’s our intention to pursue this mandate.”

Oh dear, looks like military tensions brewing between these historically uneasy continent-mates, with the former sissy on the block now donning Stetson, gun-belt and spurs.

So what’s it all about? I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but it may relate to the Bush administration’s long-held plans to open up the Arctic off Alaska to oil exploration. Perhaps we will see yet more push and shove between these competitors for the resources of the Arctic.