“What floor are you going to?”, a woman asks as a group of 20 activists cram their way into the lift. “Seventeen.” “Oh, no you’re not!”, she shouts and attempts to block the buttons. The activists scramble to another lift and she leaps out to call security. The woman happens to be an office manager for the Worley Group, whose office these people are intending to occupy.
The activists make it to the 17th floor where the secretary mistakenly lets them in. Angry employees attempt to usher them out, but they are going nowhere. The Worley Group, a major engineering and infrastructure company, now find their everyday business disrupted by activists with placards reading “Occupy the occupiers”.
Australian corporations have been well rewarded for their government’s participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. A host of companies have received contracts related to oil infrastructures, communications technology, transport, food distribution and much more.
While relatively small compared to the major projects given to US and British businesses, Australia’s corporate participation is by no means insignificant. Australia’s participation in the ‘‘coalition of the willing’‘ and its brutal occupation of Iraq has helped firm up this corporate plunder.
It’s useful to look at the reasons behind the Howard government’s eagerness to participate in the US-led war. The war profiteering of Australian companies is not the only reason for Australia’s involvement. Larger geopolitical considerations, which tie Australia to the strategic interests of US power, weigh more heavily.
The war, declared over in April 2003, shows no sign of abating, especially with the US and its allies refusing to leave and the resistance continuing to receive popular support.
As the occupation forces terrorise ever-wider sections of the Iraqi population, the US and its allies seem unable to contain the revolt. Apologists for the occupation who might have initially opposed the war now say we need to stay and “get the job done” and avoid certain chaos after a withdrawal.
This view, however, is based on the premise that the “job” the US is attempting in Iraq is to benefit the Iraqi people as a whole; it lets the occupiers — the chief cause of the misery — off the hook.
How much worse could it get? How much peace has the occupation brought? Some 100,000 Iraqi people have died, according to the British medical journal The Lancet; millions have been displaced and the unemployment rate is estimated by some as being between 50-70%.
Could ending the occupation be worse than this?
The US has learnt nothing from Vietnam. It is stuck in a war it cannot win and refuses to lose. Just like Vietnam, popular movements against the war in the occupier countries will be key in placing limits on corporate and government plans to turn Iraq into a client state of the West, and hopefully assist in forcing their withdrawal.
What is the job the US is attempting to get done? The US has proved time and time again, whether in its support for authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, that its interests in the Middle East have nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with the interests of a small elite.
The US and its allies in Iraq are attempting to fundamentally transform the social relations of the Iraqi people and their economy through IMF- and WTO-style “shock therapy”. Iraq is one of the most brutal examples today of this neoliberal experiment.
Those arguing that the US should “finish the job” in Iraq should first ask what “job” that is. Is it to benefit the Iraqi people, or Western corporations and elites?
While the coalition of the willing is losing militarily, there are still many winners, and Australian companies are among them.
Australian businesses, with the assistance of the federal government and Austrade, have been quick to snap up opportunities in Iraq. In April 2004, the government hosted a Rebuilding Iraq Subcontracting Conference, which was also attended by William Lash from the US department of commerce. Austrade has permanent staff in Baghdad to assist Australian companies.
By far the biggest war profiteer is the Worley Group, a massive oil and infrastructure company that provides most of Melbourne’s gas through the Longford gas plant. Worley, along with the US-based Parsons Corporation, have an US$800 million contract to manage oil infrastructures and distribution in northern Iraq. The contract, awarded by the US Army Corps of Engineers, essentially acts to privatise Iraqi oil resources, with the profits shipped out of Iraq back to the US and Australia.
The US Army Corps of Engineers routinely awards contracts to foreign rather than Iraqi business. They are awarded by the occupiers to benefit the occupiers; ordinary Iraqis have no say in who will manage their national resources.
ANZ Bank is part of a consortium led by JP Morgan to manage the Trade Bank of Iraq. The trade bank promotes the interests of Western business in Iraq by encouraging imported products to flood the Iraqi market. In this way the Iraqi economy becomes more and more reliant on outside business to the detriment of its own economy. Bega, for example, is exporting cheese in a can to Iraq.
Trade Bank bureaucrats tour the world encouraging corporations to take advantage of business opportunities in Iraq now that its economy has been opened up for the plunder.
Woodside, Australia’s second largest oil and gas company, has signed a $2.5 million deal with the Iraqi Oil Ministry to explore the potential of oil and gas projects in northern Iraq. Woodside is also working in conjunction with Curtin University in Perth to train Iraqi Oil Ministry personnel.
Woodside is 34% owned by Royal Dutch Shell and is also involved, with the assistance of the Australian government, in stealing oil and gas inside East Timor’s maritime boundary.
Mitsubishi Australia has provided Magna vehicles to the Iraqi police force. Patrick Corporation, which tried to bust the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998, helped get Baghdad Airport functioning. MultieMedia is providing $5 million worth of satellite internet services to the US military, keeping the occupation online.
Hervey Bay’s Seabird Aviation will be providing the Iraqi Airforce with 100 SEEKER SB7L-360 surveillance aircraft over the next three years. Trade Minister Mark Vaile let slip in August 2004 that Seabird had been “working closely” with Austrade and Tradestart staff “for the past three years to secure the joint venture”. (If Saddam was so “evil” why was the Australian government negotiating to sell him surveillance aircraft?)
The chief motivation for Western businesses is the extraordinary potential profiteering that Iraq under occupation offers.
Whether it’s the Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation, the Australian Wheat Board or GRM International, Australian corporations have been very successful in securing contracts as part of the neo-colonisation of Iraq. As the 2005 Rebuild Iraq Expo website puts it: companies should take advantage of the “region’s most promising market”.
We should not only be demanding “troops out”, but also “corporations out”! As the war continues, so does Australian government complicity in the crimes being committed in Iraq.
If we want to end the war, we also have to expose and pressure the companies profiting from it. We have to make operating in Iraq not worth the cost. Interfering with “business as usual” will be crucial in building up the resistance here to end the war.
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