Any day now, the authorities in Iraq will announce the winners of a contest to provide Iraq's long-awaited mobile phone service. This is one area where Halliburton - vice-president Dick Cheney's old firm - isn't a front-runner, so the outcome could be interesting.
Last July, the US-run coalition provisional authority invited bids from phone companies for up to three licences, covering northern, central and southern Iraq. Licences, it said, would be issued on the basis of "best value".
Almost immediately, suspicions were aroused that this would be another case of commercial imperialism. The CPA's tendering process - described by one bidder as "opaque, unrealistic and technically incompetent" (Financial Times, August 26) - seemed weighted to favour American companies.
For a start, the CPA decided that telecom firms in which governments held more than a 10% share would not be allowed to bid except as part of a consortium.
This immediately ruled out the nationalised Iraqi Telecommunications and Postal Company which, despite knowing more about Iraq's telephone systems than anyone else, is also excluded from helping to evaluate other companies' bids.
Besides hitting the state-run Iraqi company, the CPA's decision neatly squeezed out Orange (France) and T-Mobile Germany) - two countries which opposed the invasion - along with Telefonica Moviles (Spain), KPN (Netherlands), NTT DoCoMo (Japan), Batelco (Bahrain), MTC-Vodafone (Kuwait) and Etisalat (United Arab Emirates).
More subtly, as part of assessing bidders' track records, the CPA invited them to submit details of up to five previous contracts. If the idea of this is to give a higher ranking according to the number of contracts that a bidder has, it will favour those in the US where companies tend to have several contracts awarded on a regional basis. Outside the US, companies have fewer contracts because they are usually awarded nation-wide.
This may seem like yet another case of loaded dice, but potentially it's worse than that. Installing an American mobile phone system in Iraq makes little sense.
Mobile phone networks in the US use the CDMA system, which is also used in South Korea and China but has only about 12% of the world market. The standard system in the Middle East, on the other hand, is GSM, which has about 70% of the world market.
Although CDMA is said to have some technical advantages, GSM is the most obvious choice for Iraq because business customers would then be able to use their phones anywhere in the Middle East. If CDMA is chosen, cross-border roaming will become more expensive, requiring handsets that are compatible with both systems.
These issues are discussed more fully on the website of Iraq Revenue Watch, which - as its name suggests - is keeping an eye on the CPA's management of Iraq's finances with the aim of promoting transparency and accountability. It is an offshoot of the Open Society Institute, founded by the investor/philanthropist George Soros.
In the long run there are plans to restore Iraq's decrepit land-line telephone system but getting mobile services up and running is seen as a quick-fix way to alleviate the country's communications problems.
At present there are three GSM services operating in the Kurdish north of Iraq which was not under Saddam Hussein's control. These are expected to continue, but will not be expanded.
In Baghdad there is another GSM service which is restricted to US personnel and foreign aid workers. This network, capable of handling 10,000 users, is provided under a $45m (27m) contract awarded by the Pentagon to MCI - part of Worldcom, which declared itself bankrupt last year in the wake of an $11bn accounting scandal.
MCI is currently embroiled in legal battles with one of its rivals, AT&T, which is suing it under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisation Act. MCI has responded by alleging that AT&T is in contempt of court.
Around Basra in southern Iraq, MTC-Vodaphone of Kuwait is also operating a GSM service under a licence granted partly by the British Ministry of Defence.
Yet another player is - or at least was - the buccaneering Batelco (Bahrain Telecommunications Company) which last July moved covertly into Baghdad and spent $5m setting up a GSM network. The service ran for two days and handled 8,000 calls before the CPA ordered it to stop.
The CPA insisted that only licensed companies could provide mobile phone services, though some Iraqis say the real concern was that Batelco's phones might have been used by the Iraqi resistance to organise their activities.
Once the results of the bidding are announced, successful companies will be granted licences to operate in Iraq for just two years - though obviously this will leave them well-placed to bid later for long-term contracts.
The announcement was originally due on September 5 but was then postponed until September 12. It is still awaited and the reason for the delay is unclear.
Last week, Iraq Today newspaper reported that the list of 80 bidders had been whittled down to three by the two supervisory committees - one of which looks at bidders' technical specifications while the other looks at pricing.
The paper suggested that a final decision had been delayed because the new Iraqi minister of communications, Hayder A'abadi, had asked for a review of the entire tendering process.
He seems particularly unhappy that under American plans the successful companies will pay a total of only $15m a year to the government for the privilege of operating in Iraq.
It is, of course, conceivable that the right choice will be made and Iraqis will get the best possible value from the new mobile phone system - though, equally, they may not.
What counts in the long run is the way these processes are perceived by Iraqis. Apart from the issue of prolonged military occupation, the CPA's role as a latter-day version of a 19th-century colonial governor is also causing more than a little irritation: arrogant, disdainful and presumptuous are just a few of the milder adjectives used these days to describe it.
The problem, as Iraq Revenue Watch has pointed out, is the CPA's reluctance to draw Iraqis into the process of reform and reconstruction.
"If the Iraqi public and the Iraqi civil service are not involved," it says, "it is unlikely that they will commit to implementing them once the coalition government dissolves.
"This would be the worst case scenario for a future Iraq: rejection of those democratic and economic freedoms the CPA and the US have been so keen to install."
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