BAGHDAD (AFP) -After years using outside contractors to tend to the needs of its Iraq bases, the US military is now building zones outside its army posts so Iraqi businesses can actually benefit from their presence.
The plan, which has been several months in preparation, is part of a wider effort to stimulate local employment and end years of funnelling lucrative contracts to providers from outside the country.
“Let’s get American and third country contractors out of that business and let’s get Iraqis into that business,” Brigadier Steven Anderson, a driving force behind the programme, told AFP.
“Let’s get Iraqis employed and get them out of the bomb-making business and into the support-providing business,” added the deputy chief of staff for resources and sustainment.
The Iraq-based industrial zone (I-BIZ) programme was conceived last year when military commanders recognised the need to boost employment to put a dent in the violence raging throughout the country.
“There is a clear focus both by the Iraqi government and on the part of the US mission of beginning this process to see more jobs created,” a US official in Baghdad told reporters in May.
The idea is comparatively simple and mirrors the support industries to be found outside US bases in South Korea and Germany. It will involve building a protected area for Iraqis to provide products, services and maintenance.
The plan is a major departure from the first four years of the US presence in Iraq when nearly every need was provided by large US contractors such as Kellogg Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary.
KBR in turn brought in thousands of foreign workers, mainly from south Asia.
Unlike citizens from other countries hosting US bases, Iraqis have seen few financial benefits from having more than 140,000 US troops in their country.
A December 2004 suicide attack on a US military dining facility in Mosul killed 14 soldiers and for all intents and purposes ended the employment of locals on bases.
Iraqi unemployment was bad before the 2003 US invasion, but following a series of decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the army and shut down state-owned industries, it soared to an estimated 48 percent.
Shortly before his tour ended last year, the number two US commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, described a new push to find simple ways of boosting employment.
“Provincial governors tell me that creating jobs will have the most impact on building a safe society — they tell me ‘put the angry young men to work; find jobs for them’,” he said on December 8.
One of the most tangible results of this shift is the ongoing mission by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Brinkely to restart dozens of mothballed state-owned factories.
The I-BIZ programme would coordinate with Brinkley’s efforts and the reopened factories could have storefronts in the industrial zones, Anderson said.
For now, the project is in its infancy, with a two-year-old prototype near the southern city of Diwaniyah. The first true zone will open in August next to the massive Camp Victory base at Baghdad airport.
Over the next year, further zones will appear at Tikrit’s Camp Speicher, at Camp Taji just north of Baghdad and at Talil Air Base, in the south near Nasiriyah.
“We are thinking big but starting small,” Anderson said.
The gradual start is in marked contrast to the grandiose approaches of the early years when the focus was on ambitious projects that often foundered, especially in light of security challenges.
Since so many contractors working with multinational forces have been assassinated by insurgents, the zones will be enclosed within high walls and have disguised entrances.
“You are providing a secure area that the Iraqis can set up their business and operate their businesses in, but it’s not part of the interior base itself,” Anderson said, noting that normal defensive procedures would continue.
Construction began six weeks ago on the Camp Victory Iraqi zone which will hold around 35 businesses over 25 acres.
The model is a series of Iraqi industries clustered around the Polish-run Camp Echo base near Diwaniyah where carpenters, mechanics, and welders serve the base.
“It’s pretty isolated, and that’s one the reasons why it’s a thriving I-BIZ because it is so isolated and it really desperately needs that kind of support,” Anderson said.
He envisions the zones filled with recycling industries that would restore old generators, recycle tyres, treat waste oil and revive spent batteries.
“The military consumes thousands of lead acid batteries every month. Very few of them are reclaimed, there are estimates that perhaps 80-90 percent of these batteries could be,” he said.
“There are battery shops like that all over the world, but there’s nothing like that here yet.
“If you build it they will come, and that’s my philosophy. People really don’t take you serious until they get an opportunity to see what you got.”