David Phinney

US Firms in Iraq Still Using Indentured Workers Despite Crackdown

Despite US measures designed to halt labor abuses perpetrated by contractors working on US-funded projects in Iraq, anecdotal evidence indicates serious problems persist.

American civilian sources working at military camps report low-wage contracted laborers having limited access to medical care, crowded and decrepit living quarters, and questionable food. Some were reportedly tricked into working in Iraq, and accounts of contractors holding employees' passports continue, despite an April 2006 order from the US military specifically barring the practices.



“These issues are commonly known and there has been nothing done about this,” said one American contractor in a string of emails earlier this month from Camp Diamondback. He said he had been speaking with Sri Lankans who were recruited with the understanding they would be working in Kuwait.

According to the contractor, they were informed they would be going to Iraq after arriving in Dubai during transit. “The two men I speak with most often arrived in Mosul in late March,” wrote the contractor. “They were to make 2 to 3 times their normal salary. Thus far, they've not been paid and have only received an advance of $50.”

The contractor also sent photos of bathrooms, reporting that the only running water was on the floor. Old toilets are discarded outside the workers' living quarters, he said, where they sleep ten to a room on thin mattresses.

One worker suffering from diarrhea and vomiting was reportedly told the condition couldn’t be too severe since the employee had worked all day before reporting it. The doctor told the worker to “deal with it or go back” to Sri Lanka. “I asked one if he had any paperwork and he had none,” the contractor said.



Describing a photograph of the typical meal of mostly rice with a side of slop served to low-wage contract workers, the contractor commented: “This picture is of their food today. This is apparently a good day (with) double the usual meat portions…. The days are hit-and-miss whether they get vegetables.”

Another American contractor familiar with working conditions prior to the 2006 contractor order said in an email last week that “the treatment is still pretty much the same” at a large camp outside Baghdad. He said that 6,000 workers have no dentist and must travel to Kuwait for treatment.

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Baghdad Embassy Investigated for Labor Trafficking and Abuse

Editor's note: Rumors of labor trafficking and abuse have plagued the building contractor now completing the $592 million Baghdad embassy building project, but a State Department inspector general investigation reported finding nothing untoward. Now David Phinney reveals previously unreported instances of appalling living conditions, abuse and coerced labor, making clear that the allegations against the contractor managing the embassy project remain unresolved.



In the months following September 2005, complaints began coming in to the U.S. State Department that all was not well with its most ambitious project ever: a sprawling new embassy project on the banks of the ancient Tigris River. The largest, most heavily fortified embassy in the world with over 20 buildings, it spans 104 acres-- comparable in size to the Vatican.

Soon after the State Department awarded a $592 million building contract to First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting in July 2005, thousands of low-paid migrant workers recruited from South Asia, the Philippines and other nations poured into Baghdad, beginning work to build the gargantuan complex within two years time. But sources involved in the embassy project tell Slogger that during First Kuwaiti’s rush to the finish the project by this summer on schedule, American managers and specialists involved with the project began protesting about the living and working conditions of lower-paid workers sequestered and largely unseen behind security walls bordering the embassy project inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

Interactive renderings of the U.S. Embassy by architect Berger Devine Yaeger

The Americans protested that construction crews lived in crowded quarters, ate substandard food and had little medical care. When drinking water was scarce in the blistering heat, coolers were filled on the banks of the Tigris, a river rife with waterborne disease, sewage and sometimes floating bodies, they said. Others questioned why First Kuwaiti held the passports of workers. Was it to keep them from escaping? Some laborers had turned up “missing” with little investigation. Another American said laborers told him they were been misled in their job location. When recruited, they were unaware they were heading for war-torn Iraq.

After hearing similar allegations during much of 2006, Howard J. Krongard, the State Department’s inspector general, flew to Baghdad for what he describes as a “brief” review on Sept. 15. He now reports that the complaints had no substance.




“Nothing came to our attention,” he wrote in a nine-page memorandum posted recently on the State Department's website. More importantly, after interviewing an unstated number of workers from the Philippines, India, Nepal and Pakistan, Krongard said no evidence was found of labor smuggling, trafficking or other abuses. Krongard makes no mention of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department of First Kuwaiti and others for such alleged practices and other matters.

One former labor foreman at the embassy site who recently read Krongard’s review called it “bull shit.” Another former First Kuwaiti employee viewed it as “a whitewash.”

Meanwhile, Justice Department trial attorneys Andrew Kline and Michael J. Frank with the civil rights division have been contacting former First Kuwaiti employees and others for interviews and documents, but declined to comment on the investigation other than to say they are looking into allegations of labor trafficking.




Ticketed to Dubai, diverted to Iraq



Dozens of migrant workers from Nepal and the Philippines have previously accused First Kuwaiti of pressuring them to work in Iraq under U.S. military contracts against their wishes. Late last year several Americans also claimed they boarded separate chartered jets in Kuwait loaded with work crews holding boarding passes to Dubai, but the planes then flew directly to Baghdad. Just this week, another American reported to Slogger that he was told by workers from Ghana on the embassy site that they were led to believe they would have jobs in Dubai but were then taken to work in Iraq.

First Kuwaiti general manager Wadih al Absi flatly dismisses the accusations as unfounded and false.

“I am telling you that First Kuwaiti has never violated any visa violations or forced people to work,” he said during a telephone interview last January. “In the coming months, you will see that First Kuwaiti is the best company working in the Middle East.”
Since landing the Baghdad project, the State Department has given First Kuwaiti some $200 million more in embassy work in Africa, India and Indonesia. The company is now said to be competing for a large U.S. embassy in Lebanon.
Had Krongard visited earlier than last September and unannounced, he may have witnessed something very different then what his memorandum relates. A half-dozen Americans who worked on the embassy project now say the inspector general saw nothing inappropriate, because the problems had been cleaned up in anticipation of his Sept. 15 inspection and because of complaints and inquiries from the news media.


Living 20 to a trailer




"Most of the allegations (from the Americans) were true before he arrived," claims Juvencio Lopez, who says he was a high-level project manager under the U.S. State Department over the course of two years. During a telephone interview last weekend, he said the laborers “had their backs to the wall,” and had been living 20 to a trailer. Protests over First Kuwaiti’s bad food, abusive treatment from managers and unsafe working conditions were routine among many of the 2,700 workers during much of 2005 and 2006.
“There were strikes and sit-downs every month,” Lopez says. He left Iraq in November 2006 and is now home in San Antonio, Texas. “Sometimes there were almost riots.”
Lopez vividly recalls a First Kuwaiti security guard unholstering his 9mm handgun and walking among the squatting protestors telling them to get back to work. Had the guard fallen or workers tackled him to the ground, the gun might have gone off. Lopez said he immediately reported the incident to First Kuwaiti. “Someone could gotten killed or injured.”



On another occasion, a company manager roughed up a Filipino worker, sources say. All of the other Filipinos nearby began loudly protesting as bewildered workers from other countries watched. “The workers were from 36 different countries, and everyone spoke a different language,” Lopez says.

One of First Kuwaiti’s new improvements includes the workers' medical clinic, complete with pharmacy, emergency room, x-ray machine and dental suite, all of which appeared just weeks before the inspector’s general visit, according to several witnesses. “Every month the clinic wasn’t there, they were saving money ... but it got to be an embarrassment,” Lopez says. “I was away, but when I returned in November, it was there.”

That wasn’t what former Army emergency medical technician Rory Mayberry found in March 2006. First Kuwaiti had hired Mayberry as a medic under a subcontract with MSDS, a two-person, minority-owned computer consulting company outside Washington, D.C. Recommended to First Kuwaiti by contractor Jim Golden, who oversees the embassy project for the State Department, MSDS had never before provided medical services or worked in Iraq.



Once arriving at the construction site, Mayberry says he found the most basic of medical needs missing and that clinics lacked hot water, disinfectant and hand-washing stations. Mayberry also claims that workers’ medical records in total disarray or nonexistent, beds were dirty and the support staff was poorly trained. Prescription pain killers were being handed out "like a candy store ... and then people were sent back to work,” to operate heavy equipment or climb scaffolding, he adds.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad




Better now?




Several workers had died prior to Mayberry’s arrival, perhaps because of improper diagnosis, and he recommended an investigation. Days after reporting the problems to First Kuwaiti and the State Department, Mayberry was taken off the site and discharged.




More than six months later, the inspector general discovered the clinic clean and well-organized and with several medical staff members. “The medications were neatly arranged and appeared to be labeled in both English and Arabic. Medical staff members we interviewed said they were not aware of any medical unit visits by workers for injuries related to beatings or abuse.”

Krongard also noted that the food is “quite good” with “six different dining facilities serving Egyptian, Filipino, African, Lebanese, Pakistani and Indian cuisines to meet the different tastes of most of the workers.”

The Lebanese food was always good, sources say, because all of First Kuwaiti’s top managers are Lebanese, and they ate there along with the American managers. There was a pecking order based on nationality, race and class, Paul Chapman said. He worked nine months for a subcontractor to First Kuwaiti and is now home in South Carolina. Chapman recalls seeing workers walk a mile to stand in line where rice, stew and flatbread were served from the back of truck. Food was ladled from marmite food containers. “I’d see them eating alongside the road or near their trailers.”




But what bothered Chapman more was the disappearance of seven workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines who were listed as “missing” on First Kuwaiti rosters. Fearing they may have been killed and dumped into the Tigris, he began pressing embassy officials overseeing the project to investigate. “They told me to forget about it because the workers had probably found other jobs.”

Since workers were rarely allowed outside the project area, it was a mystery how they would have found other jobs. Even more puzzling was that they may have left without passports. First Kuwaiti keeps most passports locked up in a storage room.

In October, workers from Ghana on the embassy site told Chapman that they expected to get jobs in Dubai but were then sent to Iraq. Chapman wanted to report these incidents to the inspector general but says he was discouraged from doing so.

“Every U.S. labor law was broken”



Supplementing Krongard’s review, the coalition Multi-National Force inspector general in Baghdad also interviewed 36 workers from seven different countries at the new embassy site in December. The MNF-I IG claimed it found no evidence to indicate the presence of severe forms of labor trafficking, but did find workers from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who reported deceptive hiring practices by recruitment agencies in their home countries. They said they had been promised higher pay, shorter hours and days off. “A large majority of workers” from the Indian subcontinent incurred recruiting fees of up to one year’s salary.




Chapman and others also claim that standard safety procedures on the project frequently went unobserved. Many worked without safety harnesses when off the ground and had no hardhats or boots. Work clothes were dirty and tattered. Those that had them had only one set of work clothes so they were rarely washed. They became dirty and tattered, causing rashes and sores.
Some worked in sandals, others in bare feet. “They had their toes curled around the rebar like birds,” Lopez remembers.
“Every U.S. labor law was broken,” says an American labor foreman, John Owens, who adds that he never witnessed a safety meeting. Once an Egyptian worker fell and broke his back and was sent home. No one ever heard from him again. “The accident might not have happened if there had been a safety program and he had known how to use a safety harness,” charges Owen, who left the embassy project last June.




Still, Lopez believes that First Kuwaiti is one of the best companies he has ever worked with, adding “I wish I could bring the company here” to the United States. He talks in global terms and explains that many Americans are not accustomed to working on an international stage where workers come from impoverished countries and are eager to work under any conditions. “Just look at where the workers came from,” he says. “They were much better off in Baghdad.”

Own offers a different take on the workers he supervised. After having worked construction on U.S. embassy sites in Armenia, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon and Cambodia, nothing compares to the mess he saw in Baghdad. “I’ve never seen a project more fucked up.”

The Baghdad Embassy Bonanza

Work for what is planned to be the largest, most fortified U.S. embassy in the world was quietly awarded last summer to a controversial Kuwait-based construction firm accused of exploiting employees and coercing low-paid laborers to work in war-torn Iraq against their wishes.
 
More than a few U.S. contractors competing for the $592-million Baghdad project express bewilderment over why the U.S. State Department gave the work to First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting (FKTC). They claim that some competing contractors possessed far stronger experience in such work and that at least one award-winning company offered to perform the all but the most classified work for $60 million to $70 million less than FKTC.
 
“It's stunning what First Kuwaiti has been able to get from the State Department,� one contractor said.

Several other contractors that competed for the embassy contracts shared similar reactions and believe that a high-level decision at the State Department was made to favor a Kuwait-based firm in appreciation for Kuwait's support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
 
“It was political,� said one contractor.
 
Mohammad I. H. Marafie, chairman and co-owner of FKTC, is a member of one of the most powerful mercantile families in Kuwait.

Cheap labor from Asia

Undoubtedly, most of the 900 FKTC workers living and working on the construction site of the massive embassy project have been pulled from ranks of low-paid laborers flooding into Iraq from Asia's poorest countries to work under U.S. military and reconstruction projects.

Meanwhile, FKTC’s general manager and co-owner, Wadih al-Absi jets back and forth to the United States, dreaming of magazine covers celebrating his rise to a global player in large-scale engineering and construction.

Raised in Beirut, he says he began his career much like the people he now employs -- as a laborer installing drywall. The Lebanese Christian escaped war in his home country in the late 1970s and moved to Kuwait. The Persian Gulf country welcomes, even recruits, expatriate blue-collar workers like al-Absi once was to do the grunt work and domestic chores in its booming, oil-rich economy. Today glitzy shopping malls, flashy cars and sprawling villas have become the norm and migrants make up the nearly two-thirds of this tiny desert state's 2.3 million population.

Building his own personal fortune, al-Absi, too, relies on migrant labor. FKTC is one of the many Middle East companies that collectively ship tens of thousands of cheap day laborers to Iraq's war zones where they are paid just dollars a day.

Fortune favors a few

American contractors witnessing the plight of some of these migrants at military camps around Iraq have openly complained that the Asians endure abysmal working conditions, live in cramped housing, eat poor food, and lack satisfactory medical care and safety gear.

Typically, these migrants work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, and earn as little as $500 a month performing tasks considered unsuitable for U.S. war fighters. They work construction, drive trucks, run laundries, clean latrines, pick up rubbish and operate stores, dining facilities and warehouses. Without them, and the "body shop" subcontractors that provide such laborers, the U.S. and coalition military camps -- virtually small cities -- would shut down.

It is a lucrative business for many companies, one that has helped trigger explosive growth of FKTC.

The company boasted of having $35 million in assets less than three years ago. Today, the firm has racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts in Iraq, pushing the company well past the $1 billion mark. With 7,000 employees in Iraq, the company claims to be holding $800 million in construction and supply contracts directly with the Army for military camps, plus more than $300 million under Halliburton 's multibillion dollar contract to perform military logistics for the occupation forces in Iraq.

It's the kind of success that allows al-Absi to enjoy finely tailored suits with French cuff shirts, send his children to American universities and enjoy the fruits of being a newly-minted millionaire. "I love America," he says freely.

Meeting over a morning coffee last September at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, a legendary Georgetown retreat favored by pampered heads-of-state, Hollywood elite, the Rolling Stones and business executives, al-Absi's eyes widened as he talked about his company's greatest prize – the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The new embassy

Indeed, the massive $592-million project may be the most lasting monument to the U.S. occupation in the war-torn nation. Located on a on a 104-acre site on the Tigris river where U.S. and coalition authorities are headquartered, the high-tech palatial compound is envisioned as a totally self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced to 2.5 times usual standards. Some walls as said to be 15 feet thick or more. Scheduled for completion by June 2007, the installation is touted as not only the largest, but the most secure diplomatic embassy in the world.

The 1,000 or more U.S. government officials calling the new compound home will have access to a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops, a food court and a commissary. In addition to the main embassy buildings, there will be a large-scale U.S. Marine barracks, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units. Water, electricity and sewage treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities. The total site will be two-thirds the area of the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Unlike most of Iraq's reconstruction, the embassy is "on time and on budget," according to a December report to U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee which calls the progress an "impressive" feat given that construction is taking place in a country besieged by war.

"Most major construction projects undertaken in Iraq since 2003 have not met these standards," writes Patrick Garvey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations staff who traveled to Baghdad in November 2005.

With the embassy making a prestigious notch on the company's belt, First Kuwaiti will step onto the world stage, al-Absi beamed. "I dream about what it means," he said. "We have become a global company."

But putting pride aside, al-Absi asked to keep the embassy contract a secret until the first floors were built. The dangers of an attack are just too serious, he said last September. Even his personal residence had been bombed in the past. "I am all for transparency, but this is Iraq," he explained.

Despite the new embassy's importance, and its rare on-schedule progress, the State Department has also resisted publicizing the contract. It was only after weeks of inquiries, that it confirmed that FKTC had been selected to construct the unclassified portions of the project. One day after the web site FedBizOpps posted a standard public notice for the first $370-million in FTKC contracts, it yanked the announcement. Department spokesman Justin Higgins cited security concerns.

Workers complain

While safety is part of the reason for keeping a profile low, labor conditions for Iraq's migrant workers are nothing to boast about.

When first asked about mistreatment of FKTC's labor force last August, al Absi threatened to sue if the allegations were published. At the time, CorpWatch was investigating the claims of Ramil Autencio and other Philippinos working for FKTC in Tikrit in late 2003 and early 2004. They claimed they were overworked, served poor food, and received less salary than what was agreed to in their contracts.

Originally recruited for employment by MGM Worldwide Manpower in the Philippines, Autencio said he had planned to work at Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month. Then his recruitment contract was sold to FKTC when he reached Kuwait where he says he was "forcibly" pressured to work in Iraq.

More recently, an October 10 story in the Chicago Tribune reported on four-dozen other Nepalese workers waiting in Kuwait for jobs on American military bases in Iraq. In September 2004, after watching television reports that 12 Nepalese hostages in Iraq executed at the hands of insurgents, they changed their minds.

A FKTC manager in Kuwait handed the panicked workers an ultimatum, reports the Tribune: either travel to Iraq to fulfill their contracts and they would be released on the streets of Kuwait City to fend for themselves. Undoubtedly, none had the resources to find their way back to Nepal.

"The company was forcing them to go to Iraq," Lok Bahadur Thapa, the former acting Nepalese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Tribune.

Al-Absi, who speaks excellent English occasionally peppered with bluntness of a construction worker, denies the allegations of ill-treatment and trafficking.

"It's bullshit," he said, after emailing electronic documents apparently signed by Autencio and others agreeing to work in Iraq. "Total bullshit."

Such stories of mistreatment recently prompted the U.S. State Department to join forces with the Defense Department into possible labor trafficking by Middle East firms doing business in Iraq.

"Our people are investigating the issues," said State Department spokesman Justin Higgins after U.S. Ambassador John Miller, head of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking of Persons, left for the Middle East in late January.

When CorpWatch inquired last July about widespread complaints about the poor working conditions and possible coercion of low-paid Asian laborers in Iraq working under Halliburton 's logistics contract, the Army said an investigation was underway. That inquiry began and ended with the Army raising the issues with Halliburton "for them to address with appropriate action within the terms of the contract," said Army spokeswoman Melissa Bohan in an e-mail this month.

Secretive contract

The contracts for building the largest, most-strongly fortified embassy in the world is a tale of fits and starts. From the Bush Administration's initial request for more than a billion dollars in emergency funding for the project to the selection of an inexperienced Kuwaiti firm to build it -- to even the small oversight effort is also a tale of secrecy.

Although White House had signaled Congress in early 2004 that it was planning a permanent embassy in Baghdad, it wasn't until spring 2005 that the Bush Administration formally pushed the funding request veiled as an emergency measure. The original proposal for $1.3 billion was almost three times the price of the new embassy in China.

Reeling from overcharges and costs around other Iraq contracts, Congress immediately cut the price tag for the new Baghdad project in half to $592 million and called for strict oversight. Wired with the most up-to-date technology and surveillance equipment, it will still be a super-bunker and the biggest U.S. embassy every built.

Once funding was secured last spring, the U.S. State Department quietly put the project up for competition among seven competitors – including some of the most accomplished U.S. engineering companies. Among the bidders, Framaco, Parsons, Fluor, and the Sandi Group have established track records for building secure embassies or large-scale construction projects.

But the award went to FKTC, a company with little experience in projects on the scale envisioned for the embassy.

"First Kuwaiti got the embassy job. [It] kinda surprised everyone that a foreign company would win," said an executive of one prominent firm in an email to another, both of whom bid against FKTC.

But publicly, the losing companies simply shrugged their shoulders and buttoned their lips. It takes guts for a contractor to publicly gripe about the decisions of government contract officers. Many fear they may not get future business if they do.

There may also be little reason for some of the losing competitors to complain. Some, including Framaco and The Sandi Group of Washington, DC, soon received other State Department contracts. The open-ended contracts call on the companies to work anywhere in Iraq when needed, including on the new embassy project.

The Sandi Group was given notice to prepare for some site clearing and for building temporary housing for the embassy workers, said Sandi's vice president for development, Muge Karsli. Then the order was abruptly suspended in January. "I was supposed to hear more from them in a week, but I didn't," she said matter-of-factly. "Now, it is on hold."

Bill Waldron is one contractor who will talk about the embassy project. He claims his Rocky Mountain Group lost more than $250,000 while preparing a bid to perform engineering oversight for FKTC and project inspection. Waldron said that his 25-year-old, veteran-owned Colorado company had already been given the word that his company would be the leading contender for the deal, which is why the firm spent so much effort on the proposal, including compiling a two inch thick file on the company's personnel experience in Iraq – experience that State Department contract officers said they were looking for.

Then the State Department put the job up for open bid three different times, each time with a new revision. The last solicitation was cancelled after the contracting officer went of vacation, according to Waldron.

Waldron's patience finally burst. Only after doggedly hounding the State Department for reasons why the competition had been cancelled did he find out what happened.

The contract was awarded without competition on an emergency basis to a Maryland company, Mil Vets, Waldron said. "We contacted Mil Vets and asked if they had any experience working in Iraq prior to being awarded the embassy project," Waldron said. "The answer was no."

Al-Absi, for his part, views his embassy agreement as based on merit and it is the success of his company that draws fire from his critics.

FKTC never, ever got any job without offering the best value at the lowest price," he said. "People will never criticize someone who fails."

That, says al-Absi, is a price he is willing to pay.

[Editor's Note: this story was updated by the author on March 10, 2006.]

Insult to Injury

Rotten food crawling with bugs, traces of rats and dirt. Rancid meats and spoiled food resulting in diarrhea and food poisoning.

This is what detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were regularly given to eat by a private contractor in late 2003 and early 2004, causing anger to swell to a furious boil between the U.S. military guards and the prisoners.

Foul as the food was, there never was enough. The private contractor, run by an American civilian who was subsequently killed, routinely fell short by hundreds of meals for Abu Ghraib's surging prison population. When the food did arrive, there were often late and frequently contaminated.

So went another sad chapter in the story of the Abu Ghraib prison, where U.S. military personnel and private contractors would make headlines and ignite international outrage over allegations of torture psychological abuse in May of this year.

Captured in photographs now infamous for portraying naked, hooded prisoners and smiling guards, the behavior is believed to be one of the most damning acts toward Iraqi civilians by coalition forces. Other acts of violence toward the prisoners include physical abuse and still unproved allegations of rape and murder.

The Abu Ghraib prison, already infamous under Saddam Hussein's regime, for overcrowding, ill-treatment and torture, was opened up by the over-extended military soon after the April 2003 occupation.

The inmates were a mix of petty and hardened Iraqi criminals, suspected members of the resistance, and thousands of innocent bystanders hauled out of their homes in midnight raids or off the streets of Baghdad. Many say that they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but were held without charges by coalition forces for months before being released. Unable to run the prison themselves, the U.S. military hired private translators from Titan, a California-based company, interrogators from CACI, a Virginia-based company, two large and well known military contractors. In addition, they hired a small, virtually unknown contractor from Qatar, to provide food to the inmates.

A shocked Army Major, David Dinenna of the 320 Military Police Battalion, was one of the first to recognize the food problem. In a string of frantic e-mails to commanders during October and November of 2003, he called for assistance from his chain of command while working at the prison.

"Contract meals disaster," he called it in an October 27 e-mail last year. "That is the best way to describe this issue ... As each day goes by, the tension within the prisoner populations increases," he continued. "For the past two days prisoners have been vomiting after they eat."

The food was largely to blame for a Nov. 24, 2003 prison riots in which Army guards shot four detainees after the prisoners failed to comply with commands to stop and disburse. A subsequent Pentagon investigation found that prisoners were not attempting a "mass" escape as first thought.

"All evidence indicates that the detainees were simply protesting the deplorable food and living conditions," the report concludes, which attributes the same reasons to a second prison riot on Dec. 24, 2003.

Dinenna's messages and the riot investigations are part of a collection of documents from a classified report by Army Major General Anthony Taguba that was leaked to the news media last spring together with the now-famous photos of naked prisoners. The documents were originally obtained by several news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, Rolling Stone and the Center for Public Integrity in October 2004.

Torin Nelson, a contract interrogator who worked at the prison from November 2003 until February 2004 and aided in the Taguba investigation as a witness, arrived at Abu Ghraib just days after the November riot.

He recalls being told by witnesses that none of the guards had been informed about the ongoing problems of bad food given to the prisoners. "Because the guards didn't understand Arabic, they didn't know the prisoners were complaining about the food," Nelson said. "They thought there was an uprising."

Frustration erupted into screaming and the protest ignited panic among the guards. Guns were pointed as more and more prisoners gathered in the outburst. The situation spun out of control, Nelson said. "The guards began firing non-lethal rounds at the prisoners, but ran out." Then, according to what I was told, they got permission to use lethal rounds.

While the U.S. Justice Department is now investigating six private contractors working as interrogators and translators for Titan and CACI, for their roles in the mistreatment, the food contractor remains forgotten and unnamed in the numerous Pentagon investigations of the prison conditions that have been made public.

The contractor's name, American Service Center (ASC), based in Qatar, has surfaced only after dozens of inquiries by CorpWatch over the past month to the Pentagon and military officials in Iraq.

The little known firm boasts on a simple company Web site that it offers services in the line of housing, furniture, vehicle rentals, telephone and internet services. Closely affiliated to a sister company, Advanced Internet Center, ASC claims to work with the U.S. Amy in Qatar and military contractors such as ITT and Dyncorp.

No mention is made of food services or Abu Ghraib. ASC's owner and chief executive, Ali Hadi, hesitates to talk about the contract or his company's performance at the prison and declined to respond to numerous e-mails with questions about his company.

"I have no information about the project," Hadi said during a phone call as he traveled to a Qatar airport en route to Dubai. "I am the owner of the company," he said, "not the operator," adding that ASC subcontracted the food contract for the prisoners to a local Baghdad caterer.

Despite the finding of abysmal performance in providing food to prisoners, Hadi said ASC holds about "10 to 16" other contracts with the U.S. military, but he is unsure if they are "active."

Any knowledge about the Abu Ghraib contract died with ASC's contract manager, Ray Parks, Hadi claimed. A 56-year-old West Virginia native and former Vietnam veteran, Parks was ambushed and murdered in his Baghdad driveway by three gunmen wearing black robes on the morning of Feb. 16. At the time, Parks was preparing to resign from his job as director of ASC.

Family members of Parks immediately demanded a thorough investigation of events surrounding his murder. Millie Mercer, sister to Parks, said that an Army investigator called the Parks family, but then disappeared. Very little came of the investigation, Mercer said. The investigator "was transferred."

Parks had been a government contractor for many years outside the United States and went to Iraq because he "wanted to help people." He took a job with ASC in June 2003 to work in computers, she added. Mercer wants to hear nothing more about her brother's death. She prefers holding on to the good memories. "So many contractors are seeing much bigger horrors," she said.

But Major Dinenna appeared to believe that Parks was contributing to the horror of Abu Ghraib in his e-mails. "Parks is full of shit and not the least bit trustworthy," Dinenna wrote in a second Oct. 27, 2003 e-mail complaining about food for prisoners marked "URGENT URGENT URGENT."

Dinenna was responding to an earlier e-mail from an Army Major Green, who discounted Dinenna's complaints about the food service and other services ASC was relied upon to provide. "Who is making the charges that there is dirt, bugs or whatever in the food?" Green asked in his e-mails. "If it is the prisoners, I would take it with a grain of salt."

Dinenna fired back: "Our MPs (military police), Medics and field surgeon can easily identify bugs, rats, and dirt, and they did."

In addition to providing food services, ASC was also retained under an $8.2 million agreement to provide "life support" services to the U.S. military at the prison, Hadi said.

But there appears to have been confusion about that support contract among prison commanders. In his string of e-mails, Dinenna faults Parks for constant delays in providing proper lighting for the prison to help in security and prevent escapes.

Then after months of pushing Parks to provide the lighting, Dinenna discovered from a commanding officer that ASC was not responsible for the job.

The ASC contracts are only another example of poor contracting performance in Iraq and bad planning on the part of the Pentagon, said Peter Singer, an expert on the contracting for military services at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"It just shows how the Pentagon has operated on an ad hoc basis," Singer said. "They were lacking in the needed planning, services and doctrine to manage large scale prisons. Everything was done at the last minute."

Nelson believes that the end result of last minute planning resulted in long term problems for the United States and its role in Iraq. "All the sickness and rotten food not only produced a safety and security concern for the guards and the prisoners," he said. "It was also a morale factor. Here were all these rich Americans coming to Iraq to fix things and they couldn't even afford to feed the prisoners."

A group of interrogators also complained to Colonel Thomas Pappas, the Army officer in charge of the prison, in November 2003, about the poor quality of the food served to the inmates by the food contractors. Nelson says that the sickness made it hard for the interrogators to extract information from detainees. "Anything that affects the morale of the locals affect our mission," he added.

In May 2004, the contract for food service at Abu Ghraib was taken away from ASC, according to Army spokesman Jeff Magruder in Baghdad who said the company apparently was responsible for most aspects of the prison, ranging from power generation to food services.

ASC "did a good job on the other stuff but obviously not so good a job on the food services side for both detainees and soldiers," Magruder said. "Their main problem was that the food would sometimes be rotten and the calorie content was not up to their standards."

Today the food for detainees and soldiers is "much better," Magruder says. Meals for detainees "now far exceed all international standards for calorie content and provide food that is more culturally sensitive. Also, during Ramadan they worked an alternate chow schedule to assist those who were fasting."

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