As Iraq war goes on, pressure to leave rises

by Jenn Buck | 4/19/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks.

ERBIL, Iraq -- Pressure is mounting in Washington as the death toll in Iraq continues to rise and civilian workers are being taken hostage.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry has taken full advantage of the recent losses, it seems, by comparing Iraq to Vietnam. President Bush and his backers maintain a strong stance that a June 30 government transfer will take place, and that the United States will continue to apply military pressure until insurgents have been vanquished.

The Bush administration has put its money where its mouth is in the military arena, re-deploying 20,000 troops who were scheduled to come home within the next two months.

The troops, close to 25 percent of which are National Guard or Reserve soldiers, will stay in country an additional 90 days.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had said he planned to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 115,000 at the end of these soldiers' tour of duty, but instead he will maintain the current number of 137,000 troops in country.

In a press conference Thursday, Rumsfeld said he will keep that number if necessary by deploying more troops.

"The country is at war, and we need to do what is necessary to succeed," Rumsfeld told reporters.

In the mean time, families of the troops who had planned to come home have expressed frustration with this decision. In Wisconsin, family members of the National Guard's 32nd Military Police Company have started an internet campaign to persuade Bush to bring their 160 troops home on time.

On the civilian side, oil services corporation Halliburton has suffered losses as well.

Seven employees of the company's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root are currently missing, and bodies recovered from killings last week are thought to have been KBR workers.

Journalists and humanitarian workers have been hit, too. Sixteen civilians are missing or believed to be being held captive, and 41 others have recently been released from capture.

Nonetheless, Halliburton's website continues to recruit employees -- 520 positions are currently listed as open -- to work overseas in Iraq.

The company contracts or subcontracts a vast amount of work supporting U.S. military operations in country, from construction to food service to mechanical engineering.

Among U.S. civilian workers in Iraq, Halliburton or KBR employees are rumored to be the best paid. One source in the city of Kirkuk identified KBR salaries to be between $7,000 and $13,000 per month.

"That fork-lift driver over there," he said, pointing to a man moving supplies by truck. "He makes $10,000 a month."

Many U.S. workers in Iraq are not subject to income tax and may be paid a hazard pay, housing stipend an other incentives on top of their salaries.

Some companies, however, seem to be trying to maximize profits by paying their employees far less.

A courier service worker said he was paid only $3,500 per month.

"It's not enough money for the work I do," he said. "Seven days a week with bombs going off every night."

The man said his base had been shelled 19 out of the past 22 nights.

If it weren't for the incredibly low cost of living in Iraq, he said, he would have left.

Others said their low salaries drove them to skim off the top wherever possible.

Whatever extra supplies they had they sold or traded for commodities like imported beer.

One Halliburton employee said that the high salaries paid to KBR workers may be causing inflation.

"When they see how much we are making, they can't stand it," he said.

"It is kind of ridiculous," he admitted, "how much some people make here."

A Halliburton subsidiary is still under investigation for allegedly overcharging the U.S. military for fuel and supplies in Iraq.

Dick Cheney, the former chief executive of Halliburton Co., released his 2003 tax returns to the public on Tuesday, claiming $178,437 in "deferred pay" from the company for work done in 1999.

Cheney's salary as U.S. vice president in 2003 totalled $198,600.