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Risky Business | The Nation

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Risky Business

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I begin to notice that many of the delegates at ReBuilding Iraq 2 are sporting a similar look: Army-issue brush cuts paired with dark business suits. The guru of this gang is retired Maj. Gen. Robert Dees, freshly hired out of the military to head Microsoft's "defense strategies" division. Dees tells the crowd that rebuilding Iraq has special meaning for him because, well, he was one of the people who broke it. "My heart and soul is in this because I was one of the primary planners of the invasion," he says with pride. Microsoft is helping develop "e-government" in Iraq, which Dees admits is a little ahead of the curve, since there is no g-government in Iraq--not to mention functioning phones lines.

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Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein
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No matter. Microsoft is determined to get in on the ground floor. In fact, the company is so tight with Iraq's Governing Council that one of its executives, Haythum Auda, served as the official translator for the council's Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Sami Azara al-Ma'jun, during the conference. "There is no hatred against the coalition forces at all," al-Ma'jun says, via Auda. "The destructive forces are very minor and these will end shortly.... Feel confident in rebuilding Iraq!"

The speakers on a panel about "Managing Risks" have a different message: Feel afraid about rebuilding Iraq, very afraid. Unlike previous presenters, their concern is not the obvious physical risks, but the potential economic ones. These are the insurance brokers, the grim reapers of Iraq's gold rush.

It turns out that there is a rather significant hitch in Paul Bremer's bold plan to auction off Iraq while it is still under occupation: The insurance companies aren't going for it. Until recently, the question of who would insure multinationals in Iraq has not been pressing. The major reconstruction contractors like Bechtel are covered by USAID for "unusually hazardous risks" encountered in the field. And Halliburton's pipeline work is covered under a law passed by Bush on May 22 that indemnifies the entire oil industry from "any attachment, judgment, decree, lien, execution, garnishment, or other judicial process."

But with bidding now starting on Iraq's state-owned firms, and foreign banks ready to open branches in Baghdad, the insurance issue is suddenly urgent. Many of the speakers admit that the economic risks of going into Iraq without coverage are huge: Privatized firms could be renationalized, foreign ownership rules could be reinstated and contracts signed with the CPA could be torn up.

Normally, multinationals protect themselves against this sort of thing by purchasing "political risk" insurance. Before he got the top job in Iraq this was Bremer's business--selling political risk, expropriation and terrorism insurance at Marsh & McLennan Companies, the largest insurance brokerage firm in the world. Yet in Iraq, Bremer has overseen the creation of a business climate so volatile that private insurers--including his old colleagues at Marsh & McLennan--are simply unwilling to take the risk. Bremer's Iraq is, by all accounts, uninsurable.

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