The White House has repeatedly insisted that the United States has “no desire for permanent bases” in Iraq. Nevertheless, the Bush administration is seeking to leave its footprint on Iraq through other means. The AP reports that the Pentagon is backing a $5 billion dollar plan to “transform the U.S.-protected Green Zone” into a “centerpiece for Baghdad’s future,” resulting in “big paydays for early investors“:
For Washington, the driving motivation is to create a “zone of influence” around the new $700 million U.S. Embassy to serve as a kind of high-end buffer for the compound, whose total price tag will reach about $1 billion after all the workers and offices are relocated over the next year.
“When you have $1 billion hanging out there and 1,000 employees lying around, you kind of want to know who your neighbors are. You want to influence what happens in your neighborhood over time,” said Navy Capt. Thomas Karnowski, who led the team that created the development plan.
An incentive for the project, which would include hotels, resorts, and commercial development in the Green Zone, appears to be lining the pockets of investors and allies rather than re-building Iraq’s economy. In fact, Karnowski acknowledged that American officials would vet potential investors because of a “vested interest” — mirroring the cronyism of Saddam’s Hussein’s regime.
Some Iraqi leaders even have drawn parallels to the U.S.-backed development plan and what Saddam Hussein did in the area — known by its Iraqi name of Tashri during his regime. Hussein stocked the neighborhood with family and tribal allies, political loyalists and members of his elite Republican Guard. Karnowski called the accusation “partially true.”
Many U.S. embassy officials have called the plan “unrealistic.” One added that Iraqis, a majority of whom oppose the U.S. presence, are unlikely to want the U.S. to “turn this area into downtown Kansas City.” “The Iraqi government wants to limit U.S. power in the Green Zone,” a top adviser to Prime Minister Maliki said.
But the permanent U.S. footprint in Iraq is already making inroads. In addition to construction of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, the Los Angeles-based company that developed Disneyland is developing a “massive American-style amusement park” in Baghdad “that will feature a skateboard park, rides, a concert theatre and a museum.” That project has the support of Gen. David Petraeus.
“If you talk to people at the State Department, they still believe a hotel isn’t going up. But it is a done deal,” Karnowski said of the Marriott project. Another “possible $1 billion investment could come from MBI International, a conglomerate that focuses on hotels and resorts and is led by Saudi Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber.”
Spencer Ackerman weighs in: “That sort of indifference to the suffering of Iraq is provocative. If I was Moqtada Sadr, I would use it as a rallying cry.”